Warning: Considering the early career of Stanley Kubrick may be hazardous to your own sense of accomplishment. Only 28 years old during the making of this stirring antiwar film—his fourth feature and second masterpiece after The Killing—the Bronx-born director seems possessed not only of preternatural visual gifts but the seasoned cynicism of a military veteran twice his age. Don't even dwell on the fact that Spartacus, Lolita, Dr. Strangelove and 2001 would all appear in little more than a decade.
Paths of Glory deservedly launched Kubrick to the highest level of prestige. Set half in the cramped, muddy trenches of World War I's westernmost front, and half in a marbled military courtroom where justice will be miscarried, it's the first of the director's films to display his career-long fascination with human folly under extreme duress. An anthill raid goes horribly awry, and a fearsome French general (Macready) wants answers. Unable to accept low morale as the cause, he arbitrarily demands that three innocent soldiers stand trial, with their outraged colonel (Douglas, never better) serving as their defense attorney.
Pride and ruthlessness are Kubrick's themes here, all the more devastating for applying to Frenchmen, not the enemy, and to how far the military would go to score a kill. So embarrassing was the film to France's powers that be (it's based on an actual trial), it was banned from presentation there for almost 20 years. Until Abu Ghraib and our own issues of accountability make it to the screen, Paths of Glory will do nicely. (Opens Fri; Film Forum.)