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Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory kicks off MFAH series, Christopher Walken propels a subtle chamber drama

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Joe Leydon, Mondo Cinema, Paths of Glory
Paths of Glory starring Kirk Douglas Courtesy photo
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, October 2012, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken as Peter
Christopher Walken as Peter in A Late Quartet Photo courtesy of © 2012 Entertainment One Films U.S. and Opening Night Productions
Joe Leydon, Mondo Cinema, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, November 2012
A scene from Jab Tak Hai Jaan FineWallpapers.com
Jab Tak Hai Jaan, November 2012, movie poster
Movie poster for Jab Tak Hai Jaan Courtesy photo
Joe Leydon, Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas, movie poster
Paths of Glory movie poster Courtesy photo
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, October 2012, A Late Quartet, movie poster
A Late Quartet movie poster Photo courtesy of © 2012 Entertainment One Films U.S. and Opening Night Productions
Joe Leydon, Mondo Cinema, Paths of Glory
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, October 2012, A Late Quartet, Christopher Walken as Peter
Joe Leydon, Mondo Cinema, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, November 2012
Jab Tak Hai Jaan, November 2012, movie poster
Joe Leydon, Paths of Glory, Kirk Douglas, movie poster
Houston Cinema Arts Festival, October 2012, A Late Quartet, movie poster
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In conjunction with the War/Photography exhibition currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the museum’s film department is offering Wars on Film, a retrospective of classic movies dealing with various aspects of 20th-century warfare. First on tap: Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, a stark World War I drama screening at 6 p.m. Saturday in the museum’s Brown Auditorium.

Produced in 1957, the film represented a significant career advance for Kubrick, a former Look Magazine photographer who at the time had only three small-budget features to his credit. He earned his entry into the big leagues on the strength of The Killing (1956), an ingeniously plotted and impressively well-cast thriller about a “perfect heist” that goes terribly wrong that predated Go and Pulp Fiction with its time-tripping narrative tricks.

The Killing was by no means a box-office success, but it was seen by the right people. Chief among those most impressed: Kirk Douglas, who signed on to play the lead role in Kubrick’s next project and to produce it under the auspices of his own company, Bryna Productions.

Paths of Glory, the product of this fortuitous collaboration, remains a powerfully compelling drama more than a half-century after its initial release, despite Kubrick’s rather simplistic depiction of most central characters as either innocent victims or insincere villains.

French government officials were so incensed by Kubrick’s depiction of French military injustice that they managed to have Paths of Glory banned in France – and Switzerland! – for two decades. 

The riveting storyline — adapted by screenwriters Calder Willingham and Jim Thompson from a 1935 novel by Humphrey Cobb, which in turn was inspired by real-life events — focuses on hapless French soldiers who are used as cannon-fodder by glory-hungry generals, then punished as “cowards” for retreating in the face of insurmountable enemy forces. Douglas puts his trademark intensity to effective use in the lead role of Colonel Dax, an idealistic officer who desperately tries to defend three soldiers who face death by firing squad after they fail to die heroically in action.

As James Naremore writes in the liner notes for the 1957 film’s recently released Criterion Collection DVD, Paths of Glory “is strongly marked by what came to be known as Kubrick’s style and favored themes: A mesmerizing deployment of wide-angle tracking shots and long takes, an ability to make a realistic world seem strange, an interest in the grotesque, and a fascination with the underlying irrationality of supposedly rational planning.”

And speaking of irrationality, there’s something positively mesmerizing about Adolph Menjou’s flamboyant portrayal of an aggressively gracious general who sounds borderline-sociopathic as he justifies the slaughter of innocents as necessary to maintain discipline in the trenches.

French government officials were so incensed by Kubrick’s depiction of French military injustice that they managed to have Paths of Glory banned in France – and Switzerland! – for two decades. But Kirk Douglas obviously held the film and its director in much higher regard. He subsequently brought Kubrick on board to replace Anthony Mann as director of Spartacus just a few days into the shooting of that 1960 epic.

As it turned out, however, the experience of working as a freelance director-for-hire without total control left a bitter taste in Kubrick’s mouth. After Spartacus, he never made another movie in the United States, preferring England as his home base throughout the remainder of a career notable for such milestones as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), another enduringly potent drama about the dehumanizing madness of war.

Other films slated for the MFAH Wars on Film series include: The Deer Hunter (5 p.m., Nov. 25), Grand Illusion (7 p.m., Nov. 30 and Dec. 1; 5 p.m., Dec. 2), The Battle of Algiers (6 p.m., Dec. 7; 5 p.m., Dec. 9) and Went the Day Well? (7:30 p.m., Dec. 14; 5 p.m., Dec. 16).

Notes of discord

Call it a chamber drama about a chamber quartet, and you won’t be far off the mark. A Late Quartet (at Landmark River Oaks) is a tightly focused, meticulously understated drama that is as precise and polished as the music performed by its central characters.

Christopher Walken can be delightfully unhinged when he’s working in his wild-eyed wacko mode, but he’s even more impressive here with his rigorously subtle portrayal of cellist Peter Mitchell, senior member of the Fugue Quartet.

On the eve of the ensemble’s 25th anniversary tour, Peter drops a bombshell: He’s been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease, and will retire imminently, if not immediately. The bad news triggers disharmonious confrontations and accusations among the other three members of the Fugue crew: Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the second violinist who thinks it’s high time for him to occasionally play first chair; Juliette (Catherine Keener), Robert’s violist wife, who appears to have channeled all of her passion into her music; and Daniel (Mark Ivanir), the control-freakish first violinist, who surprises no one more than himself when he drifts into an affair with Alexandra (Imogen Poots), an age-inappropriate violin student who just happens to be Robert and Juliette’s daughter.

Other films, other screens

Two new Bollywood offerings are on tap this weekend at AMC Studio 30. Jab Tak Hai Jaan, the final film directed by Yash Chopra, who passed away last month, is a romantic drama (with songs) about an Indian Army officer (Bollywood heartthrob Shahrukh Khan) torn between two beautiful women. And Son of Sardaar is an action-comedy (with songs) inspired by — no kidding! — the 1923 Buster Keaton silent classic Our Hospitality.

Ursula Meier’s Sister (at the Sundance Cinema) — Switzerland’s official entry this year for the foreign-language film Oscar — is a drama about a scrappy 12-year-old boy who provides for himself and his older sister by stealing from guests at a luxury ski resort. And Jose Luis Gutierrez’s El Milagro de Marcelino Pan y Vino (at the AMC 30) is a purportedly heart-warming Mexican film about an orphan raised by monks during the Mexican Revolution.

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