Hey everybody. Michael C. from Serious Film back again. This week is all about Kirk Douglas, and although his acting career has enough high points to fill this blog for a month, today we're here to honor the hand he had in launching one of the most important directorial careers of the last century.
One fact everyone in the film business seems to agree on is that it is incredibly difficult to get anything made and borderline impossible to produce something good. When quality movies somehow miraculously find their way into theaters it is most often because a star got involved who believed in the project and had the clout to get the money men to cough up the loot. Kirk Douglas was such a star in the mid-1950’s when he came across a script named Paths of Glory being shopped by a young Stanley Kubrick. Douglas had been a big fan of Kubrick’s previous film, The Killing, and was so impressed with the new script that he decided his company, Bryna Productions, would produce the film with him as co-producer. Douglas did this even though, as recounted in the gorgeous new Criterion edition, he was convinced the film was unlikely to be a commercial hit.
Of course, it wasn’t a completely altruistic endeavor on Douglas’s part. It did give him the chance to play one of the greatest (for my money the greatest) roles of his career. Douglas’s Colonel Dax is a more clearly heroic character than in the original novel, an oasis of courage and decency in a world warped by war and corruption. They even work in a moment for Douglas to take his shirt off, which legend has it was contractually stipulated in all his movies.
So what raises Kirk Douglas above the typical star scouting out opportunities to look noble? The fact that he sought out the opportunity to make a film with Kubrick, that’s what. Douglas did what we always hope politicians would do with power, which was to surround himself with smart people who will stand up to him. Kubrick was no yes-man, and Paths is no Kirk Douglas vanity project. Kubrick elevates the material above the typical star vehicle into one of the most shattering anti-war statements ever put to film.
Viewers of the film don’t remember Douglas's heroism; they remember the stark, horrifying black and white world of trench warfare, a world where the execution of innocent men is found to be an acceptable idea. Douglas’s Dax is strong-armed into leading an attack he knows to be doomed, and his attempts to preserve justice in the fallout prove to be a futile, almost naïve, exercise. His famous late in the film explosion at the obscenely corrupt General Broulard is less a moment of triumphant defiance and more a choked howl at his own powerlessness in the face of insanity. My reaction to his character has always been less, “Hooray for Colonel Dax!” and more, “That poor bastard.”
At the end of the day Paths of Glory is Kubrick’s film and Kubrick’s success, but it’s fair to say it is unlikely it would have occurred without Douglas’s support and leadership. There are accounts that the idea of using a happier, more commercial ending was suggested and that Douglas fought against it (Kubrick’s position in this debate varies between versions). Generations of film lovers are grateful that Douglas prevailed and the heartbreakingly perfect ending won out, but the instinct behind the idea wasn’t wrong. Despite being a critical success that launched Kubrick into the top tier of working directors it fizzled at the box office. If you’re lucky enough to get your hands on the new disc of Paths check out some of the bonus interviews with Douglas and witness the pride on his face when the film is mentioned. He doesn’t seem to be mourning those lost box office dollars.
Check back next week for the first season finale of Unsung Heroes where I will shine some attention on a 2010 release.