The genesis of a genius.
The H-Bomb: Whenever someone compiles a list of the all time greatest filmmakers, there are certain names that absolutely must appear on said list for it to have any credibility with serious film buffs. Names the likes of Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Martin Scorsese, so on and so forth. These aren’t simply directors who have made good films, they are artists with a style so distinct, that, to the initiated, their work is immediately recognizable. What also sets these filmmakers apart is that their films are highly influential, not only to their contemporaries, but to the generations of movie makers who come after them.
Of all the auteurs, living or dead, who have made a substantial impact on the medium, the one who has been the most stylistically distinctive, and perhaps the most influential, is Stanley Kubrick. In fact, in my ever humble opinion, I believe Kubrick is the greatest artist to have ever picked up a film camera. The man didn’t just work in cinema, he was cinema. He made films in just about every genre in existence, and to one degree or another, mastered each one with a level of skill that us mortals can only admire and envy. With his heist thriller The Killing, he utilized the cyclical, Tarantino-esque non-linear story structure years before Tarantino was even born. With The Shining, he made one of the greatest horror films ever. With 2001: A Space Odyssey, he made the greatest science fiction film ever. I could keep going, but you’re probably anxious for me to get to the point.
Why am I prattling on about the late, great Stanley Kubrick? Because this past week was an important one for his admirers and film enthusiasts in general, as it saw the Blu-Ray release of his up-until-now very elusive debut feature, Fear and Desire. How elusive was it? Well, it had never been available in any home viewing format, and I had never met anyone who had actually seen it. Why was it so difficult to come by? The answer to that is simple, Kubrick absolutely hated it. He loathed it, he was ashamed of it, he was embarrassed by it, and he made every effort imaginable to track down and destroy all known prints of it in existence.
His efforts in suppressing it were effective, as for a period of time, the film was believed to be lost forever. However, there was at least one print that eluded him, and now Fear and Desire has been restored by the Library of Congress and is available in a pristine High Def presentation. So, how is it? Well, it’s certainly not an awful film, though I can see why Kubrick would feel otherwise, but it isn’t a particularly good one, either. I would say that Fear and Desire is, more than anything else, strictly a curiosity.
A kind of surreal, allegorical war film, it tells the story of four soldiers stranded in a forest, behind enemy lines in an un-named country (San Gabriel Mountains, California). There’s the square-jawed, by-the-book commanding officer, Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), the crass smart-ass Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), the nervous young Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky), and the underwritten Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit).
The soldiers plan to escape by following a river that will take them back to their own company. So, they build a raft and decide to wait until after dark to go out on the river. In the meantime, they discover a house by the river that’s occupied by an Enemy General (also played by Kenneth Harp), as well as his top Officer (also played by Stephen Coit). Sgt. Mac is struck with a strong urge to assassinate this General, as he feels it’s the only chance he will ever have to do something important in his life– a not entirely credible motivation that represents just one of many Fear and Desire’s script problems.
The General’s house is well guarded, so killing him will take planning. But before the soldiers can map out a strategy for that, they encounter a local peasant girl who’s apparently a mute. Figuring she could come in handy should they have any run-ins with enemy forces, the men take her prisoner and tie her to a tree. They then head back to the river to hide the raft until nightfall, leaving the jittery Pvt. Sidney to guard the woman, which could be a mistake, as the young Sidney is becoming increasingly unhinged.
In fact, being this deep behind enemy lines is taking a psychological toll on all four of the men. Will they be able to keep their shit together long enough to whack the General and hightail it up the river, or will they be overtaken by their own fears and desires?
Shot in stark Black & White, which looks absolutely gorgeous in High Def, Fear and Desire does work as an early showcase for Kubrick’s incredible visual style. Working as his own cinematographer, Kubrick composed every single shot meticulously, and his ability at creating striking images is undeniable. I think anyone would agree, the man had a remarkable eye from the outset.
Where Kubrick stumbles with Fear and Desire, is with the story. Now, many elements that are prevalent in his future films are present here; the cynicism, the irony, the muted emotions, and the lack of sentimentality. What Kubrick also demonstrated in his later projects was a firm grasp of the story he was telling and a clear idea of what he was saying with it. Sadly, with his debut, he didn‘t seem to know what he was saying or why.
Clearly, the film is attempting to convey an antiwar message, but the narrative is so muddled and abstract that it has no impact whatsoever. I remember, by the end of Paths of Glory, feeling like I had been slammed in the gut with a rifle butt. But when Fear and Desire came to the end of its scant 60 minutes, I just shrugged my shoulders and thought to myself, “So… war is bad… I guess…”
Kubrick confuses the film’s theme even more with the odd surreal touches, like having Harp play both Lt. Corby and the Enemy General, and Coit playing Pvt. Fletcher and the Enemy General’s Officer. I’m guessing it’s meant to be some kind of metaphor about how all men are, deep down, all the same, regardless of where they‘re from or what side of a conflict they‘re on… or something… whatever the intended “meaning” might have been, the execution is clumsy and it doesn’t come off as thoughtful or profound. Instead, it merely comes across as gimmicky and a tad silly.
This brings me back to something I brought up earlier, the screenplay, by future Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Howard Sackler (The Great White Hope), is a ponderous, meandering mess that is often laughable. The narration that opens the film just slapped me across the face with its utter pretentiousness and almost lost me from the get-go. Here’s a sample: “There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being.” Ugh, makes you want to take a bayonet to yourself, doesn’t it? These philosophical jibber-jabberings pop up throughout, and while they don’t ruin the picture entirely, you will be tempted to hit the mute button whenever they surface.
Sadly, the horrendous voiceovers are not the only flaws plaguing this script. There’s also the sequence in which Pvt. Sidney is guarding the peasant girl they’ve taken captive. I won’t say what goes on in this scene, just that it’s very bizarre, and Mazursky’s performance is so manically over-the-top I’d swear he’s playing it for laughs. However, the music score that plays over the scene is dead serious and dramatic, suggesting that the scene itself should be taken as such.
Another sequence where I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to be laughing or not, was when the Enemy General is gravely warning his pet Doberman about the evil spirits in the forest that might try to possess him. Then the General goes on to suggest that the dog is already possessed by these spirits and is possibly a spy. Again, I would assume this is an attempt at humor on the parts of Kubrick and Sackler, but the actor plays it so straight, that it seems like they‘re once again trying (and failing) to achieve some level of profundity with this portentous drivel.
While I’m on the subject of the actors, I should point out that they do okay, given the circumstances under which they had to perform, which were less than ideal. See, Kubrick fired the sound man early in the shoot, so the actors actually had to record all of their dialogue during post-production, where they not only had to concentrate on their line deliveries, but also on matching their words to their lip movements on screen. So, while the performances are passable (Silvera and Mazursky come off best), they most likely were somewhat compromised by the situation.
And if I were to sum up Fear and Desire with one word, compromised would be as good a word as any. Compromised by a script that tries way too hard to be “deep,” and by a budget that‘s too low for the film‘s ambition. However, while Kubrick’s debut may have been compromised, I wouldn’t consider it a failure. It’s not quite a good film, but it is an important one, and a definite must see. Kubrick was merely a genius-in-progress when he made it, and while it does have its share of flaws, it is, like every Kubrick film that came after it, a very unique, one-of-a-kind picture with a very unique, one-of-a-kind vision. As a piece of cinematic history, Fear and Desire is very much worth giving a curious look, just remember to keep your expectations in check when you do.