Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Films of Stanley Kubrick: Fear & Desire (1953)

Fear and Desire (1953) 
Directed by: Stanley Kubrick.
Written by: Howard Sackler.
Starring: Frank Silvera (Sgt. Mac), Kenneth Harp (Lt. Corby / The General), Paul Mazursky (Pvt. Sidney), Stephen Coit (Pvt. Fletcher / The Captain), Virginia Leith (The Girl), David Allen (Narrator).

Stanley Kubrick hated Fear and Desire so much that he actively tried to keep it from public view – and was largely successful. For years, there were only two known prints – one in Kubrick’s own library, that he refused to release, and one a horrible bootleg that was said to be nearly unwatchable. But then a third copy was found and a few years ago it was restored, and released on DVD. Watching the film today, it’s easy to see why Kubrick hated it so much – it is amateurish, poorly written, poorly acted and basically a pretentious, muddled mess – the type of thing a 24 year old filmmaker makes when he thinks he’s saying something profound, but really isn’t. Having said that, when viewed through the lens of what Kubrick would go onto accomplish, the film becomes somewhat fascinating. Kubrick, who was already a professional photographer, shows his cinematic eye for lighting and composition throughout the film. I’m not sure the film really adds anything to Kubrick’s oeuvre – but it’s a fascinating little movie, even if it isn’t a very good movie.

There are signs of trouble right from the outset of the film – when the opening narration tells us that this is a story of four men trapped 6 miles behind enemy lines. But these men are not from any particular country, nor are they fighting in any particular war. No – instead that represent all of the men at war. That’s something only a novice would commit to a narrative track – and the film was written by Howard Sackler – a friend of Kubrick around the same age (who, like Kubrick, would go on to bigger and better things).

The four men fall into certain stereotypes of men at war. There is the Lt. (Kenneth Harp) – who tries to keep everyone calm so they don’t do anything foolish, and devises a plan to get back to safety. There is Sgt. Mack (Frank Silvera) who wants desperately to prove himself a man – and will eventually convince the other men to risk their lives on what really is a meaningless mission. There is the largely silent Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Colt) – who just goes along with whatever everyone says. Then there is Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky – proving why he was a better writer and director than actor) – who becomes paranoid, and goes crazy – killing a local girl they capture when he’s left alone with her – and then running off by himself.

The film is basically these four men in the forest together, talking about the meaning of what they are doing, and how they are going to survive. There are a few incidents – they meet a teenage girl who doesn’t speak their language, but don’t want to let her go because she may give them away, they come across a small group of enemy soldiers, and in the film’s most striking sequence murder them silently, and then there is the mission Mack wants them to take on – the killing of an enemy General, even if they all realize it won’t really have an impact on the war.

As drama, the film fails because nothing much of interest happens – and the dialogue are so on the nose that it rings false from the opening scene until the end. As allegory, as it is intended to be, it’s far too obvious and pretentious. Yet, there are moments that show the Kubrick who would go onto to be one of the best directors in cinema history – that murder sequence, done in close-ups, showing stew sloshing out of bowls as the men struggle for their lives is well shot. The composition of most of the shots is well done – and shows a real cinematic eye. It’s not much – it’s certainly not enough to make Fear and Desire a good movie. But it does show that Kubrick had real talent – talent he would quickly show. His next film, Killers Kiss (1955) is also a curio, but a well-made one. Then came The Killing (1956) a masterful thriller – and just four years after Fear and Desire Kubrick made the film he was probably trying to make here – Paths of Glory. It would be the first of his many masterpieces.

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