January 2, 2021
Fear and Desire – US, 1953
Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic career began with a misfire. After making two short films in 1951, Day of the Flight and Flying Padre, Kubrick directed, photographed, produced, and edited Fear and Desire, an unabashedly anti-war film with a running time just long enough to qualify it as a feature film. The film was released in 1953, at the height of America’s involvement in the Korean War, but seems less a response to a specific war than a statement on the effects of conflict of the human psyche. As such, the film is only marginally successful.
Fear and Desire is about four soldiers who have crash-landed behind enemy lines – remarkably without a scratch to show for it – and their attempts to make it back to their unit safely. The enemy is said to be out there looking for them and so, as in many other movies, much of their efforts involve trying to conceal their location. They must also contend with hunger and paranoia, as well as, for one of them, the misplaced notion that war provides them their last chance to prove themselves worthy and valiant.
Kubrick has the most success with a rebellious soldier named Mac (Frank Silvera). When we first see this character, he is questioning the wisdom of Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp). Later, he’ll question his valor by accusing him of being willing to put his men in danger to protect himself, a charge the lieutenant actually proves accurate later on. Normally a character like Mac would provide the film its moral center, through which viewers would be able to judge the actions of the men around him, and for a while this description is appropriate. Until it isn’t.
The rest of the characters are less successful. The lieutenant is a rather one-note character, a private named Fletcher (Steve Coit) is a non-entity for much of the film, and Sidney (played by future director Paul Mazursky), this film’s version of Pvt. Leonard Lawrence from Full Metal Jacket, lacks the development for his bizarre antics to sufficiently shock. From the very early on, he’s so over-the-top crazy that it is hard to believe that Corby would ever have placed him in charge of a prisoner, let alone one who is female.
The film present these characters with a dilemma: Should they think of their own safety first or should they take advantage of the element of surprise when they spy an enemy general at a camp across the river? It is a classic war-film scenario, one that delves into the question of just what the priorities are during war time: the men or the mission? Mac adds another question, and its answer is almost instantaneous. Of course, glory comes first.
The film was shot in California’s San Gabriel Mountains on a miniscule budget. According to Wikipedia, to save money, Kubrick used a crop sprayer to create fog. However, after neglecting to check that it was empty of pesticides, he nearly asphyxiated his cast and crew. Kubrick is also said to have used a baby carriage instead of a dolly track. These budget constraints limit the look of the film and prevent it from truly resembling enemy territory. The budget constraints may also be the reason why two members of the enemy, the aforementioned general and a captain, are played by Harp and Coit respectively, for there’s little in their dialogue that makes you think Kubrick was making a statement about the similar rationales of both sides of a conflict. Also hurting the scene is Harp’s and Coit’s voices. They do not make a realistic attempt at sounding different, making it possible for audiences to incorrectly assume that the four protagonists are contemplating attacking their own men.
Fear and Desire certainly has its moments. An attack on an enemy cabin is shocking in its callousness and brutality. Like the deaths in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, there is little heroism in how the enemy is gunned down, and the group’s subsequent actions, which take place in a room littered with slain men, fully reveal the damage that war has had on their principles. It is not enough, though, and later Kubrick films are far more effective examinations of the mental toll of war and soldiers’ loss of innocence. In other words, Fear and Desire is a film revealing a director in transition. Kubrick had promising ideas, but lacked the means to fully bring them to fruition. Watching it is therefore frustrating because we know the greatness he was capable of, and it’s a reminder that even the great one occasionally stumble out of the starting gate. (on DVD and Blu-ray)