The film Stanley Kubrick didn’t want you to see.
The Film: Four soldiers who “have no country but the mind” crash behind enemy lines in a war that doesn’t exist. Lieutenant Corby’s (Kenneth Harp) plans to return his unit to friendly territory fail repeatedly, due first to the discovery of an enemy general camped nearby, and then next by an innocent girl found wandering through the woods. The girl’s presence drives the young Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky) insane, leading to bloodshed. Down to three, Corby changes course and decides to kill the enemy general, a mysterious man who literally shares Corby’s face. Corby and the hawiskh Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera) survive to make it home, only to be forever haunted by the surreal events in the forest.
The Production: In 1953, Stanley Kubrick didn’t much resemble a proto-legend. As star Mazursky observed, “He was not a Bohemian. He was not an avant garde left bank figure. He was a kid from the Bronx who was smart.” Kubrick used his intellect to wrangle a sale for his first major short film, A Day at the Fight, based loosely on a boxing photo essay he shot for his job at Look magazine. The film garnered enough attention for Kubrick to commission a feature script from friend and collaborator Howard Sackler, a playwright best known today for penning The Great White Hope and having a hand in the scripts for Jaws and Jaws 2.
After borrowing $13,000 from friends and family, the young Kubrick assembled his production in the San Gabriel Mountains in California, and it wasn’t long before he showed signs of the exacting director about to emerge. He produced, directed, lit, shot, and recorded the film almost single-handedly, saving the budget while causing friction on the set, so much that his marriage to dialogue director Toba Metz didn’t survive the shoot.
Best Moment: There’s very little in Fear and Desire to suggest the director was going somewhere, or that this Stanley Kubrick was going to become the Stanley Kubrick. There just wasn’t a lot of room to maneuver with the script, a viscous potion of heady ideas and experimental high concepts. Still, if there’s one glimmer of the Kubrick-to-be in the movie, it’s found in an early scene involving stew.
Shortly after our heroes have gotten a feel for their predicament, they stumble upon a cabin full of enemy soldiers and decide to separate them from their guns. The heroes burst in on the enemy, surprising them at dinner, and slaughter them before they can even muster an objection. The scene is quick and brutal, memorable in its efficiency. Terrified faces stare up at their killers, hands clutch at spilled food, and then it’s over. Adding insult, the soldiers finish what’s left of the stew. The scene carries a lot of dramatic weight, darkening our heroes who until now could have been any generic bunch of American G.I.s, and reminding us that all soldiers are killers, even the ones on our side. Private Sidney is so struck over the murders that he loses his mind when trying to explain himself to the captive local.
Lasting Impact: Not much. Despite a few positive reviews and a limited run through art cinemas, Kubrick turned his back on the movie and declared it an amateur effort. He spent the rest of his life buying up prints and hiding them from an increasingly curious public. The end result is that very few people today have even seen the film, and serious Kubrick junkies have to pass around bootleg tapes and DVDs to get their fix.
Overall: The big question lingering around Fear and Desire is whether Kubrick was right to bury the film, regardless of his opinion. One could make an argument that art belongs to the artist up until the very moment it encounters an audience and becomes a permanent part of the public discussion. In this scenario, an artist’s job is to provide context and either grumble or grin at the public reaction as the work sails away to live life on its own. The alternate argument is that the work belongs to the artist, always and forever, and the audience simply has to learn to suck it up. This is the same debate that’s raged in the Star Wars fan community for at least the last decade, ever since George Lucas decided that the original films (including two directed by other people) were no longer fit for viewing without significant CGI overhaul, even after they’d been embraced as religion by an entire planet’s worth of fans.
In these debates, I tend to side with the viewer and say that all art, no matter its value, says something about the time and place it was created, and an artist’s re-jiggering, while certainly 100% within their right, is at best bad form and at worst a hostile takeover of the historical record, but even I have to admit that I can see where Kubrick was coming from with Fear and Desire.
It’s not that the film is bad. It isn’t, at least for what it is. $13,000 wasn’t a lot of money, even in 1953, and Kubrick had extreme limitations to work around. His decision to take on so many production hats grew partially from the need to stretch the budget as far as he could, until it snapped if he had to, and the problems show. The sets are few and samey; the actors might very well spend the whole movie on a single acre of forest land. Trouble with sound recording on set forced Kubrick into a long and expensive dubbing process which gives the film an odd tone, even a timelessness. The film wouldn’t look too out of place next to an early talkie, say All Quiet on the Western Front, even with two decades of technical improvements between them.
This timelessness almost works in the film’s favor, what with all of this “no country but the mind” business. The characters are said to be fighting in no specific war, but instead are fighting in all wars. This may have been a cheeky way to avoid direct reference to the US engagement in Korea, still raging at the time of the shoot, but more likely it’s just part of the film’s big, fat anti-war message that carries all the nuance and subtlety of a Buick to the delicates. A stance against war of every flavor would become a staple of Kubrick’s work going forward, but here the message is clumsy and a little too self-satisfied. Any currency earned in the stew scene and its shocking depiction of justified murder is quickly squandered by Mazursky’s arch, manic breakdown just a short while later. Silent shots of the soldiers marching through the woods are covered by oppressive and on-the-nose voiceovers from all four soldiers at once, competing with each other for who can get their fears (or desires) across to the audience the loudest. By the time Lieutenant Corby and Sergeant Mac discover the film’s endgame, that their enemy officer counterparts look exactly like them, it’s likely to produce more groans than any kind of emotional reaction.
There’s a lot of bold, ambitious ideas here, but Fear and Desire really suffers from its streak of pretentious self-importance. A veteran director might have been able to pull the production together into a satisfying whole, but Kubrick the rookie never stood a chance. He reportedly compared the film to a child’s drawing on the refrigerator, and, frankly, the comparison is valid. Fear and Desire matters mostly as a curiosity, a stepping stone to better things, but if you look closely you can almost see the real artist just about to arrive.
The Stanley Kubrick Project