Friday, 11 May 2012

Fear and Desire - Kubrick's career part one.

While making Fear and Desire Stanley Kubrick was essentially a twenty-five year old man with a crazy dream, making his first feature film. Despite having made several short documentaries before 1953 Fear and Desire was his first shot at the big time. While showing some signs of skilful filmmaking it is rather surprising to see Kubrick rise from this low budget box office failure to creating a film that, to this very day, influences a whole genre and created, as Steven Spielberg put it, ‘the genre’s big bang’.

From this
         To this (his greatest accomplishment)

2001: A Space Odyssey
After Fear and Desire was completed Kubrick felt the need to distance himself from this project, despite some initially positive critical reviews Kubrick was rather overcritical of himself in relation to Fear and Desire seeing it as ‘a serious effort, ineptly done’. Bothered by its amateurishness Kubrick withdrew it from print, but due to George Eastman House prints are available (a decent version is freely available on YouTube, with Italian subtitles, and on With this overly critical attitude Kubrick is being rather harsh on himself because it’s hardly Plan 9 from Outer Space as throughout the incredibly short running time (barely an hour) Kubrick shows signs of genuine talent that hinted at a potentially promising career ahead of him, which he undoubtedly exceeded beyond all expectations with some phenomenal technical and stylistic innovations right the way through his illustrious career.

Fear and Desire is a war film, it is also one of four anti-war films that Kubrick has made along with other anti war films such as Paths of Glory (1957), Full Metal Jacket (1987) and Dr Strangelove (1964), although Dr Strangelove is perhaps anti nuclear weaponry rather than solely an anti war film. However the two have a strong link considering the time in which Dr Strangelove was made (two years after the tense times of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a time in which the world was right at the door of nuclear warfare). In Fear and Desire Kubrick takes a philosophical look at war by telling the story of four soldiers who crash land their plane six miles behind enemy lines. As the enemy territory is likely to be swarming with hostiles it would unsafe and foolish to attempt to walk out, thus it is devised that the best way to escape unharmed is to use the river. However the strains and pressures of war prove to be too much for some as Kubrick takes an early look at unhinged characters (a constant theme throughout his career). The four soldiers must confront their own fears and desires (some sexual) in a difficult and hostile climate.  As the film states, in the narrated introduction, the war, country and enemy is entirely fictional, this was done in a bid to prevent viewers from thinking in national or ideological terms.

It is clear that if Fear and Desire had not been made by Stanley Kubrick, or Kubrick did not have the incredible career that he did, the film would have fallen into a state of obscurity. It is because Fear and Desire is the first ever feature film from perhaps the most important, bold and influential filmmakers to have ever lived that people feel the need to uncover and dig up this relic of Kubrick’s past. The film is far more interesting as a staggering artefact of Kubrick’s past than it is as a standalone film, that’s not to say there are no interesting elements in the film, but many will be drawn to see where their greatest influence began and reflect on how Kubrick’s style matured and developed throughout his career. Fear and Desire is an important film to a filmmaker because it symbolizes the fact that even the greatest filmmakers had to start somewhere; it provides inspiration to budding filmmakers as Fear and Desire was by no means perfect but Kubrick never gave up in accomplishing his dream.

Drawing inspiration from Soviet filming techniques, Sergei Eisenstein in particular, Kubrick uses plenty of close ups that are reminiscent of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, but they begin to get so often used throughout the running time they lose their effect. There are interesting elements in Kubrick’s first feature film, namely the cinematography is impressive and the fight scene in which the four men surprise the enemy by bursting through the cabin door is well filmed, this is one occasion where the editing is rather remarkable; punches are thrown at the camera, there are also close shots of fists groping as their life is beaten out of them that are quite powerfully effective. Kubrick also uses some striking symbolism, the murky stew is intended to symbolize the muddy waters of morality during a time of war and the fact that the enemy general was played by Kenneth Harp (who also played Lt Corby) is supposed to represent the fact that in war you are killing someone just like yourself. This is in a similar vain to a Thomas Hardy poem entitled The Man He Killed which says ‘He thought he'd 'list, perhaps, Off-hand like -- just as I --Was out of work -- had sold his traps --No other reason why’.

Yet for all the interesting aspects of Kubrick’s film there are also some elements that are rather amateurish. The editing, with the exception of the fight scene, is choppy and sloppily done filled with plenty of quite obvious continuity errors which is rather strange for a director famed for his perfectionist tendencies, it does seem clear that the film was the victim of its low budget. The worst things, however, are the performances from Frank Silvera as Mac, Paul Mazursky (the future filmmaker) as Sydney, Kenneth Harp and Steve Colt (who nobody notices anyway), all four performers leave a lot to be desired concerning acting. In addition the script, written by Kubrick and his childhood friend Howard O Sackler, is occasionally horrendously bad. To be fair to Kubrick and Sackler it is a sincere effort but one that, undoubtedly, achieves not so spectacular results.  

Fear and Desire is unintentionally funny due to the dreadful dialogue, and in the case of Paul Mazursky, hysterical performances about how war affects the human mind, which is all rather unconvincingly portrayed here. Yet the film is not as big of a disaster as some make it out to be, there are good points even among the heavy handed symbolism, for example Kubrick shows his talent as a cinematographer and creates some generally good images (the man standing in the river is a haunting one). Fear and Desire is crucial viewing for any Kubrick aficionado as it is the master filmmaker’s first ever feature film, even though it’s not great, it’s important and holds a mythological status. 

1 comment:

  1. I've seen the other three anti-war films you mention of Kubrick's but I think I'll give this a miss. I'll leave it for the aficionado's!