For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon- Fear and Desire (1953)
This is a contribution to For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon being led by Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films and Farran Smith Nehme, aka The Siren, at The Self-Styled Siren.
For all of his most devoted fans, it is practically the elephant in the room. It's the one film that they don't particularly like to talk about. Whenever it's mentioned, you can expect to see or hear one or more of these types of responses: a frown, a groan, a snicker, or a goofy grin. Let's face it- Stanley Kubrick's Fear and Desire has never been taken seriously. It has gone down in cinematic history for reasons so clumsy that one need not even to see the film itself in order to get the message. We've heard the stories of Kubrick buying up all copies of the movie in an attempt to keep it from ever being seen by the general public. When it was shown at the 1991 Telluride Film Festival for the first time in decades, it yielded leaps and bounds of disappointed response. Many tend to agree with Kubrick's own charges that the film was “a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious”. I've heard other people call it “a waste of celluloid”, sometimes even adding that Kubrick “was right to suppress it all these years”. And on and on.
What most of these critics tend to forget is that Kubrick's influence over the generations of his time and the generations that have come afterward is so vast, and so undeniable at this point, that it is only logical that his fans may start wishing to have access to each and every one of his titles; never mind whether or not they're essential viewing. I was eight years old when Kubrick died in 1999, and didn't officially start becoming a fan until I was in my preteen years- when I discovered that accessing Kubrick's titles was so incredibly easy because he only directed thirteen feature films in his life. Now, obviously this did more harm than good in the larger perspective of things, since Kubrick's immortal intellect certainly could have resulted in even more legendary motion pictures. But to be frank, my point is that I realized that I had developed an obsession for his movies. I didn't care if some of them were bland: I wanted to see all of them.
That's where Fear and Desire comes in. It presents a problem for those who, like me, have tried to devour Kubrick's entire filmography- because, amongst his feature films, it is the only film that is still not available on DVD. Worse, the rights to the film have never been sold to Turner Classic Movies or any other film channels or film distribution companies. The only truly legal way to check out the film is to journey up to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, where a single copy of Fear and Desire is still projected for curious tourists to this day (a dilemma for every Kubrick fanboy that served as the inspiration for Gabriel Noel's excellent YouTube documentary Better Knowing Stanley).
There are other ways to check out Fear and Desire, if you know where to look, but they're illegal. I first saw the film on YouTube in 2008. This year, I watched it again- but of course a different person had uploaded it this time, since the film is constantly getting deleted whenever the administrators catch it. Watching it again, I couldn't help but feel depressed at the fact that I was looking at a version of the film with horrendous picture quality. That's what happens, I suppose, when the only other alternative to viewing a Kubrick picture is through a bootleg copy.
But another thing struck me when watching Fear and Desire again: the film is a good entertainment. Yes, the acting is shoddy. Yes, the filmmaking is inexperienced. Yes, some of the dialogue is hideously awkward (“There's nothing so refreshing as an afternoon outdoors in enemy territory!”). With that being said, I still think that the film's story is enjoyable: four soldiers lost in an unnamed war hatch a plan to sneak past enemy lines, and find their way home. This may be a simplistic plotline, but there are so many twists and turns throughout the course of the film that little else is necessarily required.
With the exception of Spartacus and Lolita, Kubrick has never been known for well-rounded characterization, so it would be deemed futile to look for it in this film. Each of the four soldiers in Fear and Desire is basically a two-dimensional stereotype, hardly unlike the kinds seen in other war films at the time. Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), for example, is the voice of reason who is always trying to impress the men; at one point, he philosophically muses that “once you understand how a mousetrap works, if you're clever enough you can use it as a springboard”. Of the other three men, Mac (Frank Silvera) is the insubordinate tough guy with a cynical wisecrack for every situation. Fletcher (Steve Coit) doesn't say much and is really just along for the ride. And Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is the whiny, disillusioned kid whose sanity is running on a time limit. He's getting ready to crack.
Kubrick's film does have some truly striking sequences. For instance, those who have seen Jan Harlan's 2001 documentary A Life in Pictures may be familiar with the clip in which the soldiers hide underneath bushes when a seemingly innocent brunette woman (Virginia Leith) appears out of nowhere and patrols the area. There is another memorable scene in which the men find a harmless stray dog and release it, unaware that it is actually one of the enemy's bloodhounds (apparently still dimwitted, and poorly trained; its name, according to the enemies, is “Proteus”). Or the scene where the men take the brunette woman prisoner, tie her to a tree, and then make the unwise decision of leaving her with the mentally unstable Sidney, resulting in a fondling scene straight out of Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou. And the deeply surreal final image of a wounded, dying Mac lying across a raft flowing across the river at dusk, while Sidney sits right next to him, singing out to the darkness.
The screenplay for Fear and Desire was written by Howard Sackler, who would later go on to write The Great White Hope and, also, contribute a small portion of wording to Robert Shaw's “Indianapolis” speech in Jaws. His input helps make possible what is perhaps the turning point in Fear and Desire: a sequence in which the men raid a warehouse and kill three enemy soldiers, only to realize with horror that these soldiers look just like them (to be sure, they're played by the same actors). Kubrick supplies us with the haunting shot of one of the enemy soldiers desperately clenching baked beans in his hands upon the moment of death. And Sackler, meanwhile, assigns the Lieutenant Corby character with a voiceover monologue that may very well be the film's thesis: “No man is an island? Huh. Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the ice age. The glaciers have melted away- and now we're all islands, parts of a world made of islands only.” This monologue gives us a good idea of what Shaw's monologue in Jaws might have looked like if it had been only the shortened paragraph that Sackler originally had in mind (and not the elongated speech that Shaw and John Milius ultimately came up with in the end).
Sackler also has fun with the the lines of Mazursky's Sidney character. In the scene where Mac discovers the dead body of the brunette girl and demands to know what happened, Sidney hysterically exclaims, “It was Prospero the Magician! He did it!” And then, “the river, Mac! It's BLOOD!” If anything, surely bits and pieces of the Sidney character can be seen in the antiheroes of Kubrick's later work, which includes, but is not limited to, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, Jack in The Shining, and- most prominently- Vincent D'Onfrio's Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket. Most Kubrick fans come away from Fear and Desire at least somewhat satisfied to see this particular auteristic element (antiheroic insanity) present in this early work.
For me, the best performance in the film is by Frank Silvera, who was a light-skinned African American actor who starred in both this film and Killer's Kiss (1955), Kubrick's follow-up feature- a film noir that is admittedly a better film. The advantage that Killer's Kiss has over Fear and Desire is that it it less stern about the silliness of its subject matter; is also the technically superior film, thanks to the lovely pieces of New York architecture that make up the chase sequence at its climax; and the duel of axe blades between Silvera and the rival gangster in a dummy warehouse, which puts to shame Fear and Desire's confused action climax.
However, if Killer's Kiss is the more visually exciting film, then Fear and Desire is arguably the more emotionally involving film. There is a scene in Fear and Desire in which Silvera's Mac boldy announces that he prefers to die honorably in the war over going home to an America that will take his accomplishment for granted. Corby only balks at Mac's death wish, and Mac's response is bitter. “When this is over,” he reminds Corby and Fletcher, “I'll be fixing radios and washing machines!” This leads Corby to silently ponder to himself: “Can I stand in the way of a man with a reason to die?” So, when the film concludes, Corby and Fletcher are able to make their escape in a plane- while Mac gets his wish, and dies on the river.
I said that Mac is not looking forward to returning to “America”, but in reality, it is never revealed what country the men are from. The film opens with narration by David Allen, who reveals that the men “have no other country but the mind”. In a sense, this concept of a protagonist being a product of his own mind encompasses what Kubrick's cinema is all about- a theory explained beautifully in a 2005 online essay by Jason Sperb that is, for my money, the greatest piece of film criticism written on Fear and Desire to date. Though Sperb has more problems with the film than I do, he makes a brilliant case for how the “mind” theory expanded throughout Kubrick's later work. From Corby's “we're all islands” monologue in Fear and Desire to Dr. Bill Harford's uttering of “I'll tell you everything” towards the end of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's characters were continuously at war with themselves. It was only with the revealing “I'll tell you everything” line in Eyes Wide Shut when the tradition of Kubrickian protagonists keeping their thoughts to themselves was finally broken free. And in Kubrick's last film, no less.
Fear and Desire is also significant in that the majority of the characters have a fear of death- hence the film's title. The enemy General (played by Kenneth Harp- his second role in the film) has a scene in which he privately confesses to his assistant that “sometimes, when I look at these maps, I wonder if my own death isn't being prepared.” In the last scene in the film, Fletcher and Corby find themselves nervously gazing at the river, anxiously looking for evidence that Mac could possibly still be alive somewhere out there in the fog. “I guess I'm not built for this,” Fletcher sorrowfully concludes. “Nobody ever was,” Corby replies. “It's all a trick we perform, when we'd rather not die... immediately.” Only Silvera's Mac is willing to die for his cause. “Come on out of your tent, you half-witted cannibals!” he roars, before firing a volley of bullets at the enemy from his raft. Few Kubrick characters would ever have as much courage to go out with all barrels blazing.
It's difficult not to wonder about what became of the actors in Kubrick's film. After this and Killer's Kiss, Silvera had appearances in George Steven's The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and Robert Mulligan's The Stalking Moon (1968). Harp made some appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Coit, ironically, had the most successful acting career and appeared on dozens of shows that included Maverick; The Fugitive; Bonanza; Marcus Welby, M.D.; and Little House on the Prairie. Virginia Leith appeared in films like Richard Fleischer's Violent Saturday and Mervyn LeRoy's Toward the Unknown. And Mazursky, I need not remind anyone, became a great filmmaker in his own right.
Fear and Desire is not a great film. If compared to the best of Kubrick's earlier work, it only just barely scratches the surface of The Killing and Paths of Glory. And in terms of what could have been a cinematic masterwork, it is light-years behind 2001: A Space Odyssey and Barry Lyndon. Nevertheless, it is a film that all disciples of Kubrick can learn from. Amazingly, it was shot on a budget of only $10,000, which possibly makes Kubrick one of America's first independent filmmakers. It is a narratively flawed film, but undoubtedly narratively interesting in several parts. It has more of Kubrick's original auteristic trademarks than some would care to admit. But despite all of this, the film remains largely unseen. Without public support, there is a growing chance that Fear and Desire will be reduced to the ultimate poverty: a Stanley Kubrick film on the verge of becoming an island.
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the independent, nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. They work directly with archives to rescue endangered films that will not survive without public support.