Tuesday, February 16, 2010

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.

Please donate any amount you can to support the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation.

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.

The NFPF will give away 4 DVD sets as thank-you gifts to blogathon donors chosen in a random drawing: Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 and Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986. .


  1. Nice work, Adam. I haven't seen this film and don't know much about it, except that it's the black sheep in Kubrick's filmography (in his opinion, at least).

    Sometimes it's fun to go back to a director's sloppier, earlier works to see him (it's usually a him) experimenting and/or finding his identity. It sounds like Fear and Desire provides that.

    What's interesting is to ponder why the film doesn't work. Poor script? Lack of full creative control? Or did Kubrick try things that just didn't work. Film fans have a habit of trying to ascribe a beloved director's failed films to anything but the director himself, but sometimes that's the reality. (Not that you're doing that here. Just saying.)

  2. Hi Adam,
    Thanks for the shout-out and for visiting my blog earlier. I'm glad you like the "country of the mind" concept--its essentially what I developed across the entire length of my Kubrick book a few years ago (the original title was even called 'Stanley Kubrick and the Country of the Mind,' until the publisher changed it).

    You have an excellent blog. Keep up the good work.

  3. So nice you've written about this. I've never seen it. Precious few have. For years Pierre Rissient has been its cahmpion. Kubrick wanted it removed from his filmography. Paul Mzursky can't understand why. Incidentally the film Shelley Duvall watches on TV in The Shingin is Mazursky's Blume in Love. "Why do you think he did that?" mazursky asked me. "Maybe it was his way of saying 'Hi Paul!' " I told him

  4. I've watched it on the un-nameable places online a few times, and it would be interesting to see it on the big screen. As a first film made on a shoestring, it's pretty damn good, if it were anybody else - and Kubrick wasn't Kubrick yet, anyway. For such a small film, the suppression of it made it so much bigger - the stilted dialog was like listening to someone trying to say as much as possible before somebody shuts them up - Kubrick really was an indy here, and perhaps was anxious to get on film as much as he could regardless of whether he made another film.

    Virginia Leith was always a fascinating actress to me, underutilized - curiously, in the remake of "A Kiss Before Dying", they cast Sean Young, who was eerily like Leith in manner, looks, and especially voice. Frank Silvera's story is one of survival, and he was very lucky and pretty good, actually, in a lot of little films. Excellent review!

  5. I once spoke with Paul Mazursky. The budget was between 30 and 50 grand, not 10. And Mazursky said about half of it came from Kubrick's Uncle.

  6. Thanks for writing about a film a lot of people want to see and one person worked hard to take out of circulation. The first time I read about it, the author obviously hadn't seen it. Let's hope it will be available legally one of these days. First movies are not always good, but they often give interesting clues about where the director is headed.

  7. It' always nice to see a great talent's first halting steps. I generally give first features a pass, looking for the good unless there really isn't any. This is a fine contribution, Adam. Thanks!

  8. Jason, thank you for your compliments. I'm definately somebody who likes to look at the earlier, more obscure works of key filmmakers. In regards to what is wrong with Fear and Desire, from what I understand Kubrick had full control, so it's true that most of what's wrong in the film was his fault. But the essay by Jason Sperb that I linked to poses a valid theory: that Kubrick was like any other 20-something liberal kid living in Greenwhich Village and ended up making a pretentious little war movie with some philosophical meandering up its sleave. Like Killer's Kiss, it has its trashy moments, but there are images from the film that you never forget.

  9. Jason,

    I just want to again repeat my enthusiastic praise for your 2005 essay. It's not everyday that I get to meet an experienced Kubrick scholar, and rarely ever have I read an analysis on one of his films that is as thorough, well-researched and as excpetionally written as yours.

    I think what I loved most about your essay is that you courageously singled out Fear and Desire as the starting point- and perhaps even the entire layout map- of Kubrick's cinema. I know too many Kubrick fans who would rather not go there. Your efforts, however, are riskier and braver. No doubt the man himself would be proud.

  10. Mr. Ehrenstein,

    I'm thrilled to have finally met you! So glad to see you're participating in the blogathon, too. If you ever get the chance to see Fear and Desire, by all means go for it- in fact, with a good Internet connection, you could probably do what I did and watch the film on YouTube in just one day. It's only 68 minutes long, and believe me: it's one of Kubrick's fast-paced films.

    I chuckled when I read that Mazursky story and the "Hi, Paul!" line. It sounds logical! I'll have to look at that scene with Shelley watching Blume in Love in The Shining again, too. Must have missed that.

  11. Vanwall, even though it's admittedly illegal for any mediums other than the George Eastman House to distribute the film, the way I see it is that the only way we can keep a film as suffering as Fear and Desire alive is if we keep watching it... under any circumstances necessary. That is, until the film gets a DVD release, at which point I think we should do the decent thing and actually pay for it. But until then, what are we to do? We only have two options: either spend dozens on a trip to the George Eastman house, or don't watch the film at all. Frankly, that's how so many precious films have been lost- which contradicts the whole point of this blogathon. I'm just thankful we have YouTube because it's a safe website that cannot harm our computers (not saying that about the sources you used to view the film, of course!).

    I do agree with you that Fear and Desire at times feels like a desperate attempt by Kubrick to express... something. He knew that he had some innovative things to say in cinema; he just didn't know what they were yet. Not until The Killing, at the very least. But I think with that film Kubrick had the advantage of being able to adapt from another literary source, as opposed to having to be original. There's a quote out there I remember hearing about how he once confessed to not having great original story ideas of his own. Makes sense to me. In my opinion, it's more fun to adapt a story than it is to come up with one on your own, anyway.

    Sean Young taking an old role of Virginia Leith's? I guess I can buy that. Virginia has that sort of shaky uneasiness in the fondling scene in Fear and Desire that Sean Young had in Blade Runner (or the infamous ending of Ace Ventura- "Einhorn is A MAN!"). And I am grateful that Frank Silvera got something of a decent career, too. It's been awhile since I last saw Killer's Kiss, although I can't say when I was watching it I realized that he was "Mac" from this film.

  12. Anonymous,

    Not that I dispute whatever Mazursky told you, but Wikipedia claims that the budget for the film was $10,000, and cites its source as the book "Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films" by Paul Duncan.

    You are correct that much of the budget came from Kubrick's uncle, though. And the Jan Harlan documentary claims that his father pitched in, too.

  13. Joe, thanks for dropping by! I do love treasure-hunting for debut films by master filmmakers. For example, you can imagine my excitement when I found Amblin' (1968) on YouTube about a year ago, and loved it. But then the administrators took it down- most likely because Steven Spielberg is not proud of the work and has tried to suppress it. I actually considered writing a piece for the blogathon about that film instead, but my memory of it is too vague for a thorough analysis.

    Which is a shame. Amblin' has the sort of natural beauty that Spielberg later employed in Close Encounters, Always, and even A.I. While we're on the subject, two other little-known great debut films that I recommend: Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door and De Palma's gritty Murder a la Mod.

  14. Marilyn, it's been an honor to participate in the blogathon. I'll see if I can arrange for a donation this weekend. This is a cause I truly believe in and want to help make it possible with all of you.

  15. Great post on a little seen film! I know there are a few copies of it on YouTube (at least there was last time I checked), but the thought of watching a Kubrick on YouTube is too depressing. but your detailed analysis makes me that much more curious. Maybe I'll see if I can track it down somewhere, and if not I may have to bite the bullet and watch it on YouTube...

  16. In case you're interested, Ryan, Kubrick's three short films- Day of the Flight, Flying Padre and The Seafarers- are all available on YouTube as well. Each is interesting, but all three were obviously only done for profit. They lack the entertaining quality of Fear and Desire, which, despite its shoddiness in some parts, I think you will like.

    Good luck finding another medium distributing it, though.

  17. Found a torrent of it, which I will proceed to burn to DVD. At least I'm not watching it on YouTube...

  18. Oh, goody! That would certainly be more comfortable than what I had to go through (sitting hunched over at a school library monitor for 1+ hours!).

  19. Great post, Adam. My impression of Fear and Desire is that it's basically the Mazursky character trying to direct--was Kubrick ever like that? I suppose, when he was young. He'll only be as emotional again in fits and starts, in certain films--Lolita, bits of Spartacus, the ending of Paths of Glory. Interesting to have a glimpse of what was roiling inside before he walled it all up with his famous directorial control.

    Did not know Pierre Rissient was a fan. That's fascinating.

  20. Noel, I think that the stereotype of Kubrick as an emotionally cold filmmaker has been wildly blown out of proportion. This next statement may raise an eyebrow or two, but if I wanted to be adventurous I could probably say that Barry Lyndon is the most emotional movie ever made. There's so much passion going on in it that too many seem to not pick up when they view the film. Perhaps that is due to Kubrick's subtlety in not directly making the audience feel what he is feeling- which is what I find rewarding with much of his films. Though Fear and Desire, Paths of Glory, Lolita and Spartacus have a more immediate sense of emotion (one that does indeed work on its own terms), I find that his approach in his later masterworks is superior in its emotional flowering.

    Up until you mentioned his name I wasn't familiar with Rissient. Looking him up I'm reading a lot about how he's one of the most popular figures at Cannes. Very interesting person.

  21. Great work here (sorry I'm just catching up with it now). I HAVE seen Fear and Desire, though I suppose decorum should lead me not to say how (it wasn't online). Wasn't really aware of the film's legal reputation at the time, but the tape definitely played like a bootie.

    This is definitely a film that should be available - while Kubrick might understandably want to obfuscate his roots, it's certainly reassuring to see that even the master had to start somewhere, and it wasn't on home plate. Besides, as you point out, the themes and some of the visual techniques are compelling in how they point forward to his later work.

    Besides this is not his "worst" film, or at least not his least enjoyable. That honor goes to the boring (but, I suppose, successful at what it seeks to accomplish) information industrial film for the Seaman's Union in NY - the pay for which he used to finance this picture.

    To me, the first all-out Kubrickian moment in Stanley's cinema is the shot of the main character running across the rooftops in Killer's Kiss. That's the moment where you start to see the man who crafted 2001 - though there are certainly plenty of portents before it (even in his early newsreel stuff you can see his eye at work, most obviously in the ubiqutous wide lens).

    I watched all his films chronologically back to back years ago, just because - as you point out - it's possible. It was one of the best viewing experiences I've ever had (I repeated the experiment with Ingmar Bergman's films right after he died, but that took longer - spread out over about a month - and there were a lot of movies I just couldn't track down at the time, so it was necessarily incomplete). I'd recommend this approach to any film buffs if they get the chance, particularly if they can utilize a quiet day to watch several of the titles together. You learn a lot not just about the particular filmmaker on hand, but filmmaking in general.

  22. Thanks a bunch for reading, MovieMan. I'm in agreement with you that The Seafarers is probably Kubrick's worst film. But it's been awhile since I've seen it, and I don't even remember much. I remember a camera shot that tracks along a buffet table while the sailors are feasting, and I remember the last scene where the narrator closes the book on the line, "this is the story of the SIU". Or something, lol. It's true, though, that Kubrick's eye for detail as later seen in 2001 didn't come full-circle until we saw Silvera running down those remarkable NY rooftops in Killer's Kiss.

    The fact that Kubrick only made 13 or so films excited me in my youth, because I was able to devour those films I hadn't yet since in only a couple of months. Still, his astonishing range could have amounted to even more.


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