Stanley Kubrick’s first feature “Fear & Desire” was released in 1953 and now 70 years later a 4K restoration gets its U.S. premiere at NYC’s Metrograph Theater for a one week run beginning Friday, September 22. Go here for showtimes and ticket information.
Kubrick was embarrassed by this first film and tried to keep it from being seen again. He may have destroyed some prints of it and when the Film Forum re-released it in 1994 he issued statements urging people to ignore it, calling it “a bumbling amateur film exercise.” Indeed, it is a very low budget and somewhat pretentious work with obviously dubbed dialogue but it is invaluable in understanding the evolution of this master filmmaker’s work. As literature professor Mark Van Doren said in 1954, it is “worth watching for those who want to discover high talent at the moment it appears.”
Kubrick made several films set in wars but “Fear and Desire” is the only one that is an allegory, set in an imaginary country and time. A narrator (narration has played a part in many of his films) explains at the beginning:
“There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history.”
Kubrick reportedly grew to regret this somewhat portentous use of allegory, later criticizing the script by Howard Sackler, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his 1969 play, “The Great White Hope.”
Four soldiers have survived an airplane crash several miles behind enemy lines. They go to a river and construct a raft to float downstream to their own battalion. After being discovered by a local young woman (Virginia Leith, who later starred in the 1962 cult film “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”), they tie her to a tree and leave the youngest soldier, Sidney (played by future film director Paul Mazursky) to watch her. (The tag line for the film’s original print ads was “Trapped… 4 Desperate Men and a Strange Half-Animal Girl!”) Meanwhile, Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera) sees an enemy general across the river and insists that they attempt to kill him before they try to escape.
The conflict and tension between the soldiers (one officer and three enlisted men) predates a similar mood in Kubrick’s later films “Paths of Glory” and “Full Metal Jacket,” both anti-war films made by a much more experienced director who had found his style after making several low-budget genre films in the 1950s.
The officer, Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), irritates Sgt. Mac by his constant philosophical musings during this dangerous episode in their lives. Harp also plays the enemy general and Private Fletcher (Steve Coit, who also acted in Altman’s “The Long Goodbye”) plays an enemy captain, a use of a doppelgangers that may have been influenced by the many European films Kubrick had studied while working as a young photographer for “Look” magazine. One combat sequence in a small house employs the type of intellectual montage associated with Russian director Eisenstein.
Sidney’s lust for the girl ends in tragedy and madness. Paul Mazursky’s performance is a bit silly, featuring dialogue like:
“It wasn’t my fault. The magician did it. Honest. Prospero the magician. First we’re a bird and then we’re an island. Before I was a general and now I’m a fish, hurrah for the magician!”
“Fear and Desire” is only 70 minutes long. Previous revivals of it were missing nine minutes that Kubrick had cut from the film after its disappointing first release. Though flawed in many ways, the photography, editing and score (Gerald Fried) are all striking; this is a must-see for all fans of the man who became one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century.