“Rafts always float”
I love that legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick began his career with a dud so misguided he was rumored to have tried to destroy every print in existence. In his words it was a “bumbling amateur film exercise” and he’s not wrong. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing considering he was a twenty-five year old recently quit photographer from Look magazine with two short films under his belt. Unlike Quentin Tarantino‘s My Best Friend’s Birthday, however, Fear and Desire wasn’t some movie made on a whim. Kubrick found private financing, Joseph Burstyn came onboard to distribute, and the 60-minute anti-war drama graced actual theater screens in 1953 with a salaciously misleading poster tag: “Trapped … 4 desperate men and a strange half-animal girl!” What does that even mean?
It’s a head-scratcher on its own, but reading that B-movie marketing-speak applies extra confusion. Written by his Greenwich Village friend (and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Howard Sackler, its esoteric themes are more laborious metaphor than late-night “half-animal” schlock. Although, with David Allen‘s deep narration and passages such as: “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. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.” it does feel like a “Twilight Zone” episode gone wrong.
The four men are Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp) and fellow soldiers Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky), and Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit). Shot down six miles behind enemy lines, they must figure out how to escape the clutches of an unknown enemy seemingly no different than themselves. Walking would take too long and no help will be sent, so the idea is made to build a raft and ride the river down to safety. Before they can, however, that fear from the title sets in to warp their minds with paranoia and guilt. Next comes sexual desire courtesy of a young woman (Virginia Leith) who doesn’t speak English and hubristic desire from the threat of an enemy General open for an ambush mere yards away.
Do they run for cover or do they throw caution to the wind and take a shot at a key target, consequences be damned? Do they keep their heads despite finding themselves out of their human element with blood on their hands? Or do the voices screaming between their ears become as deafening to them as they are to us, disorienting reality so that the whole ordeal transforms into a waking nightmare? It’s kind of the perfect setting for a profound psychological look at the gears of war, but Sackler and Kubrick aren’t quite ready to tell it yet. Instead they deliver a slow burn tale of disenfranchisement and the lust for power wrecking brains that shouldn’t covet more than a simple, peaceful life. It means well.
But with only so-so acting save Silvera’s steely-jawed descent into a personal Hell and Mazursky’s over-the-top but appropriately crazed youth in way over his head, it’s tough to take what occurs seriously. I laughed when Lt. Corby dismisses Sidney’s attempts to speak Spanish to their female prisoner before proceeding to phonetically yell English at her like repeating words she doesn’t comprehend is synonymous with learning. And when we finally see the enemy up close for the profound reveal of war pitting humans with identical goals against each other, my “Twilight Zone” theory started making more sense. Sadly, even as a faux message piece of parallel dimensions, Fear and Desire still fails beyond experiment. The fact it screened thankfully proved calling card enough to finance Kubrick’s second feature.
The saving grace is its cinematography, which Stanley shot himself to save on costs. There are intriguing angles capturing the sense of confusion in his characters’ psyches alongside the feeling of the unknown in a strange land and copious close-ups of crazed expressions sharply cutting to action. Scenes of violence are sometimes so meticulously cut together with frames of subtle kinetic force that it called to mind the stair sequence from Sergei Eisenstein‘s Battleship Potemkin. It’s this sense of homage and pilfering that makes the film so necessary in Kubrick’s oeuvre because it portrays the influences of an artist who would himself later influence generations. A springboard to greatness, Stanley’s reservations about its quality are correct. But it’s of value just the same.