The Stanley Kubrick Project: Fear and Desire (1953)

In one of my fits of monthly hubris, I decided that I would watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s movie in chronological order. I do stuff like that all the time, and sometimes I even finish it. Yeah, like that time I decided to read Dave Sim’s Cerebus, all 300 issues of it. I may try to finish that one day, if my bile levels ever descend from the toxic levels those last couple of volumes created. Then, I’m a very happily married man, so as far as Sim is likely concerned, I am irrevocably corrupted.

Cripes, I go off on tangents so quickly, I really should have the ADD demographic sewn up by now. Now, as to where I was going originally: why Kubrick? The only answer I have, I am afraid, is why not? On a purely practical level, I have a box set of his movies that stretches from Spartacus to Eyes Wide Shut, which only left me three movies to chase down, since I already had a copy of Paths of Glory. Over the years, I’ve seen some, but not all, of his movies, and generally enjoyed them. And, in the form of The List, it’s my goal this year to watch more movies which, in the mainstream, are considered “good”, not merely the ones with the best gunfights.

Kubrick’s first movie is called Fear and Desire, and it is an arty, ultra-low-budget war movie. We are not told which war or where; in fact, the opening narration tells us “These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.” Got that?

Four soldiers – a looey, a sergeant and two privates – are stuck behind enemy lines after a plane crash, which economically happened before the movie started. They plan to float down a river to friendly territory, but events keep complicating matters. A local girl stumbles upon them, and they have to take her hostage. A nearby farm house is found to be acting as a garrison, with an enemy general on station, and Sarge starts getting obsessed with the idea of killing the general on the way out.

Now that, at face value, could easily be a Roger Corman war picture; a plot that keeps things moving, a pretty girl shoehorned into the proceedings. Kubrick and screenwright Howard Sackler had a different idea, though. In this “any war”, we are privy to the inner monologues of our soldiers, first as they hike through the enemy forest, and we hear them all at once, four men’s thoughts rising to a fearful cacophony. Sgt. “Mac” has several of them, as he floats on the raft toward a suicide mission for which he himself has chosen, argued, even begged. When the unstable Private Sidney (an amazingly young Paul Mazursky) is left to guard the girl, his private monologue becomes public, ludicrous and pathetic.

Probably the cap on the artsy part comes when Lt. Corby (Kenneth Sharp) and Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit) sneak up on the house to kill the general and his aide while Mac draws the sentries to the river to shoot him up; The General and the Aide are played by… Kenneth Sharp and Stephen Coit. The two men are stalking and murdering themselves.

Aaah, I’m being a horse’s ass, but I’m not alone. Kubrick himself eventually disowned the flick, and it’s rumored he tried to have all prints destroyed, but I haven’t found any real evidence of that. There is evidence he seriously downplayed any showing of it in later retrospectives. He was being too tough on himself, but then, there’s no surprise in that from a notorious perfectionist. You do catch glimpses of genius working its way out at various points, but you also see Kubrick the editor cursing Kubrick the cinematographer, as he has to employ rapid, out-of-place close-ups to cover holes in the coverage.

It’s certainly no worse than a lot of zero-budget first films I’ve seen, and better than many. Of the many questions I have to ask, the most significant one is: Every article about Fear and Desire lists the movie’s length at 72 minutes. My copy – the Eastman House print – ran a few seconds over an hour. So the question here is: Huh?