Every filmmaker follows one of two paths. The first path is the Orson Welles wunderkind path that sees a filmmaker dazzle everyone their debut, only to be incapable of replicating it. Eventually the director’s career gets to the point where people start to wonder if they were being too nice in the first place. That awe-inspiring debut is what modern studios are desperate to create, which is why they keep handing $200 million budgets to people that impressed them with a thirty second car commercial.
The second is the Peter Jackson path, where a filmmaker works for on features for a bit in sometimes not so reputable genres. They hone their craft and then eventually stun everyone with a masterpiece. It causes people to retroactively seek out their entire filmography, now convinced that this person is a secret genius that was criminally ignored for years.
Regardless of the path, the first feature a director makes is an important one. It will let audiences know what the filmmaker is interested in and what themes they will return to no matter how many films they make. And, since the filmmaker is inexperienced with Hollywood politics, there will usually be a great story behind the making of the film. This debut becomes especially noteworthy when the filmmaker in question spends their entire existence pretending like they never made the film in the first place.
Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire is perhaps the most famous example of the forgotten debut. Kubrick’s films are still examined as much as the Rosetta Stone, with fans convinced that the reason Kubrick spent 100 takes filming a close up of Scatman Crother’s face is because he left a hidden message that needs to be cracked and wanted to make sure we “got” it. But for his entire life, Kubrick denied people the chance to watch his first film. He gave various reasons, mostly one that said, “it’s not very good.” He dedicated himself to burying it, not allowing retrospective screenings and allegedly buying all prints so he could destroy them. Even though the film was in the public domain, for decades everyone mostly honored his wish. The film was practically impossible to see, even after Kubrick’s death.
That changed after the discovery of a pristine print. Now a quick YouTube search will net you a copy. So we can start to answer the probing questions about what Fear and Desire says about Kubrick’s career. Was Kubrick right when he said that the film really wasn’t any good?
Unfortunately, yes. Fear and Desire is a deeply flawed movie about humanity and the nature of war. It’s strange that Fear and Desire doesn’t work because Kubrick mastered those themes a mere four years later with Paths of Glory. The dialogue is really clunky. The mise en scène is a mess – it looks like four adults lost in a national park. The score is terrible and sounds like Kubrick picked the first ten or so instrumental pieces he found at the local library. Finally, for a film that’s only an hour long, it’s incredibly slow.
But there is something interesting here, something that reveals Kubrick’s later strengths as a filmmaker.
The film’s plot is simple enough. Four soldiers fighting an unspecified war crash their plane six miles behind enemy lines. They plan their escape but are distracted by a) finding an enemy base and b) abducting a peasant girl so she does not give their location away.
It’s easy to see why Kubrick would be attracted to this material. Fear and Desire is not a war film, exactly. It’s a psychological examination of four people in unusual circumstances. It’s closer to The Shining than it is to Full Metal Jacket. The best scenes in the film involve a paranoid soldier, Private Sidney, who becomes convinced that the captured girl will fall in love with him. His ramblings (which the woman can’t understand) become crazier as he eventually unties her, convinced she’ll embrace him for the favor. And Sidney’s reaction when he doesn’t get his way foreshadows the great scenes of Private Pyle’s mind disintegrating in Full Metal Jacket. These scenes are the embers that would light the fire of Kubrick’s masterpieces. When the film is interested in those moments of people losing their humanity, it almost works.
But most of it is not about that. Kubrick wanted to make an allegory, yet in doing so he made it impossible for anyone to relate to the war. The film never explains who these soldiers are and why they’re at war. For all I know, they’re enemy soldiers trying to invade a NATO member. That could have made an interesting movie. How would that affect the perception of the characters? What extra resonance would that give the scene in which the group kills two soldiers eating supper to steal their guns? The film isn’t interested in those ideas at all and announces that at the start.
“Fictional” war films have never worked for any director. It seems dishonest to invent a war when there are real conflicts that are destroying the lives of real people. Since it doesn’t acknowledge that reality of war, Fear and Desire doesn’t seem to understand what it wants to do.
It’s unfair to say that the film is completely inept, but compared to Kubrick’s later work Fear and Desire is lacking. For one, the narration and dialogue is some of the worst I’ve ever heard:
“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’s delivered with the same nuance Criswell used when he told us that future events such as these will affect us in the future. It doesn’t get much better. The film ends with the declaration that “Nobody ever was (built for war). It’s all a trick we perform when we’d rather not die immediately.” That’s dialogue written by someone who wants to parody the overwrought nature of clunky war dramas. But the film plays it completely straight as though this is a fresh revelation. I’m not sure how an audience that was eight years out of fighting WWII would have reacted to such a campy conclusion.
The film doesn’t look convincing either. Fear and Desire looks like it was shot in the woods with cosplayers. The general’s headquarters looks like a Cuban bungalow rather than the enormous manor Kubrick wanted to create. Later, Kubrick tries to point out the futility of war by using the same cast as enemy soldiers. But that symbol doesn’t resonate at all because I barely knew who any of the characters were and didn’t care about them. What would have made the film work is if I believed that the characters were in danger. Even if they did use their predicament as an excuse to philosophize about fate, I would have accepted it as desperate people trying to understand why they may die for reasons beyond their control. But instead, I felt like I was watching a high school drama class trying to put on a production of Saving Private Ryan.
Fear and Desire is an intriguing look at what made Kubrick interested and film and what he felt the medium could say. But Kubrick was correct when he diagnosed his inexperience as a weakness when he analyzed Fear and Desire. The film is amateurish. It’s an experiment that failed. But even then, it’s those mistakes that made the rest of his career. Fear and Desire got a lot of things wrong and is why Kubrick became obsessed with getting things right. Fear and Desire isn’t about war or human nature. It’s about Stanley Kubrick slowly realizing what he needed to do to get his lofty themes across to his audience.