Fifty years ago, a small and strange film called “Fear and Desire” debuted at New York’s Guild Theater. It was the first feature directed by 24-year-old Stanley Kubrick, a photographer who had previously created three short documentaries. Despite a great review from the New York Times, which hailed it as a “moody, often visually powerful study of subdued emotions,” Kubrick was always embarrassed by “Fear and Desire” and at one time was quoted as saying the film was just “a bumbling amateur exercise.” Over time Kubrick tried to track down and buy up every known print of “Fear and Desire.”
Contrary to the popular myth generated by Kubrick and his team, “Fear and Desire” can be shown today. The film is actually in the public domain and anyone who wants to exhibit it has the right to do so; New York’s Film Forum did so in 1994 and New York’s Den of Cin recently had a rare screening. Unfortunately, the lack of quality prints makes this difficult and the one company offering it on home video, Subterranean Cinema, is working from a print which has clearly seen better days.
So did Kubrick have a reason to keep “Fear and Desire” secret? Absolutely. This is perhaps the single worst debut feature helmed by an internationally acclaimed filmmaker. Filmed in a California park on a $13,000 which Kubrick allegedly raised by hustling chess games in New York’s Central Park, “Fear and Desire” is a clumsy and unintentionally funny work which bears none of the trademarks of the Kubrick style. Had it not been a Kubrick production, no one would give a damn about it today.
Working from a bizarre screenplay by first-time writer Howard Sackler (who would later find his stride with the prize-winning play “The Great White Hope”), “Fear and Desire” takes place in an unnamed country during an unnamed war. Four soldiers have survived a plane crash (we don’t see it, but they talk about it for a few minutes to assure the audience why they are where they are). This band is six miles behind enemy lines and their only hope would be to build a raft in Huck Finn style and float down a river to their troops. However, two distractions get in the way: the arrival of a silent peasant girl who the soldiers tie to a tree with belts (?) so she won’t betray their presence and the unexpected discovery of enemy headquarters where a general can be spotted in the window. One of the soldiers goes crazy (babbling about Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”) and winds up killing the girl when she tries to escape and the other goes crazy sailing alone on the raft to take on the enemy in a single-handed Rambo style. The other two soldiers actually infiltrate enemy headquarters and kill the general and his top aide (played, inexplicably, by the same actors who play the soldiers who burst in with guns a-blazin’).
Does any of this make sense? Of course not, and Kubrick clearly must have realized there were problems from day one. He tried to spruce up these shabby shenanigans with artistic camera angles, which resulted in having the film littered with a surplus of intense and frequently surreal close-ups. Sometimes the actors glare straight into the camera while conversing, and in one crazy fight scene fists come flying smack into the lens. The film’s technical problems are also compounded by continuity mistakes (more than a few attempts at matching reaction shots find the actors looking in the wrong direction) and an unsuccessful dialogue track (the film was shot without sound and most of the post-dubbed dialogue comes from off-camera). Even when the dialogue is in sync, it is intellectually out of sync with lines like “We have nothing to lost but our future” and “Who else but me is buried under the chain of everything I ever did?” There is also the matter of Gerald Fried’s wildly noisy musical score, which seems more appropriate for a Godzilla romp than for this tiny flick.
And yet, “Fear and Desire” is appealingly bad in the manner that Ed Wood’s sci-fi anti-classics are fun to watch. The film is silly without being abhorrently stupid and it is so earnest in trying to be intellectual that you inevitably feel sorry for Kubrick and his colleagues for mucking up. There is also the sheer pleasure of realizing that Kubrick, perhaps the ultimate perfectionist, was capable of making the most imperfect of movies. This was the only true goof in his career and having this easily available would clearly tear away at the reputation which he worked so hard to achieve.
Kubrick, of course, found his voice and style within a very short time by creating in rapid succession “Killer’s Kiss” (1954), “The Killing” (1955) and “Paths of Glory” (1957). Maybe some day in the near future the Kubrick estate will lighten up and allow a fully restored “Fear and Desire” to be seen on DVD and home video. After all, everyone makes mistake…including Stanley Kubrick!