Clearly not Stanley Kubrick's finest achievement, Fear And Desire holds the oxymoronical status of being both unmissable and deeply flawed. Unavailable for years in the UK in any version worth watching (if you have a Lovefilm subscription, just look at the quality of the scan they have available online), its arrival on blu-ray from Masters Of Cinema presents a chance to see the director's first feature in an exquisite new restoration, which looks as pin sharp as the online version looks dodgy, decade-old VHS.
The narrative style is recognisably Kubrickian, in that the director is unconcerned with keeping us 100% in the loop, 100% of the time. A group of ragtag soldiers comprising of a leader (Kenneth Harp), a young Private (Paul Mazursky), a grumpy Sergeant (Frank Silvera) and a quiet colleague (Stephen Coit) are introduced to us as being behind enemy lines in a war 'outside history'. Their language is the same as ours but this is where the overt similarities stop and Kubrick can start inferring all sorts of allegory on to their disassociated bodies.
Quickly the mindsets required to carry out a war on the human body and soul come to light, egged on by the director. Each character seems predisposed to move towards a desire for destruction, where initially they seem to only want escape. Caught up in an opportunity to attack a group of enemies in a cabin, where they could just walk away, the decision is quickly made that they would be 'better off with some guns', acquired by way of surprising the cabin's occupants. Towards the end the choice of the soldiers is made clear by Kubrick; fight or flight, attack an outpost or sail away on a raft down the river. There can be only one conclusion. The inner monologue of Mac (Silvera) at this point clearly seems to hint that he will not feel successful if he is left alive, without conflict, at the end.
The Tempest is referenced explicitly, during the episode which sees Sidney's (Mazursky) psyche fracture in dramatic, over-played fashion. At a grasp, there are parallels (the men seem at times to be marooned on an island) but it feels like an undeveloped idea by the director and it gets lost amongst other more interesting pursuits. Sidney's episode with a captured girl (Virginia Leith) has clear Freudian overtones, with the soldier seemingly unsure what role he wishes her to play. Again, any consideration peters out too quickly as Kubrick moves on to look at something approaching post traumatic stress and the need to kill that he seems to suggest drives all men.
In the accompanying booklet, James Naremore suggests the argument that, because we know this is a Kubrick film, we impress upon it a detail and meaning that we bring to it already, with knowledge of what Kubrick would go on to create. The temptation is certainly there to apply the benefit of hindsight, but there is genuine tangible evidence that Kubrick's craft was growing. The shooting of the soldiers in the small hut is lit with precision, emphasising the humans, rather than the location. It is difficult to miss the one-point perspective shots, which would fit in with this video, and which again often use people as bookends, drawing our focus to another human in the centre of the frame. Naremore is correct in his assertion that we must be careful not to embellish Fear And Desire with our wish for things to be there, though this does not mean that they are all necessarily absent.
Naremore continues on to associate the ideas within Fear And Desire with ideas of exploring the brain, a reading made plausible by the distinct allegorical roles taken on by each of the four main characters (authority, youthful fragility, working class wisdom, silent contemplation), and by the enemy general and his subordinate, who are played by two of the actors from the patrol (Harp and Coit). War, to Kubrick, exposes the brain's competing notions; we reject the idea of shooting someone dead but in war we must embrace it, embrace our own destruction. We think this concept is sane and stable until an extreme outside event alters our mindset. Sidney's mental state is only compromised once he has encountered death and then, latterly, Leith, a reminder of home in the masculine world of conflict.
The cinematic heritage of Fear And Desire, again discussed at length by Naremore is one reflective of the time which was about to befall American cinema, rather than the time in which it was produced. As Naremore points out, there are few similarities between Kubrick's film and the most successful film of its year, From Here To Eternity and, indeed, there are more similarities with the European art-house, through which the film found an early home. These ideas reflect the American cinema that was to come and that is well accepted now, where American scholars of French or Italian cinema (including Kubrick himself) were able to become mainstream directors, bringing their films to the masses.
Fear And Desire may not be particularly notable in and of itself then, but its notional impact and the films it operates as an introduction to, bear it worthy of recognition above and beyond its important place in Kubrick's canon. A film with errors but one which arguably predicated the arrival of the American independent art-house picture at the same time as establishing a notable talent's legacy.
NB: this release includes three of Kubrick's early shorts, which will be considered in a separate article.
Founded in 2004, The Masters of Cinema Series is an independent, carefully curated, UK-based Blu-ray and DVD label, now consisting of over 150 films. Films are presented in their original aspect ratio (OAR), in meticulous transfers created from recent restorations and / or the most pristine film elements available.
Fear And Desire is released in the UK on Monday 28th January 2012