As part of his ongoing welcome-back party as chief host of Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne got to spend the evening presiding over the channel's festival of films that have been given the historic-preservation treatment by the film archivists at George Eastman House. The lineup includes such wonders as Albert Lewin's proudly overripe romantic fantasy Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951); Philip Kaufman's Chicago-set debut feature Goldstein (1965), which is redolent of Nelson Algren and the Second City; and a 1920 silent adaptation of Huckleberry Finn, in which the actor playing Mark Twain's untamable juvenile rebel looks more like Alfalfa Switzer. But the big news is the television premiere of Fear And Desire, Stanley Kubrick's 1953 first feature. Kubrick directed, produced, shot, and edited Fear And Desire when he was 24 years old, using a principal cast of five and a budget, said to have been in the low five figures, that he mostly raised from one of his uncles. (The cast included the young Paul Mazursky, more than 15 years away from the start of his own directing career. In his memoir Show Me the Magic, Mazursky described the experience of watching Kubrick, having just discovered that the production needed more money to continue, putting filming on hold so that he could go straight back to his Uncle Martin and encourage him, at some length and at a very high volume, to double down on his investment.)
I remember being very surprised when I first learned that this film and its follow-up, Killer's Kiss, even existed, because, as a young, budding film geek, I had somehow gotten the impression that Kubrick's third feature, The Killing, was his first feature. This is an impression that Kubrick himself was perfectly fine with. Once he made his name, he is rumored to have taken to buying up any available prints he could find to stock his fireplace. The Eastman House print is said to be the only remaining one available for commercial screenings, and even it doesn't get out much. When New York's Film Forum scheduled a double bill of Fear and Desire and Killer's Kiss in 1994, Kubrick released a statement urging people not to waste their time and ticket money, assuring the curious that the movie is too awful and amateurish to be worth anyone's time. For a certain stripe of movie nut, that, to steal a line from MAD magazine, is like trying to keep ants away from a picnic by pouring sugar on the ground. (The good-looking but aimlessly scripted Killer's Kiss, which is a good deal better than Fear and Desire and also a damn sight worse than The Killing, remains in circulation and is available on DVD. But when a Kubrick career-retrospective home-video set was being prepared toward the end of the director's life, he did insist that neither of his first two films be included in it. But then, the crazy bastard didn't want Spartacus in there, either.)
Written by Howard Sackler, a high school classmate of Kubrick's who later wrote the hit Broadway play The Great White Hope, Fear and Desire is an allegorical war movie. Four soldiers, including a stentorian-voiced lieutenant and his aide, a high-strung weakling (Mazurksy), and a tough guy played by Frank Silvera, have survived a plane crash that's left them stranded in enemy territory. They stumble around, work on building a raft, capture a girl, storm into a cabin, and kill everyone inside. For the big climax, they stage an assault on a house across the river that's occupied by an enemy general and his men. Damned if the enemy general and his aide don't turn out to be the Lieutenant (with chalk dust in his hair) and his aide. The movie opens with a narrator telling us that "The enemies who struggle here do not exist, until we will them into existence," which, in retrospect, I guess you could call fair warning.
I'm not sure that anything could fully warn you to be prepared for Sackler's dialogue, much of which is actually delivered in the form of interior monologues, read directly onto the soundtrack while the camera is helpfully pointed at the head of whoever is supposed to be thinking this stuff. "No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago, back in the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away now…" Riding his raft to a violent rendezvous with destiny, Frank Silvera muses, "It's better to roll up your life in one night, one man, one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone in every direction. And to be hurt, with all the separate hurts exploding, day after day." The only way anybody in war could have ever talked, or thought, this stuff would be if fighting broke out during spoken-word open-mic night at the City Lights bookstore.
Part of the intrinsic interest in finally getting to see Fear and Desire is the chance to see how it all began, not just Kubrick's career, but the fixation and and grappling with the theme of war that ran through a body of work that includes Paths of Glory, Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, Barry Lyndon, and Full Metal Jacket, not to mention all that time fruitlessly planning his Napoleon movie. What did Kubrick, at 24, have to say about his pet subject? If he had anything to say, then, given the physical limitations of the project and the creative limitations of Sackler's script, there wasn't any way he could express much of it. To the extent that the movie is really "about" war more than it's about pulling an existential switcheroo on the audience, its message is simply that war is pointless, wasteful, and insane.
You could say that this is basically the same message you're left with at the end of Paths Of Glory or Dr. Strangelove, but because the one film operates on some level of emotional involvement, and the other has satirical brilliance to go with its visual panache, they're able to deliver that message with a punch. Fear And Desire has no level of emotional involvement, beyond the embarrassment you may feel for Paul Mazursky when he's running the Method-actor gauntlet in a crackup scene that ends with him shooting the girl. (He also starts inexplicably ranting about Propsero and Miranda from Shakespeare's The Tempest. Presumably, this was in the script. The film's sound was post-synched, which must have ruled out much improvisation from the actors. Thirty years later, Mazursky directed and co-wrote a movie called Tempest, which is to its source material what Hogan's Heroes is to Grand Illusion.) And the big reveal at the end isn't Twilight Zone-worthy, let alone brilliant. So, instead of making any kind of statement about war, the four dumbasses wandering in circles through the woods might just as well be blaming their problems on the Blair Witch.
Fear And Desire is a failure, all right, and it's not a brilliant failure. But it is a failure made by a brilliant artist. Kubrick had been a professional photographer when he was still in his teens, and to watch this movie is to see him trying to learn to adapt his trained camera eye to pictures in movement. It's remarkable to see how far this was from a natural development for him. The most memorable images, such as a ground-level shot of the soldiers marching single-file through the woods, framed against trees and sky, are virtually detachable from the narrative; at this stage in his development as a filmmaker, Kubrick could give your eye something to bask in, but he couldn't do it for more than one shot at a time, or connect the shots so that they'd add up to something. The fight in the cabin is an unholy mess of body parts and guys visibly pulling punches aimed directly into the camera lens; you get the idea, but you can't really tell what's going on or even exactly how many men are being whaled on, or who specifically is doing the whaling. When the soldiers look through binoculars and we see the house across the river they're supposed to be looking at, they might as well be staring into a magic screen in Pee-Wee's Playhouse. At the very end, there's a striking image of Paul Mazursky, on all fours next to a dead body, floating on the raft down a river that's shrouded in mist. It might be a strong note to close on if it had any atmosphere or a story to go with it. As it is, it just made me wonder what it would have been like if Jerry Lewis had starred in Aguirre, The Wrath Of God.
Kubrick reportedly got the misty-fog effect he wanted by using an insecticide-spraying machine. In the process, he almost asphyxiated his cast, but he also got a remarkable visual effect on the cheap. (According to Mazursky, he also used a baby carriage as a camera dolly.) It's at moments like that the film, whatever its inability to stand on its own, does supply the viewer with a direct connection to the brave, determined, desperate young man who may not know how to tell a story through editing yet but who's decided that he has to learn and is prepared to shake down Uncle Martin as many times as it takes. It's easy to understand why Kubrick wouldn't want people to see this thing. It's also easy to understand the urge to see it, which is not based entirely on morbid curiosity, though there is some of that. The fact is that Stanley Kubrick is long past having his reputation dented by his early doodles, and if those doodles don't add anything substantial to the movies that matter, they contribute to the legend, and to our understanding of the man at the center of it.
As Robert Osborne diplomatically put it, comparing this film to Paths Of Glory, "Look what he learned in four years!" Kubrick was a notorious control freak, which may be why the few interior shots here feel like the work of a much calmer, more confident man than the exterior shots, and which almost certainly has something to do with why he preferred to not just have complete control over his work, but did his best to rewrite his early career bio to make it seem as if he'd stepped fully formed out of his own cerebellum with a Steadicam growing out of both his arms. It's too bad that he was unable to appreciate what, in light of his subsequent work, is the real message of Fear And Desire: There's hope for everybody.
- Howard Sackler's writing in a nutshell: "You talk too much. I guess I do, too." "Sometimes, talk is an indispensable medicine." "Yeah, but you get sick later!"