Fear and Desire‘s a mess to be sure, but it’s hard to understand why Kubrick later strove to have it willfully forgotten. The film’s greatest faults–the script and the acting–pale when compared to Kubrick’s success as a director and editor. He described the film as amateurish and that adjective certainly does describe the script well (I was sort of stunned to see Sackler went on to so much), but the visuals are fantastic.
Kubrick shot Fear and Desire with a lot of control–he shot without sound, which allowed for dubbing later. The looping matches quite well and the general lack of close-ups with dialogue–the characters tend to speak from out of frame–creates a real tone for the picture. The technique emphasizes what the characters are saying–maybe not the best result overall, given the wordiness of Sackler’s script–while concentrating on Kubrick’s composition. The only times Kubrick stumbles is when the shot’s got to be constrained due to budget. Kubrick’s not a low budget filmmaker. He doesn’t have the chops for it. His frustration at the limitations are visible.
The best sequence is when Paul Mazursky goes nutty on a captured female civilian. Contemporary critics also cited this scene and it’s fantastic, due to Kubrick’s shots, his editing and Virginia Leith’s wordless performance. It’s got a lot to overcome too–Mazursky’s performance is terrible. Sackler’s script is full of existentialist monologues–occasionally in voiceover, which annoys rather than edifies–and his approach to Mazursky’s character is silly. Mazursky is creepy when he’s not rambling on and it helps with the scene’s success. What a compliment for a performance–he looks like a creep.
The other sequence comes at the end and the budget hampers Kubrick. The gruff sergeant, played by Frank Silvera (in the film’s best performance), goes downriver on a raft. There are voiceovers and they don’t work, but the editing of the scene is right and it works. It’s the kind of big Hollywood war melodrama scene Kubrick would never do again–it’s like Kirk Douglas racing in front of the firing squad in a jeep–but it shows off just how much Kubrick could do.
The script’s a big logic hole though. Leith’s enemy civilian doesn’t speak English or Spanish, while the enemy soldiers speak English. Silvera refers to the enemies as cannibals a couple times, though the general’s uniform seems to be based on a German army uniform. Maybe. Someone–either Kubrick or Sackler–thought not identifying the conflict, making it a grandiose statement about the nature of war itself (and the narration at the beginning is even nice enough to let the viewer know about this approach). It backfires from the first scene, because by telling the viewer to ignore the omission, they just draw attention to it.
Kenneth Harp, as the cowardly lieutenant, is terrible. Kubrick should have found someone else to dub in his dialogue. Stephen Coit’s fine as the nondescript soldier (he doesn’t get any monologues).
Lots of Fear and Desire is worth seeing. It’s just some of it would be better on mute (not really, since Kubrick’s sound design is fantastic).
Edited, photographed, produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Howard Sackler; music by Gerald Fried; released by Joseph Burstyn.
Starring Frank Silvera (Sgt. Mac), Paul Mazursky (Pvt. Sidney), Kenneth Harp (Lt. Corby / enemy general), Stephen Coit (Pvt. Fletcher / aide-de-camp) and Virginia Leith (Young Girl).