Fear and Desire (1953)

US / 61 minutes / bw / Kubrick Family, Joseph Burstyn Dir & Pr & Cine: Stanley Kubrick Scr: Howard Sackler Cast: Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith, David Allen

The first feature movie of Stanley Kubrick, the one that so embarrassed him in later life that he tried to erase it from history. For a long time it was thought the only two copies left in existence were the one held by the Kubrick family and a dreadful video copy. But then in 2010 an original copy was discovered languishing in a film laboratory in Puerto Rico, and this has since been restored by the folks at George Eastman House.

Kubrick dismissed the movie as a “bumbling amateur film exercise” and in a way one can see his point. It was an indie production, produced on the cheap with amateur actors and funded by family members, and that’s in many ways what it plays like. Yet it has points of interest, too, and for those—not just its curio value as Kubrick’s maiden voyage—it’s well worth watching.

The movie makes extensive use of voiceover, both from the characters and an anonymous narrator (Allen). It’s this narrator who starts the proceedings:

“There is 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.”

The declaration of non-specificity is all well and good, but later on there’s a fleeting reference—perhaps in actor improvisation?—to a bunch of the baddies as “lots of Reich.”

Kenneth Harp as Corby

Four soldiers from an unknown country, but with noteworthy American accents, were shot down a couple of days ago behind enemy lines and have been wandering through the forest ever since. They are:

  • Lieutenant Corby (Harp)
  • Sergeant Mac McFarlane (Silvera)
  • Fletcher (Coit)
  • Sidney (Mazursky)

They resolve to build a raft so as to travel to safety down the nearby river. However, they discover that, just on the far side of the river, there’s a house occupied by those “lots of Reich,” including a full general (Harp again). The idea germinates within Mac that they could do their cause some good by knocking off the enemy general on their way out of Dodge:

Mac’s thoughts in voiceover: “If only this [his binoculars] was a rifle sight. Then I could make the red eye between his ears.”

Frank Silvera as Mac

Also, they come across three young women fishing, one of whom (Leith) discovers them. They seize her and tie her to a tree in what is apparently regarded as one of yer iconic cinematic moments . . . which I suppose it very well might be if gazing at astonishingly beautiful young women tied to trees is your thing.

Virginia Leith as the Girl

Leaving the callow, nervously fragile youngster Sidney—generally addressed by the others as Kid—to stand guard over the Girl (as she’s credited), the others go off to do a bit more raft-building. In their absence Sidney’s mental instability comes to the fore. Imagining that the largely saturnine Girl is becoming fond of him he woos her, often using Shakespearean imagery—even though she is entirely uncomprehending of English—he releases her, his mind filled with thoughts of a passionate interlude on the forest floor. But she makes a run for it and he shoots her dead.

Paul Mazursky as Sidney

Mac arrives on the scene and Sidney, now completely cracked, explains himself amid a paroxysm of overacting:

Sidney: “It wasn’t my fault. The magician did it. Honest! Prospero the magician. First we’re a bird, and then we’re an island. Before I was general, and now I’m a fish! Hurrah for the magician! Oeugghharghh bwhahahaha . . .”

And he rushes off, cackling maniacally, to plunge himself into the river, which he’s now convinced is a river of blood.

To which all one can really say is “Yeah, right.”

There’s plenty more plot to go before matters are resolved, if indeed they truly are. Kubrick makes interesting use of the fact that the cast double up their roles, playing members of the enemy as well as “our guys.” In particular, Harp plays the General and Coit plays his smirking Captain; Harp, as if just to confuse you about his “Reich” status, vocalizes the General in a passable imitation of Winston Churchill. Later, as the General lies dying, there’s a very effective moment when Harp-as-Corby looks down on him and clearly is struck suddenly by the recognition that the enemy officer is in effect himself. If this were less subtly done it might seem hokey, but as it is it’s a nice indicator of the way armies deliberately dehumanize their foes.

As I’ve indicated, the screenplay has its moment of risibility—although, be it noted, Sackler later won a Pulitzer and a Tony for his play The Great White Hope (1967). It isn’t helped by the fact that the dialogue was very obviously rerecorded and dubbed in. Even so, it’s quite adventurous in places. I especially liked a sequence early on when we here a chorus of overlapping voices representing the confused thoughts of the soldiers as they begin today’s trek through the forest.

Kubrick’s prior experience was as a photographer for Look, in which capacity he’d made a couple of short documentaries, so it’s hardly surprising that the cinematography is very lovely. Yet it’s sometimes not altogether fluent, as if Kubrick were more intent on creating a chain of beautiful stills than a flowing whole.

And some of his cinematographical experimentation seemed to me to fall flat, as when our guys are beating up a couple of Reichs they’ve come across: we see parts of the sequence through the eyes of the victims, watching as fists come zooming toward their faces. To be anachronistic, there’s something very Pythonesque about this effect.

The one element of the movie that lacks the talented-amateur sense of the rest is the soundtrack. This was composed and conducted by Gerald Fried, who’d worked with Kubrick on one of those documentaries and would work with him again on KILLER’S KISS (1955), The KILLING (1956) and Paths of Glory (1957). Fried went on to have a distinguished career as a soundtrack composer; he’s probably best known for his collaboration with Quincy Jones on the score for the TV miniseries Roots (1977), which brought them a Primetime Emmy Award.

The tree scene

Although she has almost no dialogue, Virginia Leith, as the Girl, has a disproportionate impact on the movie: she’s the one cast member whose performance seems fully professional (although, to be fair, the difference may have been exaggerated by the fact that, with just one word of dialogue, her performance wasn’t hamstrung by the dubbing). This was her debut movie in what was to be a surprisingly low-key career. Noir lovers may remember her especially for her spellbinding performance as Ellen Kingship opposite Robert Wagner’s psychopathic Bud Corliss in Gerd Oswald’s A KISS BEFORE DYING (1956), adapting the Ira Levin novel. She also has a minor role in the noirish Patrick Quentin adaptation Black Widow (1954) as the disillusioned artist ex-flatmate of the manipulative Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner). Leith died just recently, aged 94, in November 2019.

Kubrick’s description of Fear and Desire as a “bumbling amateur film exercise” is thus not far wide of the mark; even so, like many an indie movie since, it has a certain refreshing audacity in places that means the hour or so spent watching it is far from wasted.

Fans rushing to theaters to see Virginia Leith clad as represented in the movie’s poster were destined for disappointment.

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