Fear and Desire is Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, and that’s really the only reason why anybody, including me, ever watches it. Kubrick himself had the film locked away, not wanting anyone to see it until after he died. Unfortunately, that was probably the right call, because though we must make allowances for it (the film being his first, made on next to nothing, and with some pretty terrible actors), the movie is just not good at all.
Fear and Desire tells the abstract story of four soldiers who get shot down behind enemy lines. First they come up with a scheme to build a raft and ride the river back behind their own lines, but that doesn’t pan out. A girl (Virginia Leith) sees them, and they kidnap her and tie her to a tree so she won’t report them. The youngest soldier, Sidney (Paul Mazursky), is tasked with guarding her, and quickly looses his mind and becomes obsessed with her. After he runs off in a delirious state, the focus shifts to another soldier, Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), who seeks glory. He tries to kill a general with the help of the other two soldiers, who are not as keen on his plan. And all throughout this we get a lot of existentialist rumblings from the four soldiers.
The biggest problem with this movie is that it does little to hold one’s interest. Though it’s only about an hour long, it feels a lot longer. I found myself drifting off, waiting for the next interesting shot to pop up. They are there, but they are not consistently there, and there’s not really any compelling story or characters to hold you over until from one till the next.
If I hadn’t known this was Kubrick film, I doubt I would have noticed the similarities with his other work. It’s clear that existentialism is a big influence on this film, as it is in other Kubrick films. Here the story and the philosophy have little connection though. It seems that there is a somewhat random story, but really Kubrick just wants an excuse to have his characters wonder aloud about the nature of existence. As one can imagine, it’s not exactly the most interesting thing to watch, especially when it’s not particularly well written or acted. However, as I said previously, there are some interesting shots here. There are a lot of trademark Kubrick closeups with the actor’s faces in an awkward part of the frame or shot in an extreme low angle. Kubrick also has a neat scene where the soldiers attack another group of soldiers eating dinner which is edited in a way that harkens back to the films of Sergei Eisenstein. There is also a good use of lighting in several scenes, especially the one with the general. Because these interesting elements do little to support the story, their appeal is similarly limited.
Fear and Desire is not the worst film you’ll ever see, but it’s hardly worth the hour it takes to watch it. A lot of the technical things are interesting, and seeing where Kubrick comes from, but the story, such that it is, is just a lot of broad philosophical mumbo jumbo. The acting is pretty bad, but even if the film had had better actors I’m not sure if it would have made much difference. One can forgive Kubrick because he’s trying really hard with what he’s got, but you can also see why he never wanted anyone to see his first attempt at film making.
“There’s nothing so refreshing as an afternoon out of doors in enemy territory.”
Long story short: 2/4 stars
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