The avant-garde, bizarrely singular, artfully photographed Fear and Desire would make for fascinating curio viewing under any circumstances, but any consideration comes freighted with the fact that Stanley Kubrick made it—his first feature. Since in so many ways it is not up to the recognized standards of the director’s better-known work, its flaws and indulgences can strike a viewer as either flagrant or, if he’s feeling apologetic, as precious precursors of Kubrickian feats to come. There are auteurist dots to connect between this anti-war allegory and Paths of Glory (and much of Full Metal Jacket), though the restrictions of time, money, and resources Kubrick faced render those links more thematic than stylistic. Kubrick later dismissed the film and even tried to take the few prints out of circulation. “The ideas we were trying to put across were good,” he said in Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs, “but we didn’t have the experience to embody them dramatically.”
The ideas were those of the director and writer Howard Sackler, Kubrick’s classmate and a future Pulitzer Prize winner, whose existential prose-poetry is delivered both by narrator David Allen (“The enemies that struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being”) and by the characters’ interior voiceover and dialogue (“It’s all a trick we perform, because we’d rather not die immediately”). The mold for The Thin Red Line’s philosopher-soldiers is set here, though Sackler’s writing is clumsier than James Jones and Terrence Malick’s (and both owe much to the World War I poetry of Wilfred Owen). The plot is subservient to the larger allegory, but it follows a band of four soldiers of unidentified nationality fighting in an unspecific war, now stranded by a plane crash. Their only goal is to build a raft and reach their battalion, until they spot a nearby enemy base and plan an ambush. In the best, bluntest twist, the enemy soldiers are their own doppelgangers, played by the same actors.
Kubrick had already directed two short documentaries when he started Fear and Desire in 1951, and he’d sharpened his photographic eye shooting for Look magazine, but it’s still startling how superb much of his imagery looks in this print, restored by the George Eastman House. Shot in relatively mundane San Gabriel mountain surroundings on 35mm, the film is rich with potential gallery stills. Rivers are milky, skin sun-dappled and tactile. The forests have an open-air, slightly overexposed look comparable to that in Rashomon and Anthony Mann’s Men in War. Kubrick’s editing is Soviet schooled, influenced by his early reading of Pudovkin and Eisenstein. There’s choppiness to the violence that Kubrick improved and mastered between follow-ups Killer’s Kiss and The Killing.
As ranking leader Lieutenant Corby, Kenneth Harp is a dreary blank, but Frank Silvera (also the pimp in Killer’s Kiss), as self-sacrificing Sergeant Mac, brings a welcome heft of professionalism. And as the paranoid and picked-on New Yorker Sidney, Paul Mazursky has a manic vulnerability. Spotted by Sackler in an off-Broadway production, Mazursky was cast after a brief audition in Kubrick’s New York apartment. Fear and Desire was the future director’s first time on camera, and he gets the big scene: left alone with a captured woman (Virginia Leith) they’ve tied to a tree, Sidney emotionally unravels in front of her, assaults her, recites Shakespeare, and then really snaps. Film Comment spoke with Mazursky about making the film and working with Kubrick.
Was the Kubrick of legend—the endless takes and obsessiveness with detail—already in evidence on Fear and Desire, or did the budget and his inexperience limit that?
No, no, he had no time for that. It wasn’t endless takes. I could tell that he had a good eye. I was smart enough to know that. But he had no dolly—he had a baby carriage that he’d push. The movie was shot in the San Gabriel mountains at an abandoned boy scout camp right out in California. And he got the money for the movie from his uncle, Martin Preveller. Preveller had a drugstore and knew nothing about movies, and he gave Stanley I would guess about 20,000 bucks. At a certain point when we were making the movie Stanley was running out of money and he knew we needed some more, so we drove down from the mountains—Frank Silvera and myself, and Stanley driving. And on the way down Stanley was telling us he was going to get 5,000 bucks out of his uncle, and he was so determined that he spat at the windshield. I had never seen anything like it. I was 21 years old and Stanley was about 23, and I had never seen a guy that age with that kind of determination. And he got the 5,000 bucks out of his uncle.
The whole soundtrack was looped in post-production a year later. What was that process like? How hands-on was Kubrick during this stage?
The sound on the movie was terrible—the original sound. It was captured with a wire recorder. Wire. And it didn’t work. It was a guide at best, but it was terrible, ridiculous. And a year later, a year later, we had to loop the entire thing in New York, and that cost another $20,000 or so. Stanley was helpful there, since it was the first time I had ever done anything like that. The hardest thing to do [in looping] is a crazy laugh. And it was the first time I really saw some of the dailies. Seeing it separated, I just couldn’t tell.
Was it hard getting back into Sidney’s headspace?
Yeah, but I got into it. Frank Silvera and I became very friendly. He was the only really solid professional on the movie, and he was preparing to do Viva Zapata!, so I would run his lines with him when we were shooting Fear and Desire. I would play the other parts. He was off-Broadway at the time in the play Nat Turner. Because of his light coloring, Frank was able to play Indians and Mexicans and all sorts of things. He was really good. The other two guys, I don’t want to say anything nasty about them, but they were not deep.
Your performance is very open and vulnerable, with lengthy monologues and the dip into madness. Did Kubrick give you free rein or was he more controlling in getting what he wanted?
Well, he knew nothing about acting. He never said much. I just did whatever I did. Stanley would just say, “OK, you’ve got her against the tree and you’re—whatever—let’s just do it and try it,” and I would do it and he’d say “Good, let’s do it one more time,” and that was about it. Two takes. I had a great part and I thought I’d win the Oscar, but it didn’t quite work out [laughs]. That [monologue] must’ve been where I got the idea for doing [my 1982 film] Tempest. Because I got to sing “full fathom five thy father lies,” which is out of the Shakespeare play.
I wondered if there was a connection there.
An unconscious connection—I became obsessed with The Tempest. I started reading it, reading about it, and looking at all kinds of books about it. But that was years later. The next time I saw Stanley after Fear and Desire, I had already moved to California in 1960. And I had acted in a version of Deathwatch by Jean Genet at a little off-Hollywood theater called Cosmo Alley. And Stanley came to see it with the new wife. The new wife was the girl who sang at the end of Paths of Glory.
Was there ever any real concern that Fear and Desire would never be released and distributed at all?
There was a bit, I think. But [after shooting] I wasn’t seeing Stanley and didn’t really know where he was, we didn’t socialize. He was already into his own world. I wondered, but I was told that Joe Burstyn was going to release it. He had released some arty films. I knew several months beforehand that it would probably open at the Guild Theater in Rockefeller Center, and it did—it played about a month. The reviews of it were kind; they could tell he had an eye, that there was a talent there, but it was not commercial at all.
When you see this print, you realize he did some nice work. He should’ve been less nutty about it, and regarded it more like a student film. He was so protective of it, because he hated it. When John Boorman was going to show it at Telluride, Kubrick called him and said, “Don’t show it.” Why was he so uptight about it? But that was Stanley’s way. Very strange, but very smart.
Fear and Desire screens on March 28 and 31 as part of the 41st New Directors / New Films.