"Fear and Desire" begins and ends with similar shots. Director Stanley Kubrick's camera pans along an ominous mountain scape, as clouds of mist and smoke waft heavy in the air. A corny narrator then informs us that the "story" we're about to watch is not real. It's an allegory, featuring faceless men in a nameless war in an nameless land...all of which exists only in the mind!
The narrator then shuts up and things pleasingly get less pretentious. Already, Kubrick is shooting his films like the old Russian masters. The camera angles and cinematography are, at times, beautifully expressionistic. Kubrick's low angle shots heighten the strange madness of his characters and the fog shrouded forests and rivers lend a dream-like, frightening feel to the film. This land is not real, the narrator reminds us, it is all in the "country of the mind".
"Countries" and "islands" will be one of the many motifs featured in the film. John Donne's quote, "no man is an island" is touched upon in reverse by one of Kubrick's soldiers. "All men are islands," he says, "when the icecaps melt".
The notion of melting ice metaphorically takes the form of the ever-present river in the picture. This body of water separates a band of soldiers from their enemies, while also being their only means of escaping the "forest". Significantly, the "enemies" in the film are merely the same four good guys dressed in enemy uniforms. Kubrick's point seems to be that we're all linked. But when the ice-caps melt (war/rivalry), we're driven apart by this body of water (river) and made to fight one another, even though we're all the same. Corny? Yes, but Pulitzer writer Howard Sackler was decades away from mastering his art when he wrote this.
Throughout the film, the men will try to become islands themselves. They stand waist deep in water, bury themselves in mud, float on rafts etc. They want to detach themselves from the forest, want to become men unto themselves.
So the film is deeply metaphorical and more interested in metaphysics. Even here, in his very first feature, Kubrick is going against the grain, pushing aside the grit and realism now emerging in 1950's cinema. Set in a forest, the entire film feels ethereal. Like a fable, or strange dream.
Early on, Kubrick introduces us to his primary cast: 4 soldiers trapped behind enemy lines. Each of these soldiers is the typical Kubrick caricature. One's a handsome, womanising leader. The other is a burly, masculinized trooper. Another is a well mannered family man, and the last is an innocent young boy (Sydney), reminiscent of "Full Metal Jacket's" Pvt Pyle.
The film's first memorable sequence is a brief action sequence in which the men break into an enemy outpost and kill 3 soldiers. Kubrick shoots the violence like Kurosawa. We see closeups of nasty looking food, closeups of hands smashing into bowls of soup, fists squeezing potatoes and clutching at spoons. Bits of syrupy liquid flop around like blood. The whole scene has a violent "squishly" feel, and yet, absolutely no violence is shown. After the carnage, Kubrick then gives us truncated shots of the dead bodies. We see feet and legs and overturned chairs...But no faces. Never any faces.
Later on, Kubrick will once again link food with acts of violence. Look closely and the film has a constant tug of war between survival/food and death/violence, reminiscent of the visual and aural sex/food puns in Kubrick's "Lolita".
Eventually the troopers come across a group of women fishing in the river. Importantly, we don't see their water covered bodies from the waist down. They're islands, separated from the world of man and shot to resemble the mythical Greek Sirens. They're seductive, luring the men away from their duty. But the men retaliate and manage to capture one of the women and tie her to a tree. Symbolically she's reattached to the forest, her island sanctuary destroyed.
The men task Sydney with the job of guarding the woman. As he did with Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket", Kubrick portrays Sydney as having "malfunctioned." Young and innocent, he isn't cut out for these circumstances. Thus, when Sydney is left alone with the girl, we know something horrible will take place.
In one long scene, Sydney goes through a kind of mini evolution. At first he's childish and fearful around the captured girl. Then he playfully impersonates his commander by pretending to eat food. This "performance" scares the girl. He's then faced with various desires, as he toys with the idea of raping her. At first he's scared of doing this, afraid of her rejection. But eventually he musters up the courage. But before he can "rape" her, though, he must first untie her. He does so. Now disconnected from the forest, she immediately runs for the river. But before she gets there, Sydney shoots her dead. When Syndey's fellow troopers return, he goes crazy and disappears into the river himself.
Kubrick and Sackler's point seems to be that man's fears and desire are intertwined. Our fear of being harmed goes hand in hand with our desire not to be hurt or killed. Similarly, as in Sydney's case, if you are afraid of rejection (by woman or group), you then desire acceptance. So fear is like desire, based on a rejection. And fear of death is ultimately fear of life, or a desire for it.
Another action scene follows soon after. The men fight their doubles and escape to their raft (island) on the river. Before the film closes with a repeat of the first shot, there's a haunting scene in which Sydney reappears, wading through the river like one of the Sirens. He's found his island, but he's alone there, driven insane by his experiences in the world of man.
5/10 - Needs less dialogue and a bigger budget.
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