At first glance, Fear and Desire is a war film. But it’s also not a war film, at least not in the conventional sense. The fact that its screenplay was penned by a poet should give you another clue to the high levels of introspection into humanity that this film sets its sights on. It’s a pity no-one thought to adjust the sights and in turn the whole script which adds drab line upon drab line until the whole weight of its pretentious mumblings pull the film sluggishly towards its uninspiring epilogue. Who would have thought that Kubrick would get off to a false start on his first feature?
When a film opens with establishing shots of a forest and narration explaining that you are about to witness events of a nondescript war that is ‘outside of history’ is doesn’t exactly set your pulse-racing. It introduces the film as a blank canvas for a portrayal of men in the extreme circumstance of war but by doing so it strangely doesn’t make a connection to its audience, appearing more as an intellectual study instead of a story to get your teeth into. It’s about soldiers behind enemy lines in any war and that’s all.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s the dialogue between the cardboard cutout soldiers that proves to be the film’s weakest aspect. They spend most of their time discussing their plans and making broad statements about the conflict they are in, they even mention of some of their feelings and anxieties, but mentioning does not make it interesting and it all comes across flat.
The journey back to friendly lines is marked by strange moments that can easily be recognised as partially formed ideas. For instance, the men come across a young girl on her way back from fishing and take her prisoner. What follows is a probably one of the most memorable moments in the film, where the young and nervy Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is left to guard her, begins to force himself on her, and then shoots her as she tries to escape. The sequence illustrates his mind unravelling but the rambling sentences he comes out with make the whole thing seem laughable and devoid of emotional weight. Later on, we are introduced to the enemy general who has a fairly long conversation with his dog. Why? I have no idea, it really doesn’t go anywhere.
At this point I must praise the cinematography and direction of Mr Kubrick because frankly it’s the only reason I kept watching. Sure there is some choppy editing and a few continuity errors here and there, but for a first feature the film shows that Kubrick’s eye for staging is developing. The use of dappled light through the trees and extensive shadow work in a brief skirmish in a hut make for some striking shots and overall Fear and Desire is easy on the eye.
Sadly that’s the most that can be said for a film that boils down to some soldiers making sweeping generalities about war – the quasi-philosophical inner monologues are downright sinful – and failing to show much emotion, let alone any fear or desire.