In his first film, Fear and Desire (1953), Stanley Kubrick tried to universalize the experience of soldiers in combat. This is a theme he grappled with for the rest of his career, but shrinks compared to the reality of the subject.
Fear and Desire (1953) is the flawed first feature by Stanley Kubrick. By flawed I mean really lousy. It’s overly melodramatic, with stilted, almost beatnik dialogue and a high degree of pretension even compared to the likes of Barry Lyndon (1975). Even so, Fear and Desire lays almost all the groundwork for future Kubrick films, with one thematic fatal flaw.
Fear and Desire is a film which seeks to universalize the soldier’s experience. I know this because of an authoritative newsreel-esque voiceover at the beginning:
There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or 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.
Just from that intoning, there’s a sense that this film is misguided in its approach.
Unfortunately for Fear and Desire, this seems to be a film very inside contexts. It’s hardly “any war” or of “no other country but the mind.” Fear and Desire is typical of its historical context, generic conventions, and character archetypes. Namely it’s a self-important World War II drama of the old style, dressed down in a debut feature.
Kubrick’s Changing War Film
Fear and Desire introduces you swiftly to such original characters as the suave captain who made it out of a plane crash with pleated pants and Brylcreem, a hesitant lieutenant who is pretty forgettable, a tough sergeant in need of a cigar to chomp, and a private who just can’t hack it. There are some bad guys, made plain by their epaulettes and maps for world domination in the background. And who could forget “The Girl” played by Virginia Leith, better known for her role in The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (1962). All of which is to say that this film is pretty obviously an Americana depiction of World War II with a little beatnik flare thrown in.
Fear and Desire doesn’t work, but Kubrick didn’t abandon this topic. When I watch Kubrick’s films it’s his unique depiction of violence that is the most compelling thread between them. Nor did he abandon the director trademarks he imported from his early work as a still photographer. Fear and Desire does shine in capturing the emotion on still faces and details in the mundane. Kubrick remains a master filmmaker.
The editing creates something like a photo essay. The dialogue is usually off screen which highlights the photography. For example Kubrick cuts to the listener and let’s dialogue play like omniscient narration wherever possible. Through these techniques, which endured throughout Kubrick’s films, Fear and Desire comes as close to depicting the so-called “any war” as possible. It fails.
Things change and so did the narratives Kubrick used to advance depictions of the soldier’s experience. Paths of Glory (1957) remains among the most compelling anti-war films ever made, for instance. It follows the trial and execution of deserting French soldiers in World War I. In my mind, Barry Lyndon, by comparison, might be quietly the most affecting and cynical look at being a soldier Kubrick had to offer.
In these cases, distance from the combat makes the real experience of the soldiers depicted more powerful. The distinguishing feature of Paths of Glory is that it removes the soldier’s experience from the battlefield and puts it on trial. In Barry Lyndon the scope of one man’s life and the perfect emptiness he’s left with after profiting from the Seven Years War is more revealing of his experience at the frontlines than his time in combat. In a sense the hours that follow scenes of combat say more about combat.
Of course Kubrick made two other notable war films, Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Full Metal Jacket (1987), both of which take a more direct look at soldiers in combat. After watching Fear and Desire, it seems to me that Dr. Strangelove is, ironically, the most accurate depiction of the soldier’s experience Kubrick committed to film. The absurdity of the drama in Dr. Strangelove rather than the more conceptual “the absurd” felt by the characters makes it work.
In Dr. Strangelove there’s dispassion toward the absurdity and the chaos, there’s specificity about the conflict, and most notably the slow build toward cataclysm. To me there’s a high degree of accuracy to that kind of depiction of combat. These features of war were becoming more clear when Dr. Strangelove was made, but it really took the Vietnam War to reveal to Americans that the notions espoused in, say, Fear and Desire were pretty far from reality.
“I didn’t even remember that…”
Looking individually at reflections on combat experience, as is the case in Winter Soldier (1972), reveals any kind of universality that there is in the soldier’s experience. That is, if any sort of thematic center can be found in the experience of war at all. Winter Soldier looks right in the face of Vietnam veterans, most of them just a year or two removed from combat, and asks them about the atrocities they witnessed. A series of testimonies and interviews becomes a more compelling story about combat than the greatest war films.
Speaking directly to the camera is a technique which Kubrick adopted for his own film about the Vietnam War, Full Metal Jacket, but the testimony in Winter Soldier simply can’t be faked. Even through refinement, it’s something of a failure of Kubrick’s whole body of work that he couldn’t render the soldier’s experience in even his most powerful films.
Winter Soldier is the subject of an upcoming Teach-In roughly coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the start of the Tet Offensive. The apt question here is “what really happened in Vietnam?” But before I even reach that question, it helps me to reconsider what an accurate representation of the soldier’s experience is in general. Watching Kubrick’s flawed first film, and thinking about the limitations of his approach there makes Winter Soldier all the more profound.