Fear, Desire, and Dinos

Kubrick, K. Gordon Murray, & Cavebabes


Import/Gray Market DVD:

* Sometimes, you really do need a fresh orientation to a film to appreciate it for what it always was.

“Child-like” isn’t a term usually applied to the films of Stanley Kubrick, but by God, one of my students did just that when a handful of us sat down to savor a foreign import DVD of Stanley Kubrick‘s impossible-to-see first feature recently.

Center for Cartoon Studies senior Romey Bensen correctly tagged Stanley Kubrick‘s debut feature FEAR AND DESIRE (1953) as feeling very much like kids playing “war”: the very elements that frustrate me (as an adult) watching the film each time are indeed and uncannily, precisely the components of how when I was a little kid with my pals in the (Vermont) woods, we’d play “war.” Thanks for the insight, Romey!

It’s true—it’s “playing war,” right down to the riverside setting, the faked firing of weapons & pulling of punches, vague enemy visible through binoculars in the distance, the benign dog’s role, and (odd) inability to move too far in any direction (Kubrick‘s quartet of American soldiers say they’re only 6 or so miles “behind enemy lines,” but essentially stay in the same spot for 2 1/2 days without apparently even trying to hike their way out).

Even the more adult moments are childlike, including the soundtrack’s interior monologues of the soldiers (clumsily anticipating Terrence Malick‘s THE THIN RED LINE), the killing of the soldiers at the enemy outpost (emphasis on their food, juxtaposition of mock-death & food textures), and so on.

There’s a childish simplicity to Sidney‘s (future director Paul Mazursky) weird mental breakdown and chaste assault on the woman (Virginia Leith) tied (with belts) to a tree, Sidney‘s madness dialogue, and Sgt. Mac‘s (Frank Silvera) interior monologue and trip down-river on a raft to an ill-conceived mock-raid that costs him his life, etc.

Most child-play-like of all, though, is the dual role-playing of Kenneth Harp and Stephen Coit; Harp plays both Lt. Corby and the Enemy General, while Coit plays both Private Fletcher and the drinking Nazi aide-de-camp. Can Kubrick have possibly thought audiences wouldn’t notice—or did he want the audience to note and recognize the duality? It’s a practice that dates back to LADY OF THE NIGHT (1925) and THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939), but Kubrick seems to anticipate a kind of inverse role-playing (in which two actresses played a singular character) later seen in films like Adolfas Mekas‘s HALLELUJAH THE HILLS (1963) and Luis Buñuel‘s CET OBSCUR OBJET DU DESIR / ESE OSCURO OBJETO DEL DESEO / THAT OBSCURE OBJECT OF DESIRE (1977), among others.

This time, Romey‘s comment prompted another reading entirely. Yes, budgetary constraints most likely prompted this dual casting, but it’s exactly like how we used to play both “sides” when we “had to,” right down to the wacky dialogue (Howard Sackler‘s script is heavy-handed and pretentious as can be—again, a form of child’s play).

In terms of Kubrick‘s subsequent body of work, it’s still fascinating: here’s the first mad soldier, the first mental breakdown, the striking imagery, and potent singular setpieces amid languidly-paced stretches. But Romey‘s spot-on observation changed my whole perception for the film as a whole.

In fact, I should note that it was my initial full reading of

specifically Brad‘s analysis of Hellman‘s feature film BACK DOOR TO HELL (1965), which brought me back to FEAR AND DESIRE. There are many striking similarites between the films, though Brad finds BACK DOOR TO HELL the better film (and I agree)

I’ll also note that FEAR AND DESIRE would make a great double feature with Kubrick‘s FULL METAL JACKET, if only to savor their respective career book-end staging and approaches to soldiers sliding into homicidal dementia (see left, and below, right).

Honestly, though, Romey‘s perceptive comments puts Kubrick‘s film in a whole new light for me, and makes sense of the experience in ways I’d fought for some time.

Note: Romey Bensen shared the following with everyone on Facebook on April 20, 2012, and I’ll include it here:

“…While watching the movie, I was definitely reminded of the stories my dad told me about playing war with his friends when he was a little kid, and the films they were trying to make with the super 8 camera they had between them. For a time, my brother and I also played war games and wandered through the woods in uniforms my dad had gotten for us for reenactments he had taken us to.

I think that it would be very interesting if kids had actually been cast in the roles, instead of adults. I’ve never actually seen the movie, but I think that was done with BUGSY MALONE. I think that’s the missing piece.”

Thanks, Romey!

[Revised & expanded from an April 20, 2012 Facebook post.]


Not on DVD:

“Today I brew, tomorrow I bake;
And then the Prince child I will take;
For no one knows my little game
That Rumpelstiltskin is my name!”

* Herbert B. Fredersdorf‘s West German fairy tale film RUMPELSTILZCHEN / RUMPELSTILTSKIN (1955) was among the K. Gordon Murray 1960s foreign pickups to score as lucrative children’s matinee fodder. This one hit that circuit in 1965 with Murray‘s cocktail of TV spots & huckster newspaper promo trading on Werner Krüger‘s definitive “little person” incarnation of the Grimm “little forest king.”

Innocent miller’s daughter Marie (Liane Croon) rescues a trespassing Sunday hunter (Günter Hertel) after the “forest king” has punished him by tossing him from his horse; the youngsters fall for one another, without Marie knowing he’s the prince… do I really have to relate any more?

The political underpinnings of the venerable Grimm‘s fairytale are as transparent today as ever—as Wall Street plunders national treasures and politicians promise “straw spun into gold” solutions to depleted government coffers—but the Eastmancolor has faded leaving primarily reds and smeary greens, and whatever charm this Förster Film offering once had has faded, too, save for buffs of such curios (like me).

Just as WW2 broke, director Fredersdorf graduated from making short films to features with NORDLICHT (1938); after the war, he was relegated to shorts again until helming LANG IST DER WEG (1949), redeeming himself by working with screenwriter Israel Becker to mount the first film production to dramatize the Holocaust from a Jewish perspective. No surprise Fredersdorf abandoned such controversial content thereafter, launching his fairy tale series with his next feature, DIE PRINZESSIN UND DER SCHWEINEHIRT (1953) starring Liane Croon as the Princess, and sticking with Förster Film and the Brothers Grimm fare a little over a year.

Though his fairy tale movies seem painfully pedestrian today, there was a genuine Austrian/Bavarian exoticism and flavor onscreen thanks to the settings these were shot in (countrysides, woodlands, castles, and villages), and these really played everywhere in the US in the mid-1960s, earning bundles before they’d run their course.

One of Fredersdorf‘s fellow 1955 efforts, DER GESTIEFELTE KATER / PUSS ‘N BOOTS, was snapped up by K. Gordon Murray competitor Childhood Productions and unleashed on the matinee market in 1967 with a tie-in LP (using Paul Tripp‘s dubbed narration) and the same potent boxoffice pump-primer of saturation bookings & TV advertising to spin even more Teutonic straw into gold. That was long after Fredersdorf had moved on to more adult fare with DER SCHANDFLECK the very next year (1956) and other dramas and comedies, retreating to television by the early 1960s and retiring altogether by 1964 (he died in 1971).

Little person Werner Krüger is pretty much the sole attraction for contemporary psychotronic cinema devotees; he inhabits the role without really giving a performance, and no doubt haunted many a child’s dreams and nightmares whose parents fattened K. Gordon‘s purse. I screened a 1994 Something Weird Video vhs copy, offering the full 82 minute English-dubbed version in as fine a condition as I’ve seen since… well, 1965! Parents beware; the allure of these German fairytale movies from the 1950s will be absolutely inexplicable to a 2012 kid.

[Revised and expanded from a May 13, 2012 Facebook post.]

* Y’know, there are times when I weaken. I’ll be watching a 1960s Italian sf movie and I’ll think, “Jeez, they couldn’t have made any sf films lamer than this in the 1960s.”

Then I start to watch something like Alfredo Crevenna‘s GIGANTES PLANETARIOS (1967) and I realize how incredibly naïve and simple-minded I really am. But then I stay with it, and I realize, I am not nearly as naïve and simple-minded as either these filmmakers were, or thought their audiences were, or, well, both.

Prof. Daniel Wolf (Guillermo Murray) ends up—hey, get this!—on a rocket ship with three stowaways—a moron boxer, his maladroit trainer, and Wolf‘s main squeeze—to land on Romania (yes, Romania), “the world of eternal night,” to take out a pointy-headed megalomaniac warmonger Guardian/Protector (José Gálvez) on a world that looks like a Mexican pepla knockoff because, well, it is.

Per the title, there is a planet. Putting lie to the title, there are no giant or giants, but there are doofy helmets (with antennae), togas, posing, treachery, dopey jokes (including a fat alien woman named “Bean“), and endless yackyackyack revolving around one-of-a-kind “plans” the Protector needs that Wolf has (hidden, at one point, under an antique desk with gum keeping it in place).

Crevenna made some fun stuff (my personal fave is the batmen-beneath-the-earth gem AVENTURA AL CENTRO DE LA TIERRA, 1965), but this… give me LA NAVE DE LOS MONSTRUOS (1960) any day!


* I thought Columbia’s VALLEY OF THE DRAGONS (1961) was the last hurrah of that old ONE MILLION B.C. (1940) lizards-as-dinosaurs footage being used to create entirely new films around, but I was wrong!

Thanks to Tim Paxton, I’ve now revisited Alfredo Salazer & Rafael Portillo‘s confection LA ISLA DE LOS DINOSAURIOS (1967) in all its glory, this time with English subtitles (I had seen it on vhs, but sans subtitles), and—wow, what an anachronism this must have been in its own time!

This marvelous caveman clunker made 80 minutes fly by while I had over a 100-degree fever, making this fever-dream undoubtably more pleasurable than it has any right to be. Undoubtably rushed out to cash in on Hammer‘s ONE MILLION YEARS B.C. (1966) in the Mexican market, Salazer & Portillo weave a complete film out of new footage inserted carefully into ONE MILLION B.C. caveman and lizard/dino footage, along with clips from NABONGA (1944) and a bit of Bert I. Gordon‘s KING DINOSAUR (1955), changing costumes as necessary to ensure as seamless integration as affordable.

Between Carole Landis‘s Loana and Raquel Welch‘s Loana, insert Alma Delia Fuentes as Laura, modern-day “mineralogist” who falls for caveman Molo (Armando Silvestre), in full Victor Mature/Tumak mode. Matriarchal Laura teaches Molo‘s tribe to revere Molo‘s mom, to love their children, and not to beat the living shit out of each other at dinner time, thanks to some Miss Manner‘s improvised flat-stone tableware and their first dose of etiquette.

The movie is quick as a shot getting its intrepid quartet of modern-day explorers to the “lost island” the Professor (Manuel Fábregas) speculates malingers in the Atlantic, uncharted and undiscovered; they’re there in six minutes flat, but it takes a whole hour before any of them but Lauraleave the camp long enough to see a single prehistoric monster.

In an early hilarious scene, Laura takes a piece of freshly-hammered-from-a-boulder rock and holds it over a geiger-counter-like device, which sets the meter needle rising, and she declares, “Ah! It’s prehistoric!” It’s geology like none practiced on this planet—except, perhaps, in the minds of low-budget filmmakers and Creationists. Ah, if only it had Lorena Velazquez as the female lead! Well, there is co-star Elsa Cárdenas as the chemist Esther; she dodges the KING DINOSAUR stock footage in the home stretch.

En route, yes, there are dinosaurs—thanks to Laura‘s wandering, all of ‘em lifted from ONE MILLION B.C. and KING DINOSAUR—and Ray Corrigan‘s gorilla outfit (I’m pretty sure those are snipped from Sam Newfield‘s chestnut NABONGA), ill-matched with a real rat-bag of a gorilla suit (to supplant the Allosaurus attack footage in ONE MILLION B.C.). It’s the most attentive recontextualization of ONE MILLION B.C. footage since UNTAMED WOMEN (1952), and that’s a compliment in my bunker.

Dino-buffs, don’t miss this one if you get the chance to see it; all other sane bipedal sentient beings, beware.

[Both of the above are revised and expanded from an April 18, 2012 Facebook post.]

Discussion (4) ¬

  1. patrick ford

    Last time I looked FEAR AND DESIRE was still up on u-tube. The print (which has Italian subtitles) is not horrible. As a Kubrick fan I loved the film. Thomas Allen Nelson had some interesting comments about the film in his excellent book KUBRICK: INSIDE A FILM ARTISTS MAZE.

    TAN: “Lieutenant Corby , the intellectual, discovers the fictitious nature of rationalism as he symbolically “kills” himself by killing his double.”

    “The themes of FEAR AND DESIRE crudely reflect a number of Kubrick’s later preoccupations, their expression resembles that youthful grab-bag of ’50s bohemian negativism”

    “FEAR AND DESIRE clearly demonstrates Kubrick’s talent for creating mental landscapes that alternate between grotesquerie and surrealistic beauty.”

  2. Gary Redman

    Just saw Fear & Desire for the first time this year on TCM. I read rumors earlier that some company (Kino?) was going to release this and Kubrick’s three shorts on Blu-ray later this year.

  3. patrick ford

    Exciting news Gary. I would love to see high quality prints of all four films.

  4. roberto Barreiro

    nobody has said than the mexican industry ever thought of their audience as thinking subjects. You gotta see the “singing charros” subgenre of Mexican movies.

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