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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Unknown Soldiers
by Donald Levit

It was a new film in 1953 and from a fledgling director. Thus the inclusion of Fear and Desire as of historical interest, in Lincoln Center/MoMA’s forty-first New Directors/New Films “by emerging artists from around the world.” Hardly a shining example from Stanley Kubrick, who got it suppressed for years, it is nevertheless an amateurish ur-Paths of Glory and a sort of pre-sequel to Full Metal Jacket.

Following two non-fiction shorts for RKO-Pathé, the twenty-five-year-old raised money among family and friends for the narrative anti-war allegory co-written with high school classmate poet and later Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Howard Sackler. Kubrick served as photographer (and manually loaded the cameras) and did editing, sound and lighting as well, and thus, although some visuals are striking chiaroscuro, the seventy-two minutes still comes across as tyro self-conscious, a belaboring of theme by one not yet sure of his art.

Additional digital restoration is planned by the Library of Congress, which did not acquire the deteriorating 35mm print until forty years afterwards, from of all places the now-defunct Archive of Puerto Rico, indicative of lack of outside interest coupled with the director’s dissatisfaction. His later, famous if controversial work, done from an England to which he moved in search of more control after Spartacus, exhibits tighter, less obvious “messages” but is overall no more pessimistic and sardonic than this first work.

The film relies too often on omniscient narration or, especially, thoughts voiced over medium facial close-ups instead of dialogue. And, supervised by speech coach and the director’s first wife Toba Metz, the delivery and lines themselves are stilted, pseudo-existential musings on this particular situation and on man’s in general. The non-dramatic flatness is also in part owing to the shoestring-budget actors beginning their careers.

Stranded by a plane crash six miles behind enemy lines, three soldiers in camouflage fatigues and their officer need to make it back to safety. Cynical Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) dryly scolds the men for having lost their rifles in the accident, leaving his service revolver as their sole weapon while they reach the dividing river and build a raft (which elicits reference to Huckleberry Finn).

The country of the four G.I. look-alikes is unmentioned, as are those of the Nazi look-alikes and, indeed, the whole war and location. But the Everyman group is familiar: the world- and war-weary officer; Mac (Frank Silvera), the capable sergeant who wants to accomplish something worthwhile before returning home, or not, to a humdrum radio-repairman existence; Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit), with a rural drawl and not much imagination; and young Sidney (a debuting Paul Mazursk), who has lost his helmet and is about to lose his wits from battle stress and fatigue.

The four are forced to capture an unconvincingly clean peasant fisherwoman (Virginia Leith), who attracts Sidney as a sexual beauty mixed with a mother-and-home figure. While he attempts to amuse her with unconscious paraphrases of Shakespeare’s also allegorical romantic comedy The Tempest, Lieutenant Corby goes in for heavier, sophomorically pedantic sermonizing, in a turning upside-down of Donne’s interconnectedness of all in the face of death.

However, all men are indeed connected, for they happen across enemy headquarters, where the world- and war-weary general, ash-blonde or prematurely white, is also played by Harp, his captain by Coit, and his pet hound “Lieutenant” Proteus (the shape-changer) had earlier strayed into the lost group of four.

Weary, too, but of his superior’s philosophical flatulence, Max wants to go after that enemy commander, even if that demands the supreme sacrifice, which to him is justification for the individual, as opposed to movies’ traditional patriotic national group glory.

The vagaries of combat and other extreme situations, and the haphazard chances of who survives and who does not, have been better defined by others such as the equally young ironist Stephen Crane. Detractors claim that Kubrick’s films are pedantic and emotionally non-involving. Both criticisms are valid for this first work, originally titled “The Trap” or “Shape of Fear.” Despite some audience laughs, however, it is worth catching as a raw statement of motifs which were to pervade the Bronx native’s career.

(Released by Kino Lorber; not rated by MPAA.)

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