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With a wealth of Vietnam-based films hitting the market in the mid-‘80s, fans were eager to see how their favorite auteur would address the subject. Deciding to adapt the novel The Short-Timers by Gustav Hasford, he hoped to take a neither pro nor anti war approach. While the book argued for the everyday issues of the fighting man, Kubrick once again heighten reality by turning the first half of the film into a study in mental instability while the second part played around with the notions of life on the line. From a visual standpoint, the England as South Carolina/Asian landscape is spectacular. As a narrative, it’s an unusual journey into Hell.
It was no secret that Kubrick always wanted to make a Napoleon Bonaparte biopic with either David Hemmings or Jack Nicholson as his star. When two other Russian themed epics “failed”, the studio cancelled the project. Angered, he would return to the era with this languid, lovely look at an 18th century Irish gambler and social climber. Filmed on meticulously recreated sets and utilizing a camera technique that featured only natural light, the movie often plays like a documentary lifted directly from the era. While some critics have harped on the naturalistic pace and lack of real dramatics, over time it has become one of the director’s revered works… and rightfully so.
Having remembered reading Humphrey Cobbs’ stirring anti-war novel as a kid, Kubrick set about bringing the book to the big screen. The story, about a group of innocent French soldiers executed for cowardice (as an example of the other less than eager fighting men) had already been an unsuccessful play, but the filmmaker saw something important in the “rule by example” idea. With Hollywood star Kirk Douglas in the lead and cold Bavarian locations for a backdrop, Kubrick immersed himself in the material, beginning the process of perfectionism and meticulousness that would come to define the rest of his career.
Perhaps the most contentious movie of Kubrick’s entire career, this lighting rod of social commentary and reaction resulting in death threats to the director and the film being pulled from distribution in Britain. It would not be seen again for almost three decades. Many didn’t like the liberties taken with Anthony Burgess’ dystopian diatribe about youth violence and government control. Some couldn’t handle the graphic sex and violence. For Kubrick, this fascinating bit of future shock allowed him to once again indulge in the kind of precise political satire he had explored previously. In this case, however, the message was more gut wrenching than side splitting and stands as one of his purest, most precise visions.
Leave it to Kubrick to come up with a way of making the growing nuclear arms race between the United State and Russia hilarious and still horrifying. As yet another potent anti-war statement (a real theme throughout much of his career), this farcical Fail Safe took on all targets: the military; the industrial complex it created; the madmen behind the scenes; the politicians in power; the bumbling bureaucrats; the soldiers struggling to keep sane. About as bleak as a black comedy can get and still remain likeable, it represents Kubrick at his complicated best. It’s funny and frightening, as current as a criticism can get while still true to the genres it is deconstructing.
Stanley Kubrick was never afraid to use his films to speak to the big picture issues and here, he addresses the most massive one of all: man’s place in the entire cosmic order. Originally planned as an attempt at “serious science fiction”, this collaboration with forward thinking author Arthur C. Clarke went through many significant stages, from pure thriller to unmanageable mindf*ck. With his meticulous post-production pliability, and a wealth of intriguing footage to work with, Kubrick confounded expectations and delivered the first interstellar treatise on humanity and its purpose in the universe. From evolution to extraterrestrials, he never deviated from his goal. The results continue to resonate among the stars.
// Notes from the Road
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