Since the Ancient Greeks, conflict has been central to the performing arts. It is a subject that some modern filmmakers and playwrights (e.g. Antonioni, Wenders) have eschewed. But not Stanley Kubrick, who made it a central theme of his films. In war, obviously, but also in love, relationships and families, where the filmmaker sees war as continuing by other means. Testimony to this is found in Lolita, and especially in most of his later films: Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut.

Right from his very first work, Fear and Desire, produced on a restricted budget when he was just 25 years old, and one which he refused to allow to be screened while he was alive, he imagines an abstract war in a no man’s land between two groups of soldiers played by the same actors. An inelegant storyline with an overstated aim, he admitted that he was dissatisfied with both this and his following work, Killer’s Kiss, the only two of his films to be produced from original scripts. While asserting his personality all the more assuredly from then on, all of his remaining films would be literary adaptations.

Paths of Glory was the film that, in 1957, was to make Kubrick a household name. Set during the First World War, the German enemy is never portrayed, and the filmmaker endeavours instead to contrast the world of the château-dwelling French generals with that of the soldiers crouched in trenches, about to be thrust into bloody combat with no escape. Kubrick analyses the devious machinations of officers intent on a promised promotion, and the fate of the infantry, three of whom are to be executed to set an example. The choice of the First World War as a plot setting heralds Kubrick’s fascination with periods of historical crises in which the world is on the verge of a shift into a new era, driven nonetheless by its familiarly destructive impulses.

The slave revolt in Spartacus portrays the initial upheaval that was to shake the Roman Empire. Doctor Strangelove is a black comedy heralding the arrival of the nuclear era with the balance of fear and the possibility of an apocalypse. 2001: A Space Odyssey marks the beginnings of our conquest of space, featuring as its prologue the brutal fight for a water hole among tribes of apes, followed by the kid-gloved and antagonistic relations between the Russians and the Americans in the context of the Cold War, and the rise of a machine against man, akin to Frankenstein’s monster. Barry Lyndon and his methodical duelling portray the twilight years of 18th century society in the lead-up to the French Revolution, terror and the end of the world. Full Metal Jacket provides a merciless portrayal of the Vietnam War, the first historic failure for the US.

Marked by Freud and the re-emergence of repression, Kubrick’s vision is clear and pessimistic, far from Rousseau’s theory of the natural goodness of man corrupted by civilization. In his films, no thin veneer can protect us from the drive towards death and aggression instilled within human beings. His narratives are intended as a warning, his scalpel revealing the deep wounds of the individual. As the 20th century has taught us, advances in intelligence, technology and science do little to shield us from massacre and genocide.

Michel Ciment

Attend the master class given by Michel Ciment on Friday 2 October at 7 pm before the screening of Full Metal Jacket. 

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