Vague Visages Is FilmStruck: Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Fear and Desire’

Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

“A lousy feature… very roughly, and poorly, and ineffectively made” … “Ineptly done” … “A bumbling amateur film exercise…a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” – Stanley Kubrick on Fear and Desire

Stanley Kubrick was no fan of his 1953 feature film debut, Fear and Desire. The above evaluations, taken from interviews given between 1960 and 1994, attest to that, as do his persistent efforts to practically disown the film and remove it from circulation. Made on the heels of two 1951 shorts — Day of the Fight and Flying Padre — Kubrick considered the low-budget war movie rather lacking, to say the least. Having started making movies on the basis of his interest in the medium and his conclusion that he could surely do no worse than some of the dreck routinely observed while theater-hopping Manhattan, his inaugural effort, as far as he was concerned, failed to meet even his own expectations.

While it is tempting to read into the film more than that which it actually offers up, make no mistake, Fear and Desire pales next to any of Kubrick’s following features, at least in terms of classically “Kubrickian” motifs, as a genre ancestor to his more acclaimed war films — Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) in particular– and in terms of overall quality. It does, however, promote the contemplation of certain war-related themes that would emerge throughout his career. In an unspecified time, during an unspecified war, the film follows four soldiers who have crash landed six miles behind enemy lines. Their goal is to cross the border safely, pass over a river and possibly take down a faction of the opposing force in the process. There is a fair amount to condense in just over an hour’s time, so the very early portions of Fear and Desire are a little heavy in expository dialogue, with the characters, primarily Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), laying out their seemingly dire state and ascertaining a clear plan for survival. Still, the talk about how they got where they are, what their status is and what they plan to do next is kept largely as a foundational description, which then allows Kubrick to spend the rest of the picture exploring the obviously more prescient topical concerns.

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Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

Counting Corby, Kubrick assembles a quartet of fairly standard war film types: the lieutenant as a positive, level-headed leader; Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera, star of Kubrick’s 1955 follow-up, Killer’s Kiss) as the cynic with a heart of gold; Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit), the go along to get along good ol’ boy; and Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky, in his screen debut) as the skittish greenhorn. The battle that serves as a background framework — “Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war”– is located in an indefinite milieu, one that is, according to the opening voiceover, “outside history,” in “no other country but the mind.” The ensuing chronicle thus skims over elements of convincing narrative fidelity in favor of a more generalized thesis. Once Kubrick confirms the situation of these men, Fear and Desire takes shape as a character study and allegorical deposition on wartime morality, individual merit and, perhaps most in line with Kubrick’s modus operandi, the battles waged — both large and small — for absolute control.

Peripheral shelling, heard continuously on the soundtrack, maintains a sonic sense of surrounding danger, but what more dramatically infuses the auditory component of Fear and Desire is its narration/commentary. Starting with a crackling cacophony that crowds the anxious musings of all four men in a combined frenetic vocal overlay, the voiceovers then break off into separate reflections. As something of a precursor to Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998), Kubrick has each of these men articulating, as the film’s title implies, their respective fears and desires, supplementing their ominous trek with an aural montage of concern, confusion and instability. They find themselves in unknown terrain, where power is inhibited, where they are victims to whatever other chance and where violent happenings most likely will occur. Despite this — indeed because of this — they sketch out a map in the dirt and work out a procedure for escape. In an uncontrolled position, as war and the methodologies of a soldier dictate, they attempt to attain the domination momentarily lost.

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Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

Kubrick’s acute photographic eye, honed since the age of 17 during his tenure at Look Magazine, soaks up the sun-kissed greenery of this undefined forest setting, the pleasantness betraying the danger (Corby jokingly comments that there is nothing like an afternoon outdoors in enemy territory). But thematically, the environment is also key. As Kubrick amply creates an atmosphere of apprehension, with a prevailing sense of powerlessness, the men literally try to regulate their surroundings. Using the cover of foliage to conceal themselves, taking the natural habitat and manipulating its features for the purpose of camouflage as well as a makeshift raft, their resourcefulness combats the initial helplessness and instead gives them the controlling upper hand in which the hostile environment is swayed in their favor.

As the four come upon an enemy cabin, they rush the place, killing three soldiers and eating their food (literally over their dead bodies). Kubrick shows the frenzied fight in the form of agonized hands mashing moistened bread and stew splattering on the floor like excoriated entrails. The arena of war — in reality and as continually defined by Kubrick — is marred by ugliness, cruelty and rapidly enacted, albeit often necessary, violence. But a level of self-control is also expected; there is a line, even if unspoken, that designates acceptable behavior. Fear and Desire constantly confronts this precarious battlefront decorum, stressing its tenuous condition. “We may be in the woods,” cautions the lieutenant when the beastly Mac chows down like a raging animal, devouring the meal that pours down his face, “but let’s try to remain civilized.”

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Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

Moving onward, the men happen upon three women by a river, their capacity for wartime decency now facing feminine temptation. Peering through the brush, they observe one young lady in particular as she walks away from the group. They capture the girl, played by Virginia Leith (also her film debut) and tie her to a tree; when Corby lustfully approaches, Mac sarcastically echoes the lieutenant’s own words about remaining civilized. As the other three men tend to their getaway, Sidney is left in charge of their detainee, which proves a disastrous decision. His playful jesting, done to put her at ease, instead devolves into an erratic, unnerving display, culminating in a twisted psychosexual confrontation. By comparison, the girl remains calm, cool and collected. Even when her mouth is uncovered, she does not scream. In fact, she barely struggles. She assesses her situation with an even temperament and remarkable restraint. A seemingly good-natured kid (and clearly scared), Sidney almost instantly becomes even more frightened and paranoid at the thought of the men leaving him behind. What starts as a reasonable fear turns to irrational insanity. Shot by Kubrick through intense close-ups emphasizing a distortion of normalcy, Sidney’s collapse is astonishing. He rambles incomprehensibly; he threatens one moment, pleads with the girl to like him the next. Shell-shocked like those in the trenches of Paths of Glory, the war has become too much for the boy and his discipline is devastated. When Mac arrives to find Sidney lying face down in the muck, mumbling and rambling about blood in the river and other illustrative significations of his breakdown, he flatly, accurately, concludes, “He’s gone out of his head.”

Save for the moment when his sexual impulses start to take hold (which he quickly subdues), Corby is composed as the status of his command insists. Rarely raising his voice or showing panic, he is the epitome of managerial control in the face of these challenging circumstances. The bullish Mac, on the other hand, begrudges Corby’s standing. When Corby speaks of computations, Mac, who argues it was the lieutenant’s “figuring that got us here in the first place,” meets him with derision. His general dislike and distrust of authoritative figures causes him to frequently act out against what he believes to be oppressive dictates. This begrudging spite goes beyond Mac’s disdain for his immediate superior, though. The rival general of unknown nationality in Fear and Desire functions as a symbolic figure for the men of lower rank — men like Mac, men keen to take down this personified power. Mac’s obsession with killing the general becomes more than just a step toward freedom — it is a grand move toward the usurping of authority. (Corby, who has apparently heard this all before, declares it is “hardly the time to become a revolutionary.”)

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Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

Such contempt also extends to Sidney, who mocks the enemy general (when trying to amuse the captured girl), comically portraying him as pompous, obtuse, and greedy — a caricature of The Man in Charge. In actuality, this general, though the embodied enemy, is as war-weary as the ostensible “good guys.” Shown in the shadows, his head downcast in his folded arms, he broods and muses fatalistic about wartime carnage: “Sometimes I look at these maps and wonder if my own grave isn’t being planned.” The fact that the general and his comrade are also played by Harp and Coit, respectively, suggests the overriding similarities between these dueling forces; no matter the side of opposition, the wages of war weigh heavily on all. A mirrored emotional and physical strain transcends identity and partisan alliance.

Written by Howard Sackler, Kubrick’s childhood friend, Fear and Desire is by no means a perfect film. There is some choppy cutting, the performances, though earnest, are often robotic, their exchanges stilted, and the dialogue and ambiance suffers from poor sound recording. Yet it is easy to excuse these technical lapses, for Kubrick was essentially a one-man band. “The entire crew of Fear and Desire consisted of myself as director, lighting cameraman, operator, administrator, make-up man, wardrobe, hairdresser, prop man, unit chauffer, et cetera,” he pointed out. With that in mind, this also makes his first feature, one typically written off, vitally important in terms of his biographical and professional evolution. Cultivating a reputation as one who strives for the utmost (unquestioned) control, Kubrick stated, “If you’re right, people realize it,” an obstinate confidence echoed in his autonomous declaration, “If you really wanna do it right you must do it yourself.”

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Fear and Desire Movie Essay - 1953 Stanley Kubrick Film

Looking at the film now, with more than 60 years of critical distance and an unparalleled body of work with which to connect the thematic and stylistic dots, Fear and Desire is more than just a curio for the Kubrick completist. It is indeed a genuinely revealing work. And it isn’t that bad at all.

Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.