Fear and Desire: Scattered Traces of Genius

When you hear the name Stanley Kubrick, you think 2001: A Space Odyssey, you think A Clockwork Orange, you think The Shining, but you most certainly do not think Fear and Desire. Released in 1953, and financed mostly by a wealthy uncle, Kubrick’s first attempt at film-making is an oddity to say the least. The legendary director himself called it “a serious effort, ineptly done” and “a presumptuous failure”. Kubrick never missed any chance to bash his hour-long debut, often citing that it’s not a film he remembers with any pride, except for the fact that it was finished. But while it may not be the masterpieces he later created, Fear and Desire is still a Kubrick film, and hints of his genius are scattered throughout the movie.

The story revolves around four soldiers, who after their plane crashes, find themselves way behind enemy lines with no way out. “There is war in this forest, not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war”, the movie starts off with the narrator reciting these lines, and the picture soon shifts into the four soldiers in the middle of this forest. As fear kicks in, they decide to build a raft and use a river to escape. But after doing so, they encounter a girl and take her hostage and that’s when the horrors of war kick in. Each one of the four protagonists has a different response to the situation they’re forced into, responses that vary from composed and systematical, to insane and desperate.

Young Stanley Kubrick was working as a photographer for Look magazine until he decided to create a film at the age of twenty-four. A wealthy uncle financed the film, and a number of odd characters made up the cast. The film was anything but a box-office success and Kubrick never complained about that as he despised the movie. He later sought and bought prints of the film, and destroyed them as well as the original negative, and it wasn’t until the film’s copyright lapsed and the property was in the public domain that it was shown again, specifically at a film festival in 1993.

Is Fear and Desire a typical Kubrick film? Yes and no. From a technical perspective, the film is no feat, but that’s no wonder, since it had a very limited budget. The lightning is restrained, the locations are very few, and the voice dubbing is imperfect to say the least. What makes it a Kubrick film however is its photography and the themes it treats. The film is basically divided into two intertwined parts, the protagonists’ interactions with each other, and with themselves. War has a different effect on each one of them, for Pvt. Sydney, it results in compassion, compassion that may have been portrayed a bit perversely, but compassion nonetheless; for Sgt. Mac, it creates a feeling of loyalty and patriotism, which leads him to organize a plan to assassinate an enemy general; while the lieutenant’s only obsession for the majority of the film is to escape safely. There are several highly uncomfortable, and even disturbing, scenes throughout the movie, in the first few minutes, the four soldiers are walking through the forest, and their inner monologues are played at the same time, which really emphasizes the theme of the horrors of war, while in another scene, Pvt. Sydney is left alone with the girl, and he performs what might have been a 50’s euphemism of an act of rape.

Fear and Desire is a brilliant movie in many aspects, it treats war in a very beautiful and human way, but not without compromise. Its technical difficulties and often uneven acting may prove difficult to watch for even the biggest film buff, but look over the rough package, and you will undoubtedly see a Kubrick film. Should it be the first film by this legendary director you see? Probably not, but it’s still worth a watch, even just for the fact that Stanley didn’t want you to see it.


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