Review: Fear and Desire (1953)

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It is reported that Stanley Kubrick hated Fear and Desire, his first feature, and worked to suppress public viewings of the film after its initial release, which tells us something about Kubrick’s mindset and development as a filmmaker. At the same time, Fear and Desire is not only significant because of Kubrick’s later rejection of the film. The message might be too obvious and some of the formal elements are clunky, but Fear and Desire is nevertheless a formally and thematically intriguing first feature. However, it is the kind of movie that I cannot recommend for the general viewer: this is a work for Kubrick fans and mid-century arthouse aficionados only.

Fear and Desire is about a party of four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in a forested, mountainous region. They have to make their way down a river to get back to their side, but their hasty capture of a young civilian woman and their discovery of an enemy general in a small nearby airstrip complicate their plans. The narrative is deliberately symbolic. Although the Korean War of the early 1950s was likely in Kubrick’s mind when conceiving Fear and Desire, an omniscient narrator informs the audience at the start of the movie that this could be any war, these could be any soldiers:

There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being. This forest, then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear—and doubt—and death—are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.

The film is thematically ambitious yet simplistic in its overt interests. The allegorical design is intriguing but, with such framing narration, it’s also overstated. This raises the question of whether Kubrick recognized this defect in the film and accordingly altered his approach to themes in later works, moving towards greater detachment and irony. As a story, the movie fails to maintain the viewer’s interest; it’s only compelling in pieces rather than as a whole.

One interesting choice is the voice-over narration from multiple characters, as they reveal their fears and desires in interior monologues. The approach is on-the-nose and contrived in execution, but it’s an intriguing experiment that anticipates the depth and complexity of Terrence Malick’s use of internal monologue in the war genre in The Thin Red Line (1998).

Produced for somewhere between $10,000 and $50,000 (reports vary), Kubrick served as cinematographer and editor in addition to director and producer. As a first film, there are some technical choices that are either deficient in execution or poorly chosen. In particular, the film frequently breaks the 180-degree rule, but without apparent reason. If Kubrick was choosing to do so in order to disorient the viewer, it works, but it also seems slipshod, rather than conscious and planned. The frequent use of close-up shots is more effective, and reminds me of the work of Carl Theodor Dreyer in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and other silent films.

The editing is also a mixed bag. Some of the cuts seem delayed and awkward, but other times Kubrick constructs brilliant montages, particularly the party’s attack on a hut, which rapidly intercuts close-ups of attackers’ and victims’ faces with agonized hands and destroyed objects. The victims’ hands crushing the food they were recently eating and the spilled bowls are vivid images and capture the horror of killing without the common use of blood or gore to horrify. It’s also another example of how the film seems to formally hearken back to silent films. Apparently, Kubrick initially planned to make the film silent to keep costs down, but later changed his mind.

The acting can be overwrought, playing as the work of stage players who haven’t toned down their acting, still playing to the cheap seats at the back instead of for the abundance of close-ups. The lead commander, Kenneth Harp, has perhaps the most mid-century American “officer-like” voice I’ve ever heard. The young Paul Mazursky, who later became a director, plays the young soldier who loses his mind, but it’s a pretty overdone affair. Frank Silvera, who plays the gruff Mack, does a better job of seeming like a real human being. The constraints of an ultra-low budget meant that the five players play everyone, which actually contributes to one of film’s themes: that “the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless we call them into being.” Already in Fear and Desire, Kubrick’s interest in war more as an internal conflict is present.   

Kubrick, ever the expert photographer, captures a few artfully composed shots. Early on, the soldiers walk across the screen on march. Two dark trees trunks stand as pillars on either side. Another cuts across. It’s the kind of perfect framing that became his hallmark. It’s also an example of how, despite Kubrick’s efforts to suppress the film, Fear and Desire is more Kubrick than he perhaps ever wanted to admit.

6 out of 10

Fear and Desire (1953, USA)

Directed by Stanley Kubrick; written by Howard Sackler; starring Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky, Stephen Coit, Virginia Leith, and David Allen.