Anyone who knows me knows that I practically worship Stanley Kubrick. He had, and still has after his death, one of the most powerful and unique voices in film. Like all great directors, even he had to start somewhere. After making some short documentaries and being a photographer for Look, Kubrick decided it was time for him to tackle a feature film. This first feature film is an anti-war movie called Fear and Desire. This is by far Kubrick’s weakest film, and that’s completely understandable. The best reasons to really watch this movie are to see techniques that Kubrick would later perfect and also to admire the effort put into making a movie so independently.
During an unspecified war between unspecified countries four soldiers are stranded 6 miles behind enemy lines. Their commanding officer, Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), decides their best bet would be to build a raft and wait until nightfall to ride it downriver to safety. After a while, a local woman (Virginia Leith) stumbles upon them building their raft and must be held captive so she doesn’t alert enemy soldiers. As the day goes on, the youngest soldier, Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky) begins having a breakdown and slowly goes insane. Things get even more complicated when it is discovered that an enemy general is lodged in a cabin right near the river and, as soldiers, it is their duty to eliminate the threat. All of these factors stacked up make it seem like these four soldiers may never get out of there alive.
Before I even start, that has to be one of the most inaccurate theatrical posters I’ve ever seen. That’s not with this about, so I digress. It’s almost hard to call Fear and Desire a feature film because it’s only an hour long, and being just an hour long it doesn’t really have much of a story. There’s a couple different things that happen to the soldiers and their main goal is to escape enemy territory. It’s completely fine if a movie is light on story so that it can explore certain themes and development, but there’s never much time to do that. The most interesting character is Pvt. Sidney since he has some real tragic development, which in turn supports Kubrick’s stance on what the evils of war can do to a normal person.
For all the shortcomings this movie has, it’s very interesting to watch and see certain things that Kubrick would later utilize in his other movies. First of all, the overall anti-war message and its effects on people can clearly be seen in his later war films Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. The violence in this movie is also pretty unflinching. Of course it isn’t as graphic as later movies, but there’s nothing glamorized about it. Wanna people are shot, they don’t really fall like they’re in a movie from the 1950s. They hit the ground hard and without any kind of dramatic flair. I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but that’s what I feel. There’s also strange close ups and angles that seem to distort reality, which is a trick that Kubrick was known for using at length in films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. Stuff like this make Fear and Desire fun to watch.
As the years went on, Kubrick came to hate this movie and it wasn’t until the last few years that it was made readily public. He described it as a kids drawing that you hang on the refrigerator, and I think that’s a pretty harsh sentiment. He made it his mission to destroy the copies that exist or lock them away, which was the case for a very long time. This movie didn’t do very well at the box office when it was released which meant that Kubrick had to take on the job of making a short documentary called The Seafarers for the Seafarer’s International Union, which is also now available on the Kino release of Fear and Desire.
Fear and Desire is most definitely Kubrick’s first film, and I don’t mean that because it’s a historically accurate statement. I’m saying it because it has all of the makings of a Stanley Kubrick movie, but it just hasn’t all been fully realized yet. This is an interesting movie in the sense that it’s the beginning of an amazing career. The movie itself is pretty lackluster and not too memorable, but there are some pretty intense scenes that don’t seem like they belong in the early 1950s. Any Kubrick fan sort of has to watch this movie, but if you’re looking for a war movie that will really hold your attention, stick with Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket.