Stanley Kubrick’s little-seen first feature opens with a terse establishing monologue, delivered by actor David Allen, setting up its story of four soldiers of “no other country by the mind” downed in a forest as a war rages around them. Released in 1953, Fear and Desire isn’t set during WWII or WWI, into which Kubrick would famously invest, four years later in Paths of Glory, a productive edge of anti-humanist cynicism; the conflict it depicts is, as the narrator states, “any war.”
He goes on: “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.” This is warfare at its sparsest and most brutal, a four-on-four skirmish between two opposing battalions that are mirror images of one another, literally: The same group of actors play both the waylaid troupe and the uniformed, jack-booted officers they define themselves against. (“We have met the enemy and he is us,” cartoonist Walt Kelly once wrote in a Pogo strip.) This may not be “our world,” in any strict, referential sense; it’s that “no-man’s land” non-space between enemy lines in Paths of Glory, or even closer the “world of shit” that Matthew Modine’s Pvt. Joker mentions in Full Metal Jacket: abstracted and absurd, bound only to its own topsy-turvy in-house logic.
Like Impolex, Alex Ross Perry’s shoestring riff on Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Kubrick’s impressive debut likewise transposes the iconography of war onto the psychic geography of the mind, less a continuous story than a sequence of Beckettian episodes. Fear and Desire loosely follows the four soldiers as they plot an attack on an enemy stronghold, scurrying through the brush to avoid detection, and constructing a makeshift, Tom Sawyer-ish river raft. Mostly, they wander through the woods, quietly quarrelling with one another, sometimes lapsing into stagey, over-effusive dialogue that does little to illuminate the character’s self-consciously tokenistic opacity, scanning as incidentally satirical with more than half a century’s hindsight. To wit: “No man is an island? Perhaps that was true a long time ago—before the ice age!” And: “Who else but me is buried under the chain of everything I ever did?”
In one of the film’s more clearly articulated episodes, the bushwhacked troops happen upon a peasant girl (Virginia Leith) and promptly take her hostage, strapping her to a tree and charging the shell-shocked Pvt. Sidney (a very young Paul Mazursky, in his first major film role) to guard her. Unlike the analogous scenario near the end of Paths of Glory, in which a captured German woman (Susanne Christian, Kubrick’s future wife) warbles to a beer hall packed with French soldiers, her wounded-bird vulnerability moving many of them to tears, Fear and Desire‘s female POW offers no reflection, her muteness and passivity gradually driving her appointed protector into a mad frenzy, expounding on the themes of Shakespeare’s The Tempest as his hollow-eyed prisoner attempts to avert her gaze. Leith’s detainee bears the traces of that Vietnamese sniper in Kubrick’s future anti-war film, Full Metal Jacket, begging for death as the swelling blood gurgles in her throat. Except here Kubrick is even more dogged, offering not so much a mercy killing as an execution stirred by an explosion of pent-up sexual aggression.
It does Kubrick, one of the medium’s entrenched high artists, no favors to overrate his debut. While the surrealist, pseudo-Buñuelian setup of Fear and Desire as a barebones, modernist imagining of a war film immediately impresses itself in its novelty, the constraints of Kubrick’s $50,000 micro budget and sparse, skeleton crew are all too apparent as the film begins to wander, adrift like its own marooned GIs. This essential formlessness is accentuated by Kubrick’s own shaggy, self-taught workmanship: disorienting cuts, crudely post-dubbed dialogue, rickety tracking shots (accomplished by mounting the camera to an old baby carriage), and proto-Lucasian transitional wipes that provide the film with the feel of an existential serial.
“We’ve all travelled too far from our own private boundaries,” a solider remarks, midway through the film, another one of those overly pithy snatches of dialogue-in-quotation-marks. Its director, too, seems similarly disoriented in places. Kubrick himself had described the film as a “bumbling amateur exercise.” Yet even in its shambling bagginess, Fear and Desire feels instructive, containing many of the themes the director would pick at throughout his career: the cynicism he brought to Paths of Glory, the mocking melodrama of Lolita, the satire and dark humor of Dr. Strangelove.
Despite the whole-hog freedom he was typically afforded, Kubrick always seemed to work well within the more institutionalized contexts of the studio system, not least of all due to the bottomless resources usually afforded to him. Fear and Desire is Kubrick unfettered, for better or worse, a direct line into his own psychic geography and creative-intellectual landscapes. Even if it infrequently avails itself as totally compelling beyond its “any war” premise, even this intellectualized setup on its own proves more imaginatively lucrative than the stiff, studio-financed war epics of the day.
Kino's Fear and Desire high-definition release has been transferred by the Library of Congress from a 35mm archival print, with little in the way of "digital restoration." Thankfully, the little-seen archival print seemed to be in fine shape, and its 1080p transfer is crisp. There are fluctuations in the video quality, which is expected given the age and rarity of the print. These minor deviations, still a massive improvement on existent DVD-R or bootleg VHS copies of the film, only work to pleasantly underscore the film's status as something of a "lost" artifact. The audio transfer is comparably serviceable, though there's no way around the awkwardness of the film's dubbed dialogue.
Nothing save for Stanley Kubrick's The Seafarers, a short documentary about the Seafarers International Union. Shot in color, the 1953 industrial movie is pretty standard industrial-marketing stuff, stocked with scenes of longshoreman shooting pool and smoking cigarettes. Of note, a cafeteria scene is filmed using the kind of extended dolly shot that would become a trademark of Kubrick's later work, providing you with the opportunity to annoy people when you're watching The Shining by comparing its lavish camera movements to those of a little-seen industrial doc.
The transfer and packaging seems fairly rote, but given the abundance of behind-the-scenes and biographical information available on Kubrick, there's no reason for Kino's welcome release of his impressive debut to feel like anything but an overdue, completists-only offering.