So loathed by Stanley Kubrick that the legendary director reportedly confiscated all existing copies to keep it out of circulation, Fear and Desire proves a modest, if relatively promising, 1953 debut for the late auteur, touching on his trademark themes via the allegorical tale of soldiers shot down behind enemy lines in an unnamed country in an unspecified time. Kubrick’s story, penned by Howard Sackler, is deliberately vague with regard to nationalities and politics so that its focus can remain squarely on the psychological turmoil of its characters, a ragtag quartet that includes ruminative Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), gruff Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera), meek Private Fletcher (Stephen Colt), and sensitive Private Sidney (future filmmaker Paul Mazursky)—men whose narrated internal monologues articulate, with frequent pretentiousness, Kubrick’s investigation of the thin line between civilization, animalism, and madness. As a first-time effort, it’s a film that contains just enough promise to suggest the brilliance to come from Kubrick. Still, that hardly makes it much more than a footnote of sorts, less interesting for its drama or style than as a work to be surveyed like an archaeological site that contains the early form-and-content ideas later expanded on in 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and Full Metal Jacket.
Kubrick’s aesthetic perfectionism had not, at this early age, reached the levels that would increasingly—and somewhat notoriously—come to dominate his later output, and at times the film has a scraggliness that’s hard not to slander as amateurish; the editing in particular can at times be slack and disjointed, and his few transitional wipes strive to look more “professional” than they actually do. Nonetheless, there are moments of striking filmmaking throughout Fear and Desire, from the soldiers breaking into a cabin and confronting an enemy that’s visualized as a montage of pummeling fists, snarling faces, and a hand desperately clenching a mush of stew, to a later sequence in which a captured riverbank woman (Virginia Leith) is tied to a tree and forced to endure the advances of an increasingly deviant—and loony, as indicated by his impersonations of comrades—Sidney. Meanwhile, the sight of Mac gulping down his murdered foe’s stew so hungrily that it pours down his face proves a blistering image of man’s ferocious bestiality, unconcerned with propriety or refinement, just as Sidney’s own craziness leads him to not just imagine himself as The Tempest‘s magician Prospero, but also a bird.
Fear and Desire‘s ambition too often exceeds its execution, with brief flashes of artistry coexisting with literary pontificating and dull symbolism. Whereas Kubrick’s close-ups have a stark intensity and his finale captures existential dread via a river raft drifting aimlessly through fog, his tale’s drama is undercut by the wannabe-profundity of the characters’ incessant thoughts about life, death and the search for meaning amidst a world that seems to offer nothing but darkness. To hear the lieutenant ruminate on human nature as he gazes at his dead adversaries (“No man is an island. Perhaps that was true long ago, before the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands. Parts of a world of islands only.”) is, regardless of such sentiments’ relationship to Kubrick’s career-long worldview, to endure philosophizing of a blunt sort.
And yet, for all its heavy-handed gloom and stylistic unevenness, Fear and Desire has a certain fierceness that’s hard to shake. It’s a film consumed by conviction (specifically, the belief that man is a creature whose animalism is held at bay only by the flimsy tethers of social constructs), even if it’s one not quite artistically capable of fully grappling with it.