Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR & DESIRE (1953)

This article is an excerpt from “The Early Independent Features”, our first episode on Stanley Kubrick.

Aspiring directors making their first features under scrappy, shoestring budgets and/or a shallow pool of production resources is a grand tradition within the art of cinema.  Oftentimes, directors’ first films are their most electrifying—a shrill cry of independence and assertion of artistic existence wrought from a primal desire for expression.  Scorsese, Coppola, Cassavettes, Lynch, Malick…. any major director born after World War 2 that you could think of, odds are they have a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges feature at the beginning of their filmographies (with Cassavettes in particular, that’s pretty much ALL you’d find).  All of those films– and their maverick makers—owe a debt of gratitude to what could perhaps be considered the original indie debut, Stanley Kubrick’s FEAR AND DESIRE (1953).

Kubrick’s body of work needs no introduction—indeed, he intentionally deprived us of one by writing off his debut feature as a “bumbling amateur exercise” and barring it from public exhibition.  He was a director who valued total artistic control over all else, and he would rather have the film world’s first true taste of his talent be something much more polished, like 1955’sKILLER’S KISS.  However, time has shown that Kubrick himself served as his own worst critic when it came to passing final judgment on FEAR AND DESIRE—the film certainly has its share of major flaws, make no mistake, but today’s critics regard it not as an albatross, but as an intellectual curiosity that exposes Kubrick’s vulnerabilities while establishing a platform for future greatness.

FEAR AND DESIRE started out like any other new film project from a burgeoning young director—pregnant with optimistic hopes, excitement, and visions of greatness.  Just twenty-five years old at the time, Kubrick quit his job as a photographer at Look Magazine to focus on the project full-time, acquiring the financing when his father cashed in his life insurance policy and his uncle chipped in some earnings from his pharmaceutical business.  Kubrick recruited Howard Sackler, a high school classmate and aspiring poet, to write the screenplay (which probably accounts for the ham-fisted internal monologue voiceovers that pervade the film).  Kubrick shot the film silently as a way to stretch his meager $13,000 budget, but he hadn’t planned on the expensive necessity of redubbing the actors’ lines in a studio.  Kubrick was initially proud of his completed first feature, with critics at the time praising the young directors evident promise and talent if not the film itself.

However, as Kubrick developed as an artist, he came to see FEAR AND DESIRE as an embarrassment, denouncing it as such in public interviews and burying any possibility of further public screenings by burning the negative.  For decades, FEAR AND DESIRE was touted as Kubrick’s “lost” film, and the only way to see it was via the Kubrick estate or, more recently, a poor-quality VHS bootleg (with Italian subtitles) that was uploaded to Youtube.  Thankfully for us—and unfortunately for Kubrick—a print was found recently in the George Eastman Kodak archives and restored to its original glory and released publicly through Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress.  While the ethics of going against the wishes of a deceased filmmaker is another conversation unto itself, FEAR AND DESIRE is nonetheless an important document in the history of cinema that should be preserved.

Set in an unnamed country during an unnamed conflict, Kubrick’s approach to FEAR AND DESIRE uses the generic idea of combat to better access the psychological underpinnings that fascinate him.  The story begins when a combat plane crashes in the mountains, and a small squadron of four men must find their way back home safely.  Complicating matters is the fact they’re miles behind enemy lines without any gear, food, or weapons.  As they follow the riverbanks towards home, they encounter a lovely native girl, who they tie to a tree so she can’t escape and reveal their presence to the enemy (whose base they’d discovered during a scout).  When one of the squad members loses his self-control and forces himself on the girl– only to kill her as she makes her escape– the squadron recognizes the sincere existential threat of their situation.  With mounting desperation, the squadron comes up with a plan to make a last-ditch escape that involves stealing one of the enemy base’s airplanes while leaving behind one of their own to distract guards by firing on them from the river.  As the squadron sets its plan into motion and storms the enemy base, they are confounded to find that the enemy general and his soldiers are their exact look-alikes, further deepening the existential mystery at the heart of FEAR AND DESIRE.

Kubrick’s cast is comprised mainly of unknowns, headed up by Kenneth Harp as Lieutenant Korby and Frank Silvera as Sergeant Mac.  Korby is styled in the vein of the traditional romantic hero archetype common in midcentury American cinema— confident and virtuous, but ultimately quite vanilla and devoid of any sort of edge.  Silvera imbues Sergeant Mac with another archetype—the gruff and tough military man, disgruntled by his long experience in the armed forces.  Paul Mazursky, who would later go on to become a film director in his own right, plays Private Sidney—a squirrely young recruit who is so affected by his transgressions against Virginia Leith’s Native Girl that he ultimately goes mad (think shades of the Renfield character in DRACULA).  Finally Stephen Coit plays a small, rather unobtrusive role as Private Fletcher, the fourth member of the squadron.

In a move befitting a shoestring-budget indie feature, Kubrick performed most of the duties of a film crew himself, with only his wife, Toba Metz, serving as script supervisor, Herbert Lebowitz working as the production designer, and a crew of Mexican day laborers acting as impromptu grips.  In the beginning development of his penchant for total control, Kubrick served as his own cinematographer and editor, shooting the film in black and white mostly for budgetary reasons, but also because he could maximize his experience in lighting for black and white so as to achieve more of a “professional” look.  Kubrick and company shot in southern California’s San Gabriel mountains, their shooting style severely limited by a lack of resources.  Special effects were improvised with unconventional equipment, like a crop sprayer that was used for smoke and fog (which naturally made the cast and crew violently ill), or a baby carriage standing in for a dolly.  Kubrick’s eye, for the most part, is quite competent and is able to recognize compelling framing.  However, it’s evident that the young filmmaker hadn’t quite grasped the concept of eyelines and spatial geometry.  This translates to a rather jarring and incoherent edit, where Kubrick routinely cuts away to close-ups that are framed in awkward angles or brazenly cross the 180 degree line.  When combined with a thick layer of overwrought, existential voiceover that tries hard at sounding “profound” only to come off as hackneyed and trite, it’s easy to see why Kubrick would strive so hard to keep FEAR AND DESIRE from being seen by mass audiences.

Childhood friend Gerald Fried, who provided the music for Kubrick’s first newsreel shorts DAY OF THE FIGHT and FLYING PADRE (1951), composed the score for FEAR AND DESIRE, utilizing a bombastic, orchestral sound headlined by an elegiac oboe as a recurring motif.  Low, arrhythmic drums rumble like distant thunder, indicating far-off battles and keeping the tension on a simmer.  Kubrick would later be well known for his musical taste, but his scrappy beginnings here don’t show any notable evidence in that regard.

Despite being something of a crash-course in feature filmmaking for the young auteur, several of Kubrick’s long-running thematic explorations make their first appearance in FEAR AND DESIRE.  Kubrick’s main fascination was the deconstruction of the human condition, rooting out and exploiting those primal forces that compel us to act for– or against– our fellow man.    He was most interested, ultimately, in what makes us “human” and how fragile and tenuous those circumstances really are.  Violence and sex, admittedly, are two polar extremes in the spectrum of human experience, and two of the most potent, uncontrollable forces we will experience in our own lifetimes.  Kubrick would later go on to explore the psychological nature of warfare and combat to much greater degrees in films like PATHS OF GLORY (1957) or FULL METAL JACKET (1987), but FEAR AND DESIRE serves as our first true taste into Kubrick’s mentality towards violence.  As it stands, the violence is FEAR AND DESIRE is rather surface-level, but Kubrick films it in a particularly expressionistic, impactful, way.  One memorable instance occurs halfway through the film when the squadron storms a small guard outpost and kills the guards within.  Instead of showing us the explicit act of a knife sliding into the belly of a hapless soldier, Kubrick shows us an extreme close-up of the orange the soldier had been eating prior to being unexpectedly ambushed.  His fist squeezes the orange ever tighter until it bursts, spilling juice all over his hand and the floor.  Frankly, it’s hard to think of a more graceful and fitting way to communicate the traumatic explosion of a soul as it’s extinguished against its will.

The other thematic pole– sexuality—again better explored in later films like  A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971) and EYES WIDE SHUT (1999), receives the most examination in FEAR AND DESIRE during the sequence with the Native Girl tied to a tree.  Kubrick makes his audience complicit with Private Sidney’s most primitive instincts and desires by repeatedly cutting to close-ups of The Girl’s lips, eyes, hands, etc.  Kubrick casts each body part in the harsh light of the male gaze, and it is this same sexuality that The Girl uses to free herself from her bonds and make her ill-fated escape.

The consequences of this development cause Private Sidney to lose himself in the grips of madness, which is yet another big theme present throughout Kubrick’s work: dehumanization and mankind’s mental frailty against forces that are much larger than them, forces which are more often than not supernatural in origin.  In FEAR AND DESIRE, for instance, the squadron encounters their look-alikes at the enemy base, which references the folklore of dopplegangers.  The subsequent murder of their look-alikes at their own hands throws the surviving members of the squadron into an existential funk at the end of the film, where they ruminate on the true cost of warfare and whether they can ever truly bring themselves back from the brink they experienced behind enemy lines.  Admittedly, the use of dopplegangers to convey this rather trite philosophical idea screams “film school”, but Kubrick’s sheer commitment to the idea makes it effective.

The release of FEAR AND DESIRE came amid a tumultuous period of Kubrick’s life.  He had divorced Toba Metz shortly after production wrapped, and by this point had remarried to an Austrian-born dancer and theatrical designer named Ruth Sobotka.  The finished feature was well-received by critics of the day, who offered much more generous praise than the film probably deserved, but it fell far short in what the industry considers “true” success: box office.  Shortly after its release, Kubrick would grow mortified of its shortcomings and suppressed any further release of the film by burning the negative and prohibiting the public exhibition of any bootleg copies or prints.  Long considered all but lost, prints of the film began popping up in archival vaults—the most famous case of which was its discovery inside the George Eastman House vaults.  These bootleg prints began to circulate among film circles, helped by the fact that FEAR AND DESIRE had entered into the public domain and couldn’t be recalled by its owner any further.  After a long existence locked away in dark basements and vaults, FEAR AND DESIRE is now widely available to the filmgoing public and serves as the intriguing, long-denied introduction to one of the greatest filmographies to ever grace our screens.

FEAR AND DESIRE is currently available in high definition Blu Ray via Kino Lorber and the Library of Congress.


Produced by: Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Howard Sackler

Director of Photography: Stanley Kubrick

Production Designer: Herbert Lebowitz

Editing by: Stanley Kubrick

Music by: Gerald Fried