Fear and Desire (1952)
ENEMY TERRITORY: Fear and Desire
By Christian Lorentzen
Stanley Kubrick on the set of Fear and Desire (1952)
Stanley Kubrick was 24 years old when he made Fear and Desire in 1952. He was an autodidact who barely graduated high school and never went to college and, by this time, a former staff photographer for Look magazine with a few documentary shorts to his name. He financed his first feature largely with a loan from his uncle, a pharmacist. A budget of around $10,000, according to Kubrick, ballooned in post-production to costs of about $53,000, and the young director was bailed out by producer Richard de Rochemont in return for his work on a television series about President Lincoln. Fear and Desire premiered at the Venice Film Festival under the title Shape of Fear (an earlier title was The Trap), received warm if somewhat condescending reviews, and gained the admiration of James Agee and Mark Van Doren. (Kubrick cut about ten minutes from the film between Venice and its New York opening at Rockefeller Center in 1953; those have now been restored, so in a way we are watching Shape of Fear for the first time in 71 years.) After the distributor died suddenly mid-release, the film went out of circulation. It was also out of copyright and in the public domain. Revivals in the mid-1990s based on the few remaining collectors’ prints were discouraged by Kubrick himself, who called Fear and Desire “a bumbling amateur film exercise” in a letter released by his publicist at Warner Brothers.
Set against the rest of his works, that judgment is hard to deny. He lacked the resources for an elaborate production. Tracking shots were done with a baby carriage. The cast was small and inexperienced, with two actors in dual roles. Paul Mazursky—then a college student, later the director of An Unmarried Woman (1978) and Moscow on the Hudson (1984)—was paid $100 a week for his part as Private Sidney. The script was written by Howard Sackler, a high school classmate of Kubrick’s who would later win a Pulitzer Prize for his play The Great White Hope; the dialogue mixes hard-nosed cynicism, naked desperation, and pretentious existentialism (take for example, the lieutenant’s voiceover monologue considering whether “every man is an island”). Kubrick’s photography in Fear and Desire, particularly his close-ups of faces, has been praised from its release, but even its latter-day champions tend to see it as a fascinating attempt at mimicking Russian expressionism that foreshadows finer achievements to come. Pauline Kael said the director was right to repress it as juvenilia and that his true career began with The Killing in 1956. Even the anti-lyrical title is comically basic: what non-comedy from the black-and-white era couldn’t fly under the name Fear and Desire—Casablanca (1942)? Gilda (1946)? The Hitch-Hiker (1953)?
Fear and Desire (1952)
So, like its characters, Fear and Desire is a sort of fugitive film, disowned by its maker and shrugged off by one of the country’s most prominent critics. Viewed outside of Kubrick’s career, which it hardly ever is, it’s a powerful anti-war film, in that it shows the ways war turns ordinary men into murderers and turns them against themselves. Four soldiers find themselves stranded in enemy territory after their plane crashes. There are Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera), Private Fletcher (Steve Coit), and Private Sidney. Corby is ironic, pragmatic, and patrician. Mac is a gritty grunt whose survivalist mentality takes a self-sacrificing heroic swerve. Sidney is the raw recruit who cracks up. They build a raft and abandon it, capture a native peasant girl (Virginia Leith in a sublime single-syllable performance), and stage a pair of ambushes against the enemy. Released at the time of the Korean War and shot in the San Gabriel Mountains of California, the film presents itself in an opening voiceover as an abstract tale, set in no specific time or place but only in “the mind.” It partakes less of the valor associated with filmic depictions of World War II or of the paranoia of movies about the Korean War than it does of the spirit that would come to animate many retrospective visions of the Vietnam War. What are the psychological conditions that lead to atrocity?
Watching Fear and Desire with its director’s half-century of subsequent work in mind, we see the seeds of many of his recurring themes and modes. There is the tension between officers and their subordinates, which he took to further extremes in Paths of Glory (1957) and Full Metal Jacket (1987); the sexual derangement that occurs in most of his films, but especially Lolita (1962), A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Shining (1980), and Eyes Wide Shut (1999); the warping group dynamics that spin out of control in The Killing; the sadism in the name of self-defense that Kubrick follows to absurd apocalyptic ends in Dr. Strangelove (1964). The earnest voiceovers of the narrator and characters of Fear and Desire would be a fixture, if an increasingly ironized one, of Kubrick’s films until 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A “bumbling amateur film exercise” it may be, but Fear and Desire is also a blueprint for everything he went on to do, and that may be the real reason he wanted to keep it a secret. I have always wondered if Renata Adler’s characterization of 2001 as “the apotheosis of the fantasy of a precocious, early nineteen-fifties city boy” stung Kubrick. Fear and Desire confirms that he himself was the apotheosis of just such a boy.
Christian Lorentzen is a critic and theater actor currently residing in Albania. He writes on Substack.
Fear and Desire (1952)