The Films of Stanley Kubrick – Fear and Desire (1953)

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It started because I felt like I lacked direction. No, not in life or anything significant like that. It is roughly half way through the summer and I realized I hadn’t set any decent film goals for myself. Truth be told, I typically don’t. I watch whatever comes my way and let that be that. For the summer, I’ve decided to try something different. I am going to be intentional, because intentionality provides focus and a sense of accomplishment. Once I decided to be intentional about my film consumption, I realized the logical conclusion was to make my way through a director’s filmography. After about three minutes of thought, I decided that the best place to start would be to make my way through the entirety of Stanley Kubrick’s feature-length films. 

So, for the remainder of the summer (or however long it takes), I am going to watch all of Kubrick’s feature-length films in order and write short blog posts with my reactions. For me personally, Kubrick was a great place to start because 1) he is an undisputed master 2) he directed films in a number of genres 3) his filmography is manageable and 4) I have already seen a number of his movies, so finishing out his body of work will be a good film education. So, here we go.

Kubrick’s first feature-length film, Fear and Desire, was released in 1953. Broadly speaking, it tells the story of four soldiers who are caught behind enemy lines during a war after their plane crashes. The soldiers realize that a nearby river runs straight to the front lines and back to their side. They decide to build a raft in an effort to make it back to friendly territory.

The plot of Fear and Desire sounds like a generic war film produced in the mid-20th century. Honestly, it is not a particularly good film. Ideas are not fully realized, the editing is quite choppy in places, and some of the writing leaves a bit to be desired. However, despite the technical flaws, Fear and Desire is not forgettable. I say “not forgettable” instead of “memorable” because while it lacks the skill of later Kubrick films and great war movies, it has enough qualities that show a unique visionary was behind the camera. The quick editing and close ups (particularly of a character’s eyes) demonstrate a style that was not common in movies at the time, but would appear in later Kubrick movies. At one point in the film, a soldier descends into madness while holding a female prisoner, convinced that if he lets her go, she will embrace him. After she attempts to escape, he kills her. The violence displayed in this scene and the approaching assault that leads up to it are bold for a film from 1953.

Also of note is the impression that Kubrick wanted Fear and Desire to focus on ideas. This is an anti-war film, with characters discussing whether humans are made for war at all and the futility of it all, themes Kubrick would develop more coherently in Paths of Glory. The warring countries are never identified by name. In fact, the location of the film is never revealed. I think Stanley wanted to say that the ideas he had were universally applicable, even if they never come fully into focus.

At a breezy 62 minutes, the film takes no time to get through. It is certainly an interesting piece to see the beginnings of a master. General audiences likely will not enjoy it, but for film fans and Kubrick fanatics, it is a good place to start.

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