'Fear and Desire' (1953) is noted amongst film enthusiasts as being the first feature length film of legendary director and screenwriter Stanley Kubrick. Adding to this initial infamy is the fact that Kubrick frowned upon the film in his later years, calling it "amateurish" (which in his eyes and when compared to his other masterpieces, it most likely was) as well as refusing to re-release the film. Essentially, Kubrick did everything within his power to keep 'Fear and Desire' from public consumption. In a particular city (the name of which I cannot recall) the film was scheduled to be screened long after its initial release, but prior to the screening the theater management received a call from Kubrick and his associates asking the theater not to show the film. From such evidence one may draw the conclusion that the film is quite dismal and forgettable, but such is not the case. 'Fear and Desire' is a film far ahead of its time, by a director far ahead of his time one which we all may never even catch up to. Even as early as 1951/53 can Stanley Kubrick's genius be seen emerging and brightly at that.
'Fear and Desire' takes the viewer to the forests of a distant land, which is currently warring against (presumably) the United States in a fictitious conflict. In the dense forest the viewer finds four men stranded behind enemy lines as a result of a plane crash. These four military personnel are Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Pvt. Sidney (the debut of the wonderful Paul Mazursky), and Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit). The men quickly decide that to return to their camp they must travel by night down a river which runs through enemy territory and down into their own territory. As the men begin to formulate their plans to return to safety, they become aware of enemy forces within the area and the stress, instability, and perhaps futility of war begin to set in around them physically, as well as within their minds.
Over the years, 'Fear and Desire' has strangely enjoyed harsh criticism by even those individuals lucky enough to view it. The picture essentially takes an above average stab at a subject matter which would resurface throughout Kubrick's history. Most notably, the subject matter is revisited more thoroughly in the excellent 'Full Metal Jacket' (1987). The film's main underlying message and social as well as political commentary focuses on the futility, horror, and dehumanizing effects of war and that which it embodies. In 1951 when 'Fear and Desire' was filmed the world was still recovering from WWII, the effects of the cold war were already being seen, and in U.S. affairs, the Korean War was underway. It was at this time many insightful thinkers such as George Orwell (author of 1984) and evidently Stanley Kubrick were recognizing and speaking out against the grim and ever-increasingly violent world in which we were becoming. Kubrick did this through the profound art of film-making. If this alone, during the conforming time period of 1951, does not earn this film and Kubrick a great deal of praise, then perhaps nothing does. Despite this, there are a few minor problems with this production, but none which hold much weight. In the beginning narration, the film is quite prophetic and at times quite philosophical. This works most of the time, but at times it says things blatantly that would perhaps better be left unsaid and left to the viewers' imagination. Essentially, it sometimes overstresses the somewhat obvious. All of the technic al aspects within the film are exquisite and Kubrick's skill is already shining brightly. The photography and the cinematography within the film are brilliant. The scene in which Sgt. Mac's silhouette is seen rafting down the river is breathtaking, as well as the vast shots of the great wilderness of nature's battlefield. Also, Kubrick's trademark facial shot of "insanity" is seen on the face of the soldiers (namely on Pvt. Sidney). Not only is the film daring for its time in the field of social commentary, but also it is quite vulgar by 1950s standards. Kubrick even directs a rape scene, as well as death sequences which are vividly depicted around the sensors of the era. With fitting performances by all of the actors (although Mazursky's over-the-top acting is at times regarded as ridiculous, I find it to be the acting highpoint of the whole film) and a shocking ending quite reminiscent of 'The Twilight Zone', the film proves itself to be an extremely dark, moody, intelligent, and insightful experience.
Why 'Fear and Desire' enjoys such harsh criticism could very well be Kubrick's actions in its destruction, the influence of other critics, or perhaps a subconscious comparison to Kubrick's other works. Regardless, upon my viewing I found it to be an extremely wonderful piece of cinema. One thing I am convinced of which does in fact bog down public opinion of 'Fear and Desire' is the various bootlegged releases of the film on DVD and VHS. Truly to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced one must watch the 35mm cut of the film, it really does add to experience. Although rare, there are a few prints left in existence and those presented with the opportunity to view one would be wise to accept. Given the circumstances and the status which Kubrick enjoys, it is sadly inevitable that this will be compared to Kubrick's other classics and, as many feel, will pale in comparison. Is it truly a poor film in any sense of the word? Most certainly not; the film is atmospheric, insightful, visually breathtaking, bizarre, and vastly ahead of its time. Had 'Fear and Desire' perhaps been directed by another director, well-distributed, and honored today it is quite possible that the film would live on as, if not a classic, a cult classic and highpoint of 1950s cinema.