Stanley Kubrick's First Film Isn't Nearly as Bad as He Thought It Was

He was ashamed of 'Fear and Desire,' but 60 years after its debut, the movie plays like a dress rehearsal for a dazzling career.

The legendary director was ashamed of his debut, Fear and Desire. But viewed 60 years after it screened, it plays like a dress rehearsal for the rest of Kubrick's dazzling career.

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Joseph Burstyn

Since his death in 1999, Stanley Kubrick has enjoyed an acclaimed afterlife. 2001: A Space Odyssey this year placed at No. 6 in Sight and Sound magazine's once-a-decade poll of film critics' favorites—making it the youngest film in the top 10. Rodney Ascher's excellent documentary Room 237, which will be released next spring, offers five obsessive fans of The Shining a platform to deliver their rather questionable interpretations of the film. Clockwork Orange seemed as beloved as ever when it turned 40 in February.

Why do his films continue to resonate? Part of the answer lays his 1953 debut feature Fear and Desire, which has just been restored and released on DVD and Blu-Ray by Kino Lorber after nearly 60 years of obscurity. The director was ashamed of the film and suppressed it during his lifetime, barring it from most public screenings. While it's no lost classic—it suffers from a pseudo-philosophical voice-over and overly ambitious, often jagged editing influenced by silent Soviet cinema—it's not the abject crap one might expect from Kubrick's reaction to it. Moreover, the movie's worth watching to see the first development of themes that would dominate his later masterworks. It demonstrates his interest in warfare, later depicted in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. More surprisingly, it displays aggressive and perverse male sexuality, suggesting the beginnings of A Clockwork Orange and Eyes Wide Shut. All these later films deal with their subject matter more satisfyingly, but Fear and Desire shows that Kubrick's polished vision didn't emerge from a void. He had to start out with a rough draft first.

When Fear and Desire played the Telluride Film Festival in 1991 and New York's Film Forum in 1994, reaction was mixed. Retired Indiana University professor James Naremore, author of the definitive study On Kubrick, believes this scared the director away from further public exposure. "I think we need to take Kubrick at his word," he wrote in an email to me. "Kubrick told New York newspapers that he didn't want the film shown because it was a 'bumbling, amateur film exercise . . . a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.'" But Naremore added that "nobody who has seen it thinks it's that bad. It has obvious weaknesses, but also shows real talent. He was probably influenced by audience response to the '90s showings and thought it was embarrassing juvenilia."

Fear and Desire follows a group of soldiers who have crash-landed into enemy territory and are trying to rejoin their unit. They discover an enemy base and plan to assassinate its commanding officer. Meanwhile, Sidney (Paul Mazursky) grows attracted to a peasant women (Virginia Leith) captured by the squad and tied to a tree. He sexually abuses her, although her degree of consent is open to question. Kubrick's treatment of war in Fear and Desire lacks the specificity of the settings of Paths of Glory (World War I) and Full Metal Jacket (the Vietnam War). Its opening narration declares that it takes place "outside history." Partially as a result, Fear and Desire suffers from a strangely placid quality, lacking the anger of Paths of Glory and the structural brilliance and caustic irony of Full Metal Jacket.

Naremore thinks that Kubrick may have been interested in war films because war dovetailed with some of his pet themes, aside from the obvious fact that he lived through Cold War conflicts like the Korean and Vietnam Wars. "He's especially interested in how rational, militaristic planning spins out of control and becomes irrational," Naremore said. In Fear and Desire, men are actually attracted to war. "What makes his war pictures distinctive (excepting Spartacus, over which he had little control) is that he always depicts the conflict as inherently absurd or irrational and the enemy as either mostly unseen (except as a woman in Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket) or as doubles of the protagonists (as in Fear and Desire and Dr. Strangelove)," Naremore said. "War in Kubrick involves rational planning motivated by irrational, unconscious, and self-destructive impulses."

The depiction of both sex and violence—and the linkage made between them—in Fear and Desire points to a sense of masculinity in crisis. As Naremore said, "Kubrick's often described as a misogynistic director (and it's true that his primary appeal is to male viewers), but his films are critical of masculinity." This critique would only deepen in later Kubrick films, but already, male sexual aggression leads to tragedy in Fear and Desire. Naremore says that "the whole of Dr. Strangelove is a dark joke about penis anxiety, and Full Metal Jacket is almost the same. Again and again, Kubrick makes connections between male sexuality and fascism, as in the war movies and A Clockwork Orange." In an unconventional and roundabout way, Fear and Desire questions conventional gender roles, even if not exactly an overtly feminist film.

As Room 237 demonstrates, some fans view Kubrick as a genius puzzle designer who deliberately implanted his films with hidden messages. Without going out nearly as far on a limb, it's clear that his oeuvre still has a great deal to show us. Fear and Desire suggests his unique perspective was there from the very beginning.