Fear and Desire: an uneven debut meditating on the degradation of war

Stanley Kubrick, “Fear and Desire” (1953)

Stanley Kubrick’s debut feature film may be an awkward and clumsy beast in many ways but for its time (at the height of the Korean War) it’s quite daring for its anti-war stance and investigation of how war breaks men psychologically. The plot is overloaded with an existentialist theme and a lot of psychoanalysis but it’s easy to follow.

Four soldiers land their plane behind enemy lines in dense forest – the film deliberately does not say where the soldiers are from and what enemy country they are stuck in – and must try to make their way back home. To do this, they must face their fears about being alone and cut off from humanity, and about dying. They must also fight against what they want and desire if they are to go home. On their odyssey, they invade an enemy hideout and slaughter everyone there. The youngest soldier of the four, Private Sidney (Paul Mazursky) is disturbed by their action. Next, the men capture a peasant girl (Virginia Leith) who cannot speak their language and hold her hostage. The men then try to locate the enemy base that they have to storm to assassinate an important enemy commander and leave Sidney in charge of the woman. While the threesome make their way through the forest, Sidney is overcome by his delusions and desires and attempts to rape the woman in the belief that she loves him. She manages to escape and Sidney, maddened by her rejection, shoots her dead.

The other three men agree to separate with one soldier, Mac (Frank Silvera,) to act as decoy to draw away the guards at the base while the other two, Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) and Fletcher (Stephen Coit) try to kill the commander and his aide (Harp and Coit again). While Mac sails on a raft down the river, he reflects on the human condition, preparing himself for possible death as it were. While Corby and Fletcher make their way to the base, the enemy commander coincidentally also reflects on life and death, and the possibility that he may die very soon.

The themes of how war dehumanises people and how individuals cope with alienation from others are often dealt with uncertainly and in a heavy-handed way. Sidney’s descent into madness is not at all convincing though in the context of an hour-long film on a small budget the narrative has to push him into derangement very quickly. The other men in the film also have to confront their own particular hearts of darkness in ways ranging from shocking and terrifying to frankly unbelievable.

While the acting is not bad, it isn’t great either but Kubrick’s direction of the small cast does give a suggestion that the soldiers are inexperienced and fumble their way through their assignment. The consequences of their incompetence are devastating to them and to the civilian population as represented by the innocent peasant woman. The technical aspects of the film are uneven: while some scenes are very beautifully done, others are rather workman-like.

Though this first effort certainly does not scream “genius at work!”, one can see in it motifs and characteristics that will turn up in later Kubrick films. Several of Kubrick’s films delve into exploring and deconstructing Western notions of masculinity and “Fear and Desire” sets that ball rolling; the upshot of this is that female characters in Kubrick’s films are usually undeveloped and certainly Leith’s peasant woman is no more than a blank canvas onto whom Sidney pours out his desires and burdens.

Curiously while Kubrick was to go on to make some very powerful anti-war films in the course of his career, the one anti-war film “Fear and Desire” most reminded me of is Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”. In both these films, there is a journey by soldiers into territory that breaks down the barrier between reality and fantasy, and in like manner these soldiers, forced by their superiors to labour under the stress and degradation of war unleash their anger, repressed instincts and darkest urges onto people they are taught to fear and despise. The results are horrible and tragic indeed.