Movie Review: Fear and Desire (1953)

“Trapped… 4 Desperate Men and a Strange Half-Animal Girl!”

0 Stars
Fear and Desire (1953)

Fear and Desire (1953)


Director: Stanley Kubrick

Cast: Frank Silvera, Kenneth Harp, Paul Mazursky

Synopsis: Four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines struggle with their fears and desires as they try to make their way home.


Director Stanley Kubrick spent most of his career suppressing his first feature, Fear and Desire.   He described it as something akin to a child’s drawing on a fridge, and, coming from a perfectionist like Kubrick, the comparison is understandable.  The film was believed lost for many years amidst rumours that Kubrick had destroyed all the copies, but Kodak kept a print for their archives, and the original camera negative eventually showed up in Puerto Rico in the 1980s, allowing us all the opportunity to sample a piece of work made when Kubrick was clearly still learning his craft.   If you’re a Kubrick completist, the find is a Godsend, but for the rest of us it just provides confirmation that the great man was a pretty shrewd judge of the quality of his work.

A narrated introduction emphasises the universality of the film’s themes by informing us that Fear and Desire takes place in an unknown country in which two unspecified armies are at war.   Following a plane crash, four soldiers are stranded about six miles behind enemy lines and, to reach safety, they must negotiate terrain crawling with enemy troops.   Their leader is Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), whose decisions are repeatedly questioned by the more experienced Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera – Killer’s Kiss, Heller in Pink Tights).   The other two men are privates Sidney (Paul Mazursky – Carlito’s Way, 2 Days in the Valley) and Fletcher (Steve Coit).   As they slowly make their way towards the front line, these men must deal not only with enemy troops and hostile locals but, as the title implies, their own fears and desires.

Fear and Desire is that strangest of beasts: a poor movie from which sparks of brilliance occasionally ignite.   Some of its technical flaws can be excused as the result of its tiny budget – the terrain through which the soldiers trudge looks more like a national park than a war zone, and the fact that the dialogue was dubbed in a studio some weeks after shooting was completed is not only painfully obvious but also serves to emphasise the variable quality of the acting; Silvera and Coit are ok, but Harp is awful, and Mazursky’s over-emoting borders on the hilarious.   The editing roams the spectrum from good to bad without ever coming to rest, although the low point must be a medium-shot of Harp looking at Silvera as the second man speaks that is sandwiched between two extreme close-ups of him looking in the opposite direction.

Every now and then, though, Kubrick’s flair and vision filter through: the overlapping internal monologues of the men in which the panicky tone of their words belie the measured caution of their movements, and the shot of two men – one dead, one mad – emerging through a thick river-mist.   Situated within the midst of an uneasy mix of clumsiness and undisciplined pretension, these moments have the force of unexpected slaps to the face.   And Kubrick’s unerring eye for an arresting image – a feature of every movie he ever made – is already evident in a series of striking compositions.   It’s also important to remember when evaluating a raw piece of work like Fear and Desire that it’s director was just 24-years-old when he made it, and that, unlike other youthful boy wonders (or son Welles, for example), Kubrick was working without the support and guidance of seasoned industry professionals.   Watch it for its historical value, then; just don’t expect another Paths of Glory.

(Reviewed 25th May 2016)

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