[…] Paolo Cherchi Usai’s essay on Fear and Desire, a film by Stanley Kubrick, carefully analyzes the importance of this early work by the great film maker. Cherchi Usai, senior curator of motion picture collections at the Museum, describes how the film—a war fantasy—constructs, frame by frame, the disintegration of the human spirit through a range of characters, each lost in their own psychic excesses. It is this sense of still photographs in motion that sets Kubrick’s film on a continuum with the other two works; the photographer’s eye is the unique photographic contribution that Kubrick brings to film. Early in life, Kubrick worked as a photographer for Look magazine, honing, consciously or unconsciously, a vision that dissected cinema, frame by frame. The opportunity to view the individual frames of Fear and Desire presents the possibility that Kubrick’s “photographs” are as powerful as any of the social documentary photographers of this century, though as fiction they are documents on internal, rather than external, reality.[…]
James Enyeart, Director
* * *
CHECKMATING THE GENERAL: STANLEY KUBRICK’S FEAR AND DESIRE
by Paolo Cherchi Usai
Stanley Kubrick came to reject his first feature film, Fear and Desire, as a youthful “mistake.” An examination of the work, however, offers insight into the beginnings of Kubrick’s vision and cinematic mastery, and provides evidence that Kubrick created a powerful allegory of war—presaging his later films and declaring his moral preoccupations and artistic ambitions.
One of the rarest and most intriguing films preserved in the motion picture collection at George Eastman House is Fear and Desire (1953), the first feature film directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The creator of such seminal works as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971), and The Shining (1980) was just twenty-four years old when he made this war movie. The film was so overtly ambitious, so filled with literary and cinematic allusions, that Kubrick himself soon disavowed it. Shortly after the worldwide success of Lolita (1962) and Dr. Strangelove; Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (1963), he supposedly attempted to withdraw all prints from circulation, repudiating the film as a youthful mistake. For more than twenty-five years Fear and Desire has been a legendary “lost” film, surrounded by an aura of mystery, both because it anticipates Kubrick’s later work and because of the circumstances of its disappearance. What follows is the story of the film’s origins, creation, critical reception, and eventual rejection by its maker, and a critical analysis of its central themes.1
On 16 November 1952, Joseph Burstyn received in the mail, delivered to his New York City office at 113 West 42nd Street, a letter signed by the twenty-four-year-old Stanley Kubrick. It described a film that, though made on an extremely low budget, nevertheless revealed the ambitions of its maker.
Its structure: allegorical. Its conception: poetic. A drama of “man” lost in a hostile world-deprived of material and spiritual foundations-seeking his way to an understanding of himself, and of life around him. He is further imperiled on his Odyssey by an unseen but deadly enemy that surrounds him; but an enemy who, upon scrutiny, seems to be almost shaped from the same mold It will, probably, mean many things to different people, and it ought to.2
At the time this letter was written, Fear and Desire was already a reality: the shooting had been finished a year before, and though the postproduction had been far more costly than anticipated, now all that was needed was a distributor willing to take a risk.
Considering his age, Kubrick already had excellent credentials, even though it was luck and chance, rather than planning and preparation, that played the major role at the beginning of his career in photography and cinema. Even his first experience with show business, though tangential, had been fairly successful: after failing English and then dropping out of City College with an academic average of 68, he was rescued from unemployment through an affiliation with Look magazine.
Many years later, Kubrick said that the editor in chief at Look had told him he had been hired more out of pity than out of confidence in his abilities. But the advantages for the magazine and the aspiring filmmaker were reciprocal. For Kubrick, who would later remember himself as “a skinny, unkempt kid who carried his cameras in a paper bag so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a tourist,”3 this work brought him closer to realizing his dream of becoming a film director; for Look, Kubrick represented a guarantee of good work at a bargain price. The scriptwriters who worked with him on photo essays labeled him “a funny kid… [and] a wonderful photographer.”4
The first portfolio that Kubrick submitted to Look had an unusual subject. It contained photographs of an English teacher theatrically reciting Hamlet for his students at Taft High School, the same Bronx institution Kubrick had previously attended without distinction. The creator of this series was then seventeen years old.
Another five years passed before Kubrick graduated from offbeat assignments (aerial displays during an election campaign, the life of a circus troupe during the winter off-season) to more challenging projects: celebrities, European travel, sports events.5
One of these—a boxing match—served as the impetus for his first short film project, Day of the Fight (1950), documenting boxer Walter Carder’s final hours before the match.6
The genesis of this project is well known. A former classmate, Alexander Singer (who later became a director himself), told Kubrick that RKO-Pathe spent $40,000 on the short subjects used in a series called The March of Time. Kubrick calculated that $1,500 would be enough to make his film, put together twice that sum (around $800 coming from his savings, the rest from loans),7 and went to the Camera Equipment Company on 1600 Broadway, where Burt Zucker taught him in the course of a morning how to operate a small 35mm Eyemo camera.8
Up to this point Kubrick’s cinematic education had been intense, though unorthodox: five films weekly at the Museum of Modem Art, at least two new releases each weekend, films presented at showcase theaters in Manhattan or in the most out-of-the-way second-run houses on Staten Island, and, as his only theoretical reading, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Film Technique (1929). Day of the Fight marked Kubrick’s successful transition from film spectator to cineaste. Though we lack details on the production of his early one-reelers, it is clear that the experience helped Kubrick quickly learn the rudimentary techniques of the profession—how to set up a shot, how to use a motion picture camera, how to make do with a rented synchronizer.
He also soon appreciated what it means to borrow and spend money in order to make a film. According to some sources, Day of the Fight cost between $3,800 and $3,900; according to others, more than $5,000. RKO-Pathe paid at least $4,000 for the finished product (a noteworthy sum, considering that The March of Time was by then in serious financial trouble). This payment might have been sufficient to cover the costs, but it certainly was not enough to convince Kubrick that filmmaking was a way to get rich quickly.9
RKO-Pathe hired him for a second one-reeler, Flying Padre (1951), which depicted the life of the Rev. Fred Stadtmueller, who piloted a small plane to visit his far-flung parishioners in a sparsely settled part of New Mexico.10 Although the film was shorter—only nine minutes long compared to sixteen for Day of the Fight —it was far more expensive to make, due to the costs of shooting on location. Again, the financial arrangement between Kubrick and RKO-Pathe is not known, but it is likely that Kubrick’s payment barely covered his expenses.11 The association with The March of Time ended after this, but Flying Padre was not Kubrick’s last documentary; he made The Seafarers (now preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.) in 1953, at almost the same time as Fear and Desire.
That Kubrick’s true ambition was to create a full-length film after learning the craft through documentary work is evidenced by his study of Konstantin Stanislavsky, Nikolai M. Gorchakhov, Sergei Eisenstein, and Arthur Schnitzler, as well as his decision to leave Look magazine, his attempts to raise money from family and friends, and his discussions with his friend, poet Howard O. Sackler, on a story for a feature-length movie.
No working title was attributed to this film for some time, but early in 1951—when Kubrick announced that he was ready to begin shooting—the concept was proudly described in scrupulous detail. The bold idea of using The New York Times as the official mouthpiece for his ambitions was a perhaps naive, though not ineffectual, promotional strategy; it anticipated Kubrick’s later delicate yet functional rapport with the media. The information contained in an article by Thomas M. Pryor published on January 14 was so precise it seemed an indirect quote from Kubrick himself:
Stanley says he has figured out every camera angle and that after he finds the proper location “in some wooded area of southern California” shooting should run smoothly and be concluded in fifteen to twenty-one days. He will bring four professional “but not known name actors” out to the coast from Broadway, and, because Stanley himself is not yet a member of the movie camera men’s union, he will engage a professional cinematographer. The one requirement is that the camera man must agree in advance to follow the blueprint laid out by Stanley, who will direct and produce the film.12
Encouraged by his nephew’s enthusiasm and success, and perhaps also yielding to his entreaties, Martin Perveler, a druggist from Los Angeles, lent Kubrick between $9,000 and $10,000. With this money Kubrick intended to hire the entire cast, rent the necessary equipment, and pay three Mexican laborers to carry the equipment. Initially, the plan was to shoot the film in western New York state; the more favorable climate on the West Coast eventually convinced him to move to California.
Despite his declared intention to hire four professional “but not known name actors,” Kubrick found only three in New York: Kenneth Harp, whom he cast as Lieutenant Corby; Steve Coit, who played Fletcher; and, as Sidney, a young man named Paul Mazursky, not yet twenty-one, living in Greenwich Village and beginning a career in off-Broadway theater. Fear and Desire was his debut as a film actor.
Kubrick went to the West Coast with his first wife, Toba Metz, and Howard Sackler to find the ideal location and the fourth performer. By this time the script was calling for one more player; perhaps a new plot twist adding a sexual element to the story had already been considered back in New York. At any rate, by the time filming started a woman was added—the very young Virginia Leith—as well as Frank Silvera, a veteran stage actor who had made his screen debut that year in The Cimarron Kid (Universal, 1951), directed by Budd Boetticher. The total number of performers now was five.
Kubrick rented a Mitchell camera with four Baltar lenses (25mm, 50mm, 75mm, and 100mm) for $25 a day, and summoned Coit, Harp, and Mazursky from New York, along with some friends willing to help out: Bob Dierks (unit manager), Chet Fabian (makeup), Herbert Lebowitz (sets), and, as assistant director, Steve Hahn, a member of the cinematographers’ union. Two other girls, besides Virginia Leith, completed the cast for the scene on the river bank. The locations chosen were a river in Bakersfield (California) and a wooded area in the San Gabriel Mountains, north of Los Angeles.
It is not known whether shooting lasted two or three weeks, as Kubrick had predicted. However, there is no evidence of any serious problems encountered during this phase of production, and the difficulties posed by a limited budget were solved by the usual stratagems: a sunset scene shot in broad daylight using a red filter over the lens, and underexposing the film to simulate the grayness of twilight. The only technical challenge of some significance was creating an effect of mist, when renting a fog machine in Hollywood proved prohibitively expensive. Someone improvised a solution using water and mineral oil, vaporized in an agricultural insecticide sprayer; the dense cloud it produced irritated the throat and eyes, but ultimately the effect was successful.
Kubrick returned to New York with 50,000 feet of exposed film, both safety and nitrate negative film on Kodak and DuPont stock, about one-tenth of the footage shot in an ordinary Hollywood production. If it is true that Kubrick had already determined the continuity and the timing for every shot, then a few weeks would have been enough for him to edit it down to its final version—5,940 feet—with a running time of about 66 minutes, not counting the titles at the beginning and end. It was at this point, however, that he became aware that the costs of post-sync sound dubbing had been grossly underestimated. Because nothing, not even background noises, had been recorded during filming, it was necessary to add all sound and dialogue, as well as the musical score. This cost about $30,000, more than three times the budget allotted by Kubrick for the rest of the project.
Nine months passed as Kubrick tried desperately to raise the money for “The Shape of Fear” (the provisional title given to the film) while studio work continued. Friends and family, especially his uncle Martin, once again came to his aid. Gerald Fried— another cinematic neophyte who would later become a Hollywood celebrity—wrote the music, and Barney Ettengoff created the opening and closing titles, which extended the running time to 68 minutes. Finally, by the end of the winter of 1952, the film was finished. Its title was now Fear and Desire.
But one final and decisive problem remained: distribution. This proved a much more difficult obstacle than Kubrick had faced with Day of the Fight, as neither the independent nor the major film distributors showed any interest in the film. Another spring passed, then another summer, without any substantial progress. Finally, in November 1952, Kubrick thought of approaching a well-known distributor of foreign films playing the art house circuit, in order to reach that specialized audience and press.
Until this time, Joseph Burstyn had never distributed the work of a promising young American director. His catalogue featured works of established reputation: Rene Clair’s À nous la liberté, Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri di Biciclette (Bicycle Thief) and Miracolo a Milano (Miracle in Milan), as well as Roberto Rossellini’s Francesco, Giullare di Dio (released in the United States as Flowers of St. Francis).13 Kubrick’s letter of November 16 may or may not have been his first contact with Burstyn, and it is not known how long their negotiations lasted and what issues were discussed—or even if there were any negotiations at all. At this point, it was no longer a question of a fair return on his investment. Kubrick’s goal was simply to see the film screened publicly and to get a response from the critics.
Burstyn accepted Kubrick’s proposal, and Fear and Desire was scheduled for release in the spring of 1953. After a press screening on March 26, the film received its premiere on the thirty-first at the Guild Theater in New York City, more than two years after the announcement in The New York Times.
On March 30, the day before the opening, Burstyn sent a synopsis and a print of the film for registration at the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress.14 Less than two months later, Martin Perveler—who had deposited the film—requested its return, probably because not enough copies of Fear and Desire had been printed to allow one to lie unused on deposit at the Copyright Office.15 The synopsis, however, remained in Washington. The document is worth quoting in full, as it is the most detailed description of the work ever provided by its maker.16
In the course of an imaginary war, four soldiers are stranded in a forest several miles behind enemy lines after their plane has been shot down. Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp) takes stock of their situation: they are surrounded by the enemy, have one revolver and no food. He proposes that they make for a nearby river which flows through the front lines, build a raft and float to safety at night. The others hesitate but, having no choice, they begin their cautious trek to the river. As they move through the trees, their disjointed thoughts are heard—Corby’s sense of responsibility, Sidney’s (Paul Mazursky) rising hysteria, Mac’s (Frank Silvera) seething hatred, Fletcher’s (Steve Coit) weariness.
At the river, they construct a crude raft. Mac returns from surveying the area and points out to Corby an enemy command post on the other side of the river. A low-flying plane swoops over them and Corby, fearing they have been spotted, orders them back into the woods. Mac deduces that the plane landed at the command post and is obsessed with the possibility of a “general” being there.
Some hours later they come upon a shack and see two enemy soldiers inside. Tempted by the food and the guns, they burst in and kill the surprised pair without a shot. Mac wolfs down the stew, but Sidney is so shocked he barely moves. A third soldier backs into the room with an armload of wood, and they shoot him down. Their position now endangered by the shots, they flee the shack.
The next day, wearier, hungrier, and more quarrelsome, they return to the raft when a girl (Virginia Leith) stumbles upon them. Mac seizes her before she can cry out and they bind her to a tree. Corby questions her but she understands neither his words nor his sign language. Sidney is getting hysterical; he begs the others not to beat the girl. When they give him a revolver and instruct him to guard her while they check the raft, he accuses them of deserting him.
Left alone with the girl, Sidney loses his sense of reality altogether. He pleads with her not to dislike him, not to blame him, and sobs on her shoulder.
Meanwhile, the others return to the raft. Mac looks again at the command post and sights the general with his aides and the plane parked in the field. The idea of killing the general crystallizes within him. Sidney continues his crazed attempts to divert the girl by acting out the story of The Tempest. The girl is frightened.
Mac tries to talk to Corby about the general. Corby cuts him short and orders him back to Sidney while he and Fletcher camouflage the raft.
Sidney, wild-eyed, gives the girl water from his cupped hands. She drinks gratefully and Sidney caresses her. Growing excited, he kisses her, babbling that she must love him now—he unties her. She breaks away. Terrified and completely irrational, Sidney cries to her to stop, and then shoots her. He collapses, moaning incoherently, as Mac dashes into the clearing. Before Mac can stop him, Sidney runs off into the forest, laughing and screaming hysterically. The others return, and Mac tells them what has happened.
As they wait for nightfall Mac, now completely engrossed with the idea of slaying the general, argues Corby and Fletcher into accepting his plan. He will take the raft and draw the sentries from the house with his fire while the other two kill the general and escape in the plane they have seen.
That night they launch the raft. While they stalk through the woods to the command post, Mac poles his way downstream. Thoughts cross his mind chaotically—his hatred of the general, his loneliness, his acceptance of impending death, his disdain for his past.
Through his field glasses Corby sights the general in his room. The general is drunk. We see that the general and his aide are played, respectively, by Kenneth Harp (Corby) and Steve Coit (Fletcher)—the very men who are coming to kill them. The aide is cheerful as the old general talks regretfully of wars he has fought before.
Mac begins shooting from the river. The sentries grab their guns and run toward the firing. Corby covers the unguarded porch while Fletcher races to the window and shoots both officers—but the general, only wounded, crawls toward the front door.
The shooting at the river has ceased; Mac is badly wounded. The general drags himself through the door of the house, and Corby fires point-blank. . . then stares, recognizing his own face in that of the dead general. With Fletcher he runs for the plane, and they clear the field just as the sentries return.
Mac, fatally wounded, floats down the river in the moonlight. Sidney wades toward him and boards the raft—he is now quite mad.
Safe at their base, Corby and Fletcher watch for the raft in the dawn mist. Corby admits that although he has escaped, he has traveled too far from his own private boundaries to return to himself. Fletcher confides that he feels suddenly free, but that all of his former plans and desires have been shattered.
They hear someone singing and the raft floats into view; Mac lies dead and Sidney, crouching on all fours and staring into the swirling fog, is singing incoherently. The four are together once again.
This is, in all its aspects, a rather ambiguous war story. Some of its elements are classic: a lost platoon, a mission to accomplish, an impossible escape; men of differing temperaments, feminine presence reduced to a minimum, and, underlying the narrative, an attitude of apparent pacifism. But, if the film lacks heroes, where are its antiheroes? What in fact is the mission? And why do the same actors play two different roles?
Obviously, this film has little or nothing in common with the canonical war movie. Instead, it is short on plot and very long on dialogue; the action is deliberately concentrated in a few key incidents, paced uniformly through the duration of the story; and there is a strong similarity to Akira Kurosawa’s RASHOMON, the film sensation of 1952, in which truth is elusive, events have multiple meanings, and explanations contradict and negate each other.
If the tally of box office proceeds were known, it would give a good indication of the public response to this allegorical film, whose symbolic character was acknowledged by Kubrick himself in his letter to Burstyn. For now, press reviews are the best source on the initial reception of Fear and Desire. This information, which is more extensive than would be predicted, can furnish a reliable, though incomplete, indication of the film’s success.
Contrary to what one would expect of a first full-length feature film by an unknown novice, and a work not launched at a festival, the usual showcase for new talents, Fear and Desire received much more than the usual critical attention. Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, and the authoritative The New Yorker all reviewed the film, an honor rarely accorded even to directors of considerably greater reputation. Variety, Theatre Arts, Commonweal, The Herald Tribune, Motion Picture Herald, and later The Saturday Review dedicated space to Fear and Desire, which also got ample attention in a special-ized publication, Modern Photography.
More significant, none of these reviews, even the negative ones, discuss Fear and Desire in the terms usually reserved for amateurish first efforts. Variety speaks of “a literate, unhackneyed war drama, outstanding for its fresh camera treatment and poetic dialog.”17 In the telegraphic style characteristic of Variety’s reviews during the fifties, the anonymous reviewer, adopting a tone midway between advice to the beginner and a concise and trenchant recommendation to the busy reader, concludes that “Individual scenes stand out in impact, but the overall effect is not fully realized.” Also in the manner of a cursory summary of the work, but giving a more severe final verdict, The New York Times seeks to separate the visual aspects of the film from the dialogue, deploring the latter and yet underscoring that the best aspects of Fear and Desire were not lost:
Mr. Kubrick’s professionalism as a photographer should be obvious to an amateur. He has artistically caught glimpses of the grotesque attitudes of death, the wolfishness of hungry men as well as their bestiality, and, in one scene, the wracking effect of lust on a pitifully juvenile soldier and the pinioned girl he is guarding.18
The comments in Newsweek run along these same lines, coming down, however, on the side of the director, “a twenty-four-year-old novice who is bound to make his mark in the near future.” According to the reviewer, Fear and Desire is “a mixture of promise and frustration. . . . The sound track runs to a stream-of-consciousness narrative that distracts from the action,” and “there are marked resemblances to the strikingly mottled and translucent forest photography of last year’s distinguished Japanese film, Rashomon.” Taken in its entirety, however, “ Fear and Desire should be seen by anyone with a special interest in moviemaking. . . . Technically, Kubrick has come up with nothing new, but emotionally and intellectually he has done extremely well for a beginner.”19
The opposite conclusion is reached by John McCarten in The New Yorker. He criticizes virtually every aspect of the film, not exempting the distribu tor, Joseph Burstyn (“who presumably knows a good picture when he sees one”), for having brought the film to the public, nor the details of the action sequences: “In a later scene, the vagrants happen on a bunch of their enemies and demolish them. I thought it very unfortunate—both for them and for me—that these poor wretches chanced to be eating at the time of their demise, for Mr. Kubrick makes quite a thing of combining the shudders of death with spilled hash.”20
It is evident that McCarten had no intention of separating his personal response to the season from his aesthetic judgments on the film: “As the lady in the affair, Virginia Leith appealed to me mightily, but then it’s spring.” This ill-concealed sarcasm permeating the New Yorker review reflects the eventual judgment against Fear and Desire by the filmmaker himself.
After 1956, the film virtually disappears from critical discussions of the director. Two years passed before Kubrick could bring himself to speak of the film, which he remembered with almost excessive embarrassment: “ Fear and Desire [was] released by Joseph Burstyn, and produced, written, directed and deplored by Kubrick, who merely says of it, ‘Pain is a good teacher.’ “21
As a matter of fact, Kubrick was not the author of the script (although most probably the screenplay was either a collaboration with or the sole work of Howard Sackler, done under the careful supervision of the director), but it was certainly true that Kubrick later disowned the work. More than “deplored,” Fear and Desire had already been pulled from circulation. Kubrick’s aversion to the film might have been partly due to personal circumstances (his divorce from Toba took place the same year in which the film was shot; and, according to James B. Harris, the producer of some of Kubrick’s subsequent films, the director approached him in his desperate search for the money needed to complete the project, and even asked him to try and sell Fear and Desire to the television networks, among other ploys).22 The spectacular maturation of his style later achieved in Paths of Glory (1957) might also have caused Kubrick to distance himself, emphatically and publicly, from the early work of his period of apprenticeship. But why was Kubrick so adamant about suppressing Fear and Desire, but not his early shorts, or Killer’s Kiss (1955)? A partial explanation comes from Kubrick himself. As he later stated, “While Fear and Desire had been a serious effort, ineptly done, Killer’s Kiss. . . proved, I think, to be a frivolous effort done with conceivably more expertise though still down in the student level of filmmaking.”23 Yet, this hardly explains or justifies Kubrick’s persistent efforts to banish the film from sight.
The film’s removal from circulation may have implied the actual destruction of both the negative (now considered lost) and the release prints. However, the possibility that only a print or two had been struck from the negative cannot be ruled out; on the contrary, such a hypothesis is supported by at least two arguments. Given Kubrick’s limited financial resources, it is very unlikely that many copies of the film would have been made for an extremely limited distribution. It must also be taken into account that the print restored by George Eastman House was originally in Burstyn’s possession. Therefore, it is possible that Kubrick managed to dispose of the original negative, but the retrieval of the positive prints should not have involved the need for a thorough search. The reason he never tried to seek out any remaining prints in the most obvious place remains a mystery that can only be partially explained on legal grounds. Kubrick could not claim any legal rights to Fear and Desire after Burstyn had purchased it for distribution. The fact remains that the director could have easily regained possession of all the materials, and he did not.
Whatever the case, for almost twenty years no scholar was given the chance or willing to discuss the film except in the most cursory fashion, and Kubrick made no attempt to encourage a more in-depth analysis. In 1964, during an interview for The New York Review of Books, he called Fear and Desire “a presumptuous failure.”24 Six years later he was just as vehement, when the questions posed by Joseph Gelmis in the course of his series of interviews to be published in The Film Director as Superstar received an emphatic “No comment,” followed by “It’s not a film I remember with any pride, except for the fact it was finished.”25
Despite the opposite intentions of its creator, Fear and Desire soon began to acquire the status of a myth—a myth of failure, a work with flaws of such number and magnitude as to require this total suppression both of critical discussion and of all attempts to bring the film back to light. More recently, Mark Carducci went so far as to insist on the assumption—though without offering any direct evidence— that Kubrick had actually taken the drastic step of destroying the film’s camera negative after Joseph Burstyn’s death: “The entire affair smacks of a Howard Hughes-like attempt on Kubrick’s part to wipe out a part of his past.”26 From 1956 until today, only two writers explicitly claimed to have seen the film themselves. The first, Jackson Burgess, writing in the fall 1964 issue of Film Quarterly, broadly compared Fear and Desire to other Kubrick treatments of war.27
Less than ten years later, in 1972, Norman Kagan affirmed that “ Fear and Desire is no longer commercially available.” Although he was able “to obtain a print for critical viewing,”28 he provided no further detail on this point.
The few other writers who mention Fear and Desire and cite particular aspects of the film do not claim to have studied it in depth; rather, they implied the contrary.29 In different ways, most of them follow Kagan’s analysis (sometimes without crediting him), or rely on the early reviews, or simply recount the plot as summarized by Kagan, but in ever more confused, reduced, and garbled form with each subsequent retelling. Recent criticism of Fear and Desire is thus a compendium of conjecture and speculation, interrupted now and then with judgments based upon the observations of others and by thematic comparisons with the director’s subsequent work, from Killer’s Kiss to Spartacus (1960), from Dr. Strangelove to Barry Lyndon (1975), and finally to Full Metal Jacket (1987).30
Until now, Norman Kagan has been the sole author to dedicate an entire chapter of a book to an analysis and interpretation of Fear and Desire. His reading is an early example of what would become a leitmotif in Kubrickian hermeneutics, the conflict between reason and passion, and, more broadly, the irreconcilability of emotions and strategic thought in the search for a moral criterion by which to capture and understand reality.31
The most intelligent man, Lieutenant Corby, is so detached he doesn’t know why he is alive, but just collects reasons (“like butterflies”). . . . The emotions are equally useless to everyone in Fear and Desire. The boy, Sidney, is driven to assault and murder by his fear and lust.32
Twice on the same page Kagan alludes to the theme of obsession, which acts like a distorted mirror, pathologically amplifying the individual’s sense of responsibility toward others, and to the function of wit as a safety valve for the tensions generated by this conflict. Lieutenant Corby “uses his brain mostly to make ‘intellectual jokes’ nobody else gets”; Corby “realizes that he plays with ideas all day because it helps him survive in a hostile world.” On the other hand, “the four soldiers are like the exploded fragments of a personality: intellectual thought and playfulness, emotional drives like lust and fear, emotional control and self-discipline, and the self-maintaining functions.” Mac is obsessed with the idea of killing the enemy general, but his drive seems to come more from a guilty awareness about his own true nature (or perhaps his own need for purification), rather than from hatred toward the opponents. In accomplishing his mission “he is purging himself, redeeming himself, through a socially approved act of katharsis” compatible with the rules of war, though he is “driven half-consciously to self-destruction.” The homicidal-suicidal couple, Sidney and Mac, “is typical of nearly all of Kubrick’s films: Lolita (Humbert Humbert, [Claire] Quilty); Dr. Strangelove (General Ripper, Major Kong), and 2001: A Space Odyssey (HAL 9000, astronaut Bowman).” But, according to Kagan, “the portraits of such characters, driven by passions and compulsions they only half understand,” are never as clearly defined as they are in Kubrick’s first feature film: “ Fear and Desire is probably his most personal film until Lolita“; it is “a fascinating effort containing a host of ideas, images, and themes which continue to appear in Kubricks later films.”
This virtually completes the critical dossier on Fear and Desire.33 Alexander Walker, in his book Stanley Kubrick Directs (1971), refuses to pass judgment, limiting himself to quoting Kubrick’s own indictment (“It was little more than a thirty-five-mil-limeter version of what a class of film students would do in sixteen millimeter”) and concluding: “One suspects that he does not find it disagreeable to know that the only traceable print of it is in private hands and unavailable for public screening at the moment.” While Michel Ciment relates Fear and Desire to the film noir aesthetic,34 Thomas Allen Nelson recasts the severest condemnations of the film in the context of a comprehensive indictment of the decade in which the film was made:
The themes of the film are out of a grab-bag of 1950s bohemian negativism (the film attacks war and other social institutions, and it shows the failures of reason and the dangers of an unexplored unconscious) and existential self-congratulation. (When James Mason as Humbert in Lolita pretends to be going to Hollywood to make a film about existentialism, which, he ironically tell us, was a “hot thing” at the time, Kubrick may be telling us something about his early work.)35
Nelson wrote about Fear and Desire in 1982. Besides the fact that he had probably never viewed the film, the cordon of silence surrounding Fear and Desire was already so tight that— notwithstanding the relatively recent date of its issue—it was already classified among those rare films “lost” in dramatic or fascinating circumstances, along with such legends as the complete version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1923-25), Orson Welles’ Don Quixote (1955), and the I, Claudius (1937) of Josef von Sternberg. There is one decisive difference, however: the other titles represent lost or unachieved masterworks, while Fear and Desire seemed instead to conceal—under the appearance of a eager but failed attempt—the essential nucleus of Kubrick’s world, the intuitions that would lie dormant for almost twenty years, emerging finally in his two latest films, The Shining and Full Metal Jacket.
In light of these circumstances, the print preserved by George Eastman House—and available for scholarly research in the Motion Picture Study Center—is an unexpected blessing, an opportunity to investigate the rationale for Kubrick’s attitude toward the film, and to reassess the critical and scholarly judgments of the last thirty years.36
Close viewing also enables a comparison of Fear and Desire with Kubrick’s most recent film to date, Full Metal Jacket, and with its literary sources, The Short-Timers (1979) by Gustav Hasford, and Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), both dealing with the Vietnam war. Compare, for example, Full Metal Jacket‘s depiction of military training and action as a timeless expression of human behavior, to the beginning of Fear and Desire, with David Allen’s voice-over narration, accompanied by images of a desolate natural landscape:
There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought or one that will be, but any war, and the enemies who struggle here do not exist until we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now, is outside history— only the unchanging shapes of fear, and doubt, and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind.
The early sequences amply justify the appreciative comments of contemporary critics on the outstanding quality of the film’s photography. Fear and Desire contains images of dazzling precision, so sharp that in the frequent closeups of soldiers, such as the shot of Paul Mazursky intent on watching an air-plane’s flight, even the skin on their faces is seen in minute detail, without the use of side lighting (figure 3). Whatever the ambitions of the young Kubrick, his mise en scene seems only slightly awkward, and certainly does not betray the posturing and naive arrogance typical of so many first directorial efforts.
On the other hand, it is true that the verbal flamboyance of the prologue, and of the film as a whole, overloads the narration with explicit philosophical metaphors. The intentions underlying them are clear: Fear and Desire is not meant to be a war film in the conventional sense of the term, but rather insists on the fact that the only reality with which the characters contend is psychological, not physical, and alludes to “the unchanging shapes of fear, and doubt, and death” that are a part of daily consciousness. Therefore, from the very beginning, Fear and Desire negates any identification with the combat film genre, and instead proclaims a much more ambitious intent, the exploration of the unconscious. The “enemies who struggle here” are the creations of an act of will (by he or she who conceives them, as well as by the observer), the product of inner compulsions that largely transcend history and hide beneath rational behavior.
Though stilted and uneven, especially in a film meant for commercial release, the recitation that introduces the story also contains at least two interesting aspects. First, it constitutes a deliberate renunciation of any clear and precise temporal context and setting for the action that is about to occur. It tells not of “a war that has been fought or one that will be,” but of war as an archetypal situation only incidentally depicted in “our language and our time.” Second, this introduction comes from a voice of narrative authority, which immediately imposes direct control over the course of the story. Kubrick’s “invisible” narrator, whose presence is so common in the director’s later films—defining the twisted temporal framework of The Killing (1956) and presiding over the ample dramatic trajectory of Barry Lyndon —is here already omniscient. Such diegetic power forecasts the final outcome of the story, and implicitly affirms its control over the storytelling process in the opening statement of Fear and Desire. The impact of this statement is so strong that the entire trajectory of events takes place under its impetus; its meaning does not need to be reiterated at the end (as it so often is in Hollywood “classical” cinema, when the denouement is controlled by an unseen voice interposed between the action and the audience).
The narrator-demiurge of Fear and Desire intervenes (directly or through off-screen monologues) in a few, critical occasions, altering the pace of the characters’ perception of time and their transformation of thought into concrete action. Each break affects the already slow pace of the film, suggesting that the story may be nothing more than a succession of false narrative trails, continuous delays of an inevitable yet elusive outcome, contemplations of various possible courses of events, and actions hampered by the uncertainty of their ultimate significance.
Such is the viewer’s impression of a seemingly marginal digression early in the plot. The smell of cooking comes from a hut occupied by two enemy soldiers. Drawn by hunger more than military commands, the four soldiers rush in and massacre their victims with bayonet blows at the moment they are about to begin their frugal meal (figure 1). In this sequence, which lasts only a handful of seconds, the harsh, angular contrasts in the carefully framed shots are calculated, yet no less effective: cutting rapidly from the image of a bowl of soup dropped on the floor (figure 4), to the point of view of the assaulted victim—with the actor stabbing at the camera, a typical ploy in Soviet cinema (figure 5)—to the spilled food and silverware on the ground (figure 6), and then a closeup of a hand clenching and mashing food before falling limp (figure 7) under the eyes of Lieutenant Corby, to a final shot in the center of a room strewn with bodies, its objects and lighting fashioning geometrical images of horror (figure 8).
This sequence contains two characteristic and revealing aspects. The first is stylistic, and closely anticipates another famous Kubrick “war movie,” Dr. Strangelove. Just after the attack, a third enemy soldier enters the hut and is also killed, this time by a gunshot. The camera frames Corby witnessing the massacre, and the angle of the shot, the dark background (figure 9), and his astonished look all recall the closeups in Dr. Strangelove ‘s portrait of Sterling Hayden as a demented general, mumbling his hallucinatory interpretation of nuclear war as a fight to preserve male potency.
While Corby incites his companions to flee the hut, fearing that other enemy soldiers may have heard the gunshot, the camera lens—lowered to the level of the floor—lingers again for a few moments: long enough to describe a macabre view of dead bodies and shadows, deliberately composed with the frozen perfection of a still life (figure 10). The camera then suddenly rears up for an overhead shot of two legs, perhaps the limbs of two different victims, perhaps of one man, horribly broken and contorted (figure 11). This sequence inaugurates a whole catalogue of characters—major or peripheral—with leg injuries, an anthology of infirmities and mutilations that continues through Full Metal Jacket and pervades practically every Kubrick film.37
The other key element is found in the soldiers’ behavior right after the slaughter. The group’s conduct is an insistent affirmation of the connections between sexuality, aggression, and the instinct for survival.
CORBY: Better grab something to eat. It may be a long time till our. . . next “feast.” Better eat something.
FLETCHER: How’s the stew, Mac?
MAC: Hmmm . . . kinda cold, but cold stew’s all right.
CORBY: Cold stew on a blazing island. We’ve just made a perfect definition of war, Mac.
MAC: That’s ducky!
CORBY: Of course. A blazing island with a tempest of gunfire around it that fans the blaze.
The soldiers devour their rations amid the corpses (figure 12). Sidney rests on the table where the enemy soldiers had recently died, and his immobile face corresponds to those of the victims. Between closeups of Corby, absorbed in his own thoughts, and the dark shapes of dead bodies lying on the floor, Mac grabs the last bowl of food and downs it in one gulp; a dense, whitish liquid runs down his chin, and the shot is held for a while to maximize its repulsive and allusive detail (figure 13). A brief, interior monologue by Corby suddenly diverts the attention to its literary sources (just as Fletcher had made reference to Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn when finishing the raft built for their river escape):
We spend our lives running our fingers down the lists and directories, looking for our real names and our permanent addresses. . . . “No man is an island?” Humph! Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the ice age. . . . The glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands, parts of a world made of islands only.
The theme of cannibalism—practiced in an eroto-ritualistic context—again crops up brutally in Mac’s teasing of the agitated Sidney as soon as the soldiers are back outside:
What’s the matter. . . what’s the matter, sweetheart? I heard that they’re cannibals . . . so that even if we get caught, you’re pretty safe!
The first introduction of a woman’s presence coincides with an image of food hunting that has a certain stylized sensuality. Three young women wading in the river, all intent on fishing, are aligned in a perfect diagonal of classic simplicity (figure 14) in a shot that also recalls the Japanese films brought to the West in the early fifties. But from the moment the girl in the middle reaches the river bank and her suspicions are aroused by noises coming from the forest glade, the film’s emphasis shifts to a symbolic and figurative level, acquiring more explicit connotations. Fearing discovery, Corby and his troops remain immobile, watching the movements of the girl, who approaches ever closer to where they are hidden. The beautiful shot from the point of view of one of the men, whose gaze meets hers as she approaches through the shrubs (figure 15), begins the most innovative part of Fear and Desire, both in terms of ideology and of technical expression.
The events are narrated with severe concision: the girl is captured, tied to a tree, and interrogated to find out if she or her companions have seen the raft. Failing to extract an answer, Corby, Mac, and Fletcher return to the river bank to complete their preparations, leaving the prisoner in Sidney’s custody. He first enacts a long and incoherent monologue in front of her, then tries to seduce her, and finally kills her as she starts to flee. If Fear and Desire, taken as a whole, displays Kubrick’s philosophy at the very moment of its formation, this sequence contains the essence of all successive elements found in Kubrick’s experiments with time.
Like the sole female character in Dr. Strangelove (called “Lady Foreign Affairs” because an issue of the journal Foreign Affairs is all that conceals her nudity), a figure who speaks only a very brief bit of dialogue, just one word is pronounced by Virginia Leith in Fear and Desire:
MAC: I hope she doesn’t start screaming.
CORBY: She’s a pretty little thing.
FLETCHER: Why don’t we just leave her here and get going?
CORBY: Don’t rush me. If we can make her understand us, perhaps she can tell us whether they found the raft.
SIDNEY: Habla espanol?
CORBY: I’ll handle this, Sidney. I’m quite sure she wasn’t educated abroad. Now, let’s see . . . You—see—boat? Our—boat? [figure 16]
When Corby decides to tie the girl to a tree, Sidney reacts at once:
Please don’t beat her! She’s just scared, like we are. She doesn’t even talk!
Again, the dialogue is dominated by references to food. “Shall we leave her fish here?” Fletcher asks ironically. Soon after, alluding to the possibility that the young woman was getting dinner for the enemy general, Mac guesses what the general might want for dinner: “Fish, cod, or fresh strawberries, or goat . . . .” Soon after, Sidney is left alone to guard the hostage. “I want you to stay here and keep an eye on her,” Corby says as he leaves with the other soldiers; “she may prove very useful if the raft has been discovered.”
The scene that follows is introduced by images, superimposed onto the action, that again show the massacre in the hut. Sidney’s insane behavior thus appears to be prompted by his recent experience, as well as by the recollection of some deeper, ancestral memory. To this more primitive condition he seems to address his incoherent supplications, spoken before the astonished gaze of the young girl:
I’m really glad they let me stay. I’m not foolin’! Please don’t be afraid to like me! Please! That’s . . . that’s why they let me stay: they thought you would like me. . . . If you have to hate me, please try to like me also!
The action shifts several times from the river bank, where the others are busy constructing the raft and observing through binoculars the mysterious movements of the enemy, back to the clearing, where Sidney acts out his mental disintegration, pretending to be the enemy general (intent on eating—again— and issuing orders), then turning his attention to the prisoner, recounting Shakespeare’s Tempest for her:
Do you want to hear more? Do you? All right. Then the spirit in the magician’s power goes back to the island and tells Miranda that her father is dead. The spirit sings how he’s dead at the bottom of the ocean. His bones are coral; his eyes are pearls—and Miranda: her father’s dead. Dead! Can’t you understand anything? Dead! Dead!! DEAD!! Now do you understand?
(In light of a crucial scene in the first part of Full Metal Jacket, it is interesting to note that Paul Mazursky concludes this speech by pretending to strangle himself with his own hands.)38
As Sidney’s desires finally become clearer, the young girl perceives an opportunity to flee. Sidney kneels before her: the exchange of looks between them (figures 17 and 18) is similar to the looks exchanged by Alexander de Large and the half-naked model in A Clockwork Orange during the demonstration of the “Ludwig Technique” (a high-angle point-of-view shot of him, then the ambiguous expression on her face, a mixture of deceit, desire, disgust, and pity). Sidney brings her some water; she drinks, then licks his hands (figure 19); to this suggestion of erotic ritual (figures 20 and 21) he responds by untying her.
The moment in which the girl acts upon her plan to save herself prompts an abrupt stylistic change from the grotesque to the dry precision of film noir, a style that Kubrick will perfect in The Killing. Here, too, both theory (his reading of Pudovkin and the Soviet formalists) and concept (the doubling, the Freudian idea of the “uncanny”39 already exhibited—perhaps inadvertently—in Kubricks first film) are strictly related to their visual outcome. The enactment of the girl’s death consists essentially of three shots, two of them repeated four times. The first is a medium close shot of Sidney, ready to shoot, lit in a way that exaggerates the chiaroscuro, while the others are closeups of Sidney, alternately in full light and in shadow (figures 22-25). Here the metaphor is only too clear. Also evident is Kubrick’s intention to fracture time with shots so short that the eye cannot perceive them (the longest lasting a quarter second, the briefest only a single frame). This is both an allusion and a tribute to Eisenstein’s Oktjabr (1927), while at the same time affirming a distinction that will be crucial in Kubrick’s later films: montage is less an aesthetic strategy for creating rhythm and metaphoric counterpoint (in the sense propounded by Eisenstein) than the aesthetic representation of time as it is perceived subjectively by the mind, especially in traumatic or conflicting situations. This might explain the ending of this sequence with another paradoxical shot, from the point of view of the girl’s lifeless body, as Sidney closes her eyes by covering the camera lens with his hand. This device is somehow mannered and overintellectualized, but there is a reason for it; it is the conclusive image of an event perceived subjectively, the final act of Sidney’s identification with his victim and with his own demons:
She was tired. She went to lie down. Over there! Don’t annoy her, Mac. Come here! It wasn’t my fault: the magician did it! Honest! Prospero, the Magician! First we’re a bird and then we’re an island. Before, I was a General! And now I’m a fish! Hurrah for the magicians!
Though it dominates Fear and Desire, the theme of the double does not recur with such ambiguity and complexity in the rest of the film, which is by and large a cumbersome theorization on the mirror-like nature of the human intellect. The enemy general and his captain have the same faces as Corby and Fletcher; they express identical feelings of anxiety and terror, and have analogous attitudes toward death. When Mac offers to draw the enemy fire on himself while Corby and Fletcher burst into the general’s room, the dialogue suddenly takes a high-sounding but revealing tone:
MAC: What are you livin’ for, anyway? To make talk? Why? Why is your life so precious?
CORBY: (interior monologue) Why? The only reason is to hunt for the reason. But can I stand in the way of a man with a reason to die?
FLETCHER: You’ll do it, won’t you, Corby?
MAC: Do it for me.
CORBY: Well, we have nothing to lose but our futures.
On the other side of the river, the general has barely finished his dinner. He has already fed his Doberman, who had just returned from two days of roaming on the opposite bank (where he was glimpsed momentarily by Corby and his companions, at the beginning of the film). The general discusses his predicament with the captain:
Frankly, I become quite uneasy when I find myself trapped, directing the courses of frightened men. I cannot quite admit that it is I who am creating slaughter in this abyss, or that I left the road, and that I ordered this or that. I’m trapped. What is a prison for me? I make a grave for others.
Other developments are less predictable: Kubrick’s attitude toward the inevitable moment of encounter between the two pairs of Doppelgangers, and Mac’s attitudes toward the group. The latter is especially important in relation to Full Metal Jacket, another film that considers the individual’s responsibility to the community in a situation of common danger and depicts a cold indifference about death.40 Mac’s inner thoughts as he drifts down the river show his renunciation:
No more Sundays. No more a thousand things. I’m a little scared, though. Just a little. Like kissing my great-grandmother when she was dying.
Far from acting under an improbable heroic impulse, Mac sees his self-sacrifice as the acceptance of a kind of existential challenge:
When you walk and walk through the woods and then suddenly they dangle a general in front of you like magic, and you know it’s only for this once; you can’t turn your back on him! None of us asked to be here, but we all have to gamble . . . it’s not as if we could refuse! We had to gamble once we crashed. That general raised the stakes, and we’ve been so lucky, why shouldn’t we put up a little more than we have to?
War as a game—another Kubrickian theme par excellence—thus assumes an importance that is not merely strategic, but moral. Risk, exposure to danger, means challenging death, and therefore focusing energies on a promise of immortality. One of the final shots of Fear and Desire shows Mac, sprawled across the raft like a dying figure in Gericault’s painting Le Radeau de la Meduse (The Raft of the Medusa) (figure 26), shrouded in the dense river fog. This river, which the film’s explicit allegory identifies as the endless flow of time, acts also as a chronological and personal watershed. It is the line dividing the soldiers from their enemies, and the place where Sidney, the only one who did not take part in the attack on the general, finally reappears.
What remains to be seen is how Kubrick visualizes the impact of Corby’s and Fletcher’s encounter with their two opposites. In terms of pacing, the confrontation follows the pattern already seen in the episodes of the soldiers’ deaths in the hut and the killing of the girl by the river; it creates a staccato succession of rapid images, preceded and followed by an extended, almost amorphous montage. There is more, however, in this last episode. Mac draws on himself the attention of the guards, who fire. The shots and cries echo within the room where the general and the captain sit, but they do not move (figure 27), registering only a slight reaction before being hurled violently to the floor by the impact of bullets. Once more, Kubrick emphasizes the eerie stiffness of a corpse (figure 28), but adds a crude noise to these images: the sound of a face crashing on the floor, the crack of a nose fracturing like a nut under the blow of a fist. The general drags himself along the floor, trying to reach the entrance; backlighting silhouettes the streams of blood flowing from his mouth. He barely manages to say “I surrender . . .” before Corby fires twice at point-blank range. While Fletcher and Corby run for the airplane, the general’s dog approaches his master’s body, not to nuzzle him, but to avidly lick up the blood spilled on the ground.
A comprehensive, in-depth study of Kubrick’s iconography, and of the themes that recur throughout his work, would be likely to show that an impressive number of these concerns are most fully and explicitly realized in Fear and Desire. These include, of course, the double (a theme often explored by the director, up to his unachieved adaptation of Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle) and its implications to the psychological experience of time (the parallel chronologies of murder in The Shining),41 and violence (from its sadistic manifestations in A Clockwork Orange to the anguish and libido of nuclear catharsis in Dr. Strangelove). Thus it is no surprise that Kubrick wanted to rid himself of such an explicit film, one that revealed far too much of his personal agenda. Kubrick tried to suppress and perhaps destroy it, as if to deny its existence, not just because Fear and Desire seemed to him nothing but a pretentious and amateurish effort, but because the film proclaims with uncalculated immediacy the major creative strategies of the director’s oeuvre that would follow in coming years. Kubrick, the consummate chess player, had committed in his youth the most unforgivable mistake of the game: announcing his strategy for capturing the adversary’s king (or general) with his opening move.
1 This essay is the abridged and revised version of an article published in Segnocinema under the title “Scacco al generate: analisi di Fear and Desire” (vol. X, 40, November 1989), pp. 12-24. While most of the references to the critical reception toward the film have been omitted, this article includes additional observations on the print restored by George Eastman House and notes the differences between the film released in 1953 and the Museum’s print.
2 This letter is partially reprinted in Norman Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972), p. 9.
3 Ibid., p. 1.
4 Thomas M. Pryor, “Young Man with Ideas and a Camera.” In The New York Times, 14 January 1951, Screen Section, p. 5.
5 It should, however, be noted that already, in its September 1949 inaugural issue, Modern Photography had reproduced one of Kubrick’s photographs in its lead editorial article, “This Is Modern Photography.” It is the portrait of a little New York shoeshine boy at work, shot from a low vantage point.
6 A recent analysis of this film is by Richard Combs, “Day of the Fight,” Monthly Film Bulletin, XLVII, 563, December 1980: 248-249.
7 Wallace Coyle, Stanley Kubrick, A Guide to References and Resources (Boston: G.K. Hall and Company, 1980), p. 2.
8 The most useful source on Kubrick’s beginnings as a filmmaker is Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick. The occasional inaccuracies of this book can be partially corrected by consulting the interview of Kubrick by Joseph Gelmis in The Film Director as Superstar (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company, 1970), especially pp. 312-315.
9 In Gelmis’ interview with Kubrick in Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar, p. 312, the director claimed to have been paid $4,000 for DAY OF THE FIGHT, making a profit of $100. This would confirm that the short film cost $3,900 to make, rather than $5,000.
10 Richard Combs, “Flying Padre,” Monthly Film Bulletin 47, no. 563, December 1980, p. 249.
11 Wallace Coyle asserts that RKO paid $1,500 to finance the film. See note 7.
12 It should be noted that the main titles in Fear and Desire read as follows: “Directed, Photographed and Edited by Stanley Kubrick” (author’s italics). See figure 2.
13 Outstanding Feature Films Now Available in 35mm (New York: Joseph Burstyn, Inc. [ca. 1952]), pp. 1-2.
14 Catalog of Copyright Entries, Cumulative Series, Motion Pictures, 1950-1959 (Washington, D.C.: United States Copyright Office, The Library of Congress, 1960), p. 104. The deposit record kept at the Library of Congress describes the film as a “photoplay in 8 reels.”
15 Request for Return of Copyright Deposit. Form signed by Martin Perveler on 29 May 1953, in the Library of Congress Register of Copyrights, LP 2595. This document, as well as the synopsis of Fear and Desire, is preserved at the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress. No information has yet been found on the number of prints made from the original film negative.
16 The only other written sources available are the plot summary given by Kagan, pp. 9-17, which, however, contains some inaccuracies, and the synopsis reprinted by Wallace Coyle on pp. 32-34 of Stanley Kubrick, A Guide to References and Resources, which is based on the Kagan text (see note on p. 32). Coyle gives two separate dates for the opening of Fear and Desire; on page 3 he specifies 29 March, and on p. 34, 1 April 1953; the latter is referred to as the release date.
17 “ Fear and Desire,” Variety, 1 April 1953, p. 6.
18 A. Weiler, “The Screen in Review,” The New York Times, 1 April 1953, p. 35.
19 “ Fear and Desire,” Newsweek 41, 13 April 1953, pp. 106-108.
20 John McCarten, “The Current Cinema: Amateur,” in The New Yorker, vol. 29, 11 April 1953, p. 129.
21 Joanne Stang, “Film Fan to Film Maker.” The New York Times Magazine, 12 October 1958, pp. 34-38.
22 Interview by Michel Ciment with James B. Harris in Kubrick (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1980), p. 201 (English edition [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1982], p. 201).
23 Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1971), p. 18.
24 Robert Brustein, “Out of This World,” The New York Review of Books, 6 February 1964, pp. 12-14; cited in Kagan, p. 17. Brustein’s article is reprinted in Julius Bellone, ed., Renaissance of the Film (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1970), pp. 71-78.
23 Joseph Gelmis, The Film Director as Superstar, p. 313.
26 Quoted in Adrian Turner, “Stanley Kubrick,” World Film Directors (New York: H.W. Wilson Co., 1988), vol. 2, p. 545. Turner refers to Mark Carducci’s article “In Search of Stanley Kubrick” in Millimeter, vol. 3, December 1975, pp. 32-37, 49-53.
27 Jackson Burgess, “The Antimilitarism of Stanley Kubrick,” Film Quarterly, vol. XVIII, no. 1, Autumn 1964, pp. 4-11.
28 Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, p. 9.
29 This holds especially true for the two most important books on Kubrick published during the last decade: Michel Ciment, Kubrick (see note 22) and Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 1982.
30 This includes my own discussion on Kubrick on the subject of Full Metal Jacket, “Full Metal Kubrick,” in Segnocinema, vol. VIII, 31, January 1988, pp. 20-24.
31 This idea is articulated by Michel Ciment in his essay “Entre raison et passion” [“Between Reason and Passion”], published in 1980 in Positif and later reprinted by Ciment in his book Kubrick, pp. 59-122 (English edition, pp. 58-123).
32 Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, p. 19.
33 Several articles were published in newspapers and magazines in connection with the first screenings of the restored GEH version of Fear and Desire. A comprehensive dossier can be found in the Museum’s Motion Picture Studies Center.
34 Michel Ciment, Kubrick, p. 102 (English edition, p. 102).
35 Nelson, Kubrick: Inside, p. 21.
36 It is worth noting that the Museum’s print shows some cement splices clearly not motivated by any break or damage to the material. Kubrick’s later practice of editing his films after their initial release (as in Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Shining) might present itself here in the earliest evidence available to the researcher. The splices may also account for the fact that Fear and Desire was announced as having a footage of 5,940 feet, while the surviving print is 5,467 feet long, 61 minutes shorter than the original. It would be worthwhile to further explore the rationale of these cuts, possibly by comparing the print with a low-grade 16mm duplication preserved at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
37 Full Metal Jacket has at least two moments of explicit violence—suffered or inflicted—on the lower limbs of the human body. The first is in the image of an American soldier who drags himself, following his other comrades-in-arms, from the battlefront to their encampment in Hue after the great battle of the Vietnamese New Year’s offensive. The other is the method of ambush preferred by a Vietcong sniper, who cripples the legs or feet of his victims before killing them. In the recurrent iconography of Kubrickian characters who are lamed, mutilated, and crippled, one numbers Jack Nicholson limping through the labyrinth in The Shining; the amputation of Redmond Barry’s left leg in Barry Lyndon; the writer and the strategic counselor confined to wheelchairs, respectively, in A Clockwork Orange and Dr. Strangelove; the crippled parking lot employee in The Killing (1956); and the gangster lamed during the rooftop chase in Killer’s Kiss. A fascinating theoretical hypothesis to explain this leitmotif may be explored through Georges Bataille’s essay, “La mutilation sacrifi-cielle et l’oreille coupee de Vincent van Gogh” [“Van Gogh’s Ear and the Sacrificial Mutilation”], Document, No. 8, deuxieme annee, 1930, pp. 10-20.
38 Hartman orders the soldier Pyle: “Don’t pull my fucking hand over there! I said choke yourself! Now lean forward and choke yourself!” The script is published in Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, and Gustav Hasford, Full Metal Jacket (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1987), p. 11.
39 Sigmund Freud’s essay “Das Unheimliche” [“The Uncanny”] (S. Freud, Gesammelte Werke, Chronolisch Geordnet,
Vol. 12 [Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1964]) is a major source for understanding Kubrick’s approach to obsession, the pathological side effects of creativity, and the perception of time. Another revealing treatment of these issues (probably known to Kubrick by the time of the making of The Shining) is to be found in Aristotle, “The Melancholy of Genius,” in Problemata, V.
40 In this respect, contrast Fletcher’s final comment in Fear and Desire —”Yeah. I’m glad in a way, too. And I feel free all of a sudden”—with Joker’s in Full Metal Jacket: “I am so happy that I am alive, in one piece and short. . . . And I am not afraid.” (Kubrick, Herr, and Hasford, Full Metal Jacket, p. 120).
41 Thomas Allen Nelson (in Kubrick, p. 4) rightfully classes Fear and Desire among the “speculative science fiction films” of the director.
Translated from the Italian by Rachel Stuhlman.
Paolo Cherchi Usai is senior curator, motion picture collections, at George Eastman House. His latest book is Light of Asia: Indian Cinema, 1913-1930 (Bombay: Wiley Eastern, 1994), co-edited with Suresh Chabria.
Published in Image, Volume 38 Nos. 1-2, Spring/Summer 1995