Jason Sperb analyses Fear and Desire and its relevance to Kubrick's larger body of work
Fear and Desire by Stanley Kubrick

We’re all islands: Seeing and hearing the country of the mind in Fear and Desire

by Jason Sperb

One suspects that [Kubrick] did not find it disagreeable to know that the only traceable print of [Fear and Desire] was in private hands and not easily available for public screening.
—Alexander Walker1

There are ways through which we too can begin to think about how others may have similarly sensed the failures at play in Fear and Desire—a projection of authority, but the affect of uncertainty. For me, yes, but for others, too. Indeed, if there is one thing most commonly ascribed to his work, Kubrick’s films are not models of narrative clarity. Many of his most famous films, such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Shining, seem as concerned with what remains hidden as what is shown. His last film, Eyes Wide Shut, for example, takes narrative ambiguity—antithetical storytelling—almost as its main subject. “Suppos[e] there is nothing more” to Eyes Wide Shut, writes Michel Chion, in his perceptive book-length study of the film, “suppos[e] there are only signifiers with nothing signified.”2 Eyes Wide Shut “tells us,” he goes on to write, “that motives do not matter and that we cannot know them.”3 The climax of Eyes Wide Shut centers not on a moment of revelation but on a moment of resignation—the acknowledgment that little can be learned definitively of the film’s events by either the protagonist, Bill Harford, or the film’s audience. As Chion implies, the ambiguity is not only something we sense but is also in the experience of the film itself. There is nothing in Eyes Wide Shut. Or, put another way, nothingness is in the film. The aforementioned 2001, A Clockwork Orange, Barry Lyndon, and The Shining, all point toward the possible ambiguity of narrative events—taking us to the limits of narrative understanding and forcing us to confront the affect of a chaos beyond. But Eyes Wide Shut takes this problem one step further by highlighting the emerging possibility that no definitive, authoritative meaning can ever be established in the story—the motives and intentions behind events, and thus the moments themselves, are ultimately unmediated and unrepresentable. They are filled with meaninglessness. Eyes Wide Shut, moreover, posits a Kubrickian protagonist who may finally, if only vaguely, feel this ambiguity. Thus the absence of narrative meaning—making sense of Eyes Wide Shut‘s story world—is not just a theme; it actually becomes the subject of Kubrick’s last film. At the end of Stanley Kubrick’s career, authority seemed to be a failed pursuit in the face of so much ambiguity, the kind that pervades Eyes Wide Shut.

Yet Kubrick’s films were not always so ambiguous in their content— “meaning,” however defined or substantiated, seemed of paramount importance. This point, meanwhile, is not focused on nearly as much by insightful scholars such as Chion. On the contrary, Kubrick’s early films, such as Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Spartacus, foreground the mind’s seeming potential for mapping out narrative assumptions and points of orientation through the story world—for, in a sense, mapping out meaning. The overlapping points of view; the complicated, often nonlinear narrative structures; the voice-overs; the dramatic, nondiegetic “signifying” music4—all these elements of the early films suggest narratives preoccupied with (to borrow Chion’s term) people’s “motives” (i.e., why heists fail and military institutions rest on the verge of self-destruction). In a nice, concise summary of Kubrick’s narrative evolution (or devolution), Luis M. Garcia Mainar argues that Kubrick’s early films reveal diametrically opposed views for the possible forms (and absences) of storytelling:

Voice-over narration in Kubrick’s films evolves from an element that shows the mastery of the text by itself, an element of coherence that assures the perfect fitting of each element in the first films, to a more detached, ironic relationship of narrator to text that hints at the growing feeling in the later films that reality cannot be controlled and that the text is unable to present it to us in a clear, reassuring way. This passage seems marked by the absence of voice-over narration in 2001, a reference to the organizing, clarifying function it had fulfilled in Kubrick’s films up to then, which would not have been coherent with the spirit of this revolutionary film.5

Mainar astutely points out the break in Kubrick’s career in respect to attitudes toward narration, from that of a “mastery” to that of a “more detached, ironic relationship.” Something clearly shifts near the middle of his body of work. The mind—typified by the abandoned voice-over in 2001— can no longer understand the experiences of the body. The “feel” becomes the important thing. And this project will later argue that this break more subtly occurs with Dr. Strangelove and its use of the strangely irrelevant third-person narrator. This shift comes one film sooner than the curious and no-doubt telling decision to eliminate the third-person, omniscient, and scientific voice-over in 2001 that is highlighted by Mainar, to which I return in chapter 5.

Mario Falsetto, in his narratological study of Kubrick’s body of work, also points out, in relation to The Killing, that “the use of an omniscient voice-over commentary is associated with a certain kind of filmic authority.”6 Both Mainar and Falsetto thus focus on voice-over narration as the key to how Kubrick’s films either do or do not construct “an element of coherence”—or do or do not map stories that will guide audiences to some assumed narrative and thematic resolution. Indeed, voice-over narration best offers us initially the first opportunity to begin reexploring an ever-changing dynamic within the films directed by Stanley Kubrick. Before moving to trace a sense of affect in his later films, the voice-over first allows us to rechart a path that builds from an early belief that storytelling could be best and most explicitly rendered visible by the verbalizing and explaining of the mind. This then evolves, as I see it, to a later sensation that such clarity and certainty were, at best, elusive, ephemeral, fleeting—just like the mystery of the dead woman that Bill Harford will never solve in Eyes Wide Shut. Paolo Cherchi Usai correctly notes how “Kubrick’s ‘invisible’ narrator, whose presence is so common in the director’s [post-Fear and Desire] films—defining the twisted temporal framework of The Killing and presiding over the ample dramatic trajectory of Barry Lyndon—is here already omniscient” in the director’s first film.7 There are ways, however, in which the omniscient narrator of Barry Lyndon will not affirm “its control over the storytelling process”8 in a way Kubrick’s first film does. In later Kubrick films, the experience of the story itself confounds the failed symbolic (and occasionally literal) writer trying to react to it. The shift in attitude toward voice-over narration, certainly, points us to an act of failed writing, just as the failure of Jack Torrance as a writer pushes us to the ambiguity of The Shining. This is not, however, the issue with the voice-over narrator in Fear and Desire.

The present project begins with voice-over narration, something both theorists have approached before.9 Yet Mainar and Falsetto leave unexplored the one Kubrick film that best illustrates how well voice-over narration can attempt a “certain kind of filmic authority” and show “a mastery of the text by itself.” This is the one Kubrick film that I sense was perhaps the most dependent upon what the filmmaker later in his career referred to as “the magic of words.”10 It is no small part of my project here to show how the first appearance of a slowly evolving shift from narrative clarity and authority to “a growing feeling that reality cannot be controlled”—as well as the clues to thinking about Kubrick’s production more peripherally—lies in the experience of his little-seen 1953 film Fear and Desire, a project hitherto largely passed over, unnoted, by Kubrick scholars. As I will show in this chapter, Fear and Desire offers a stronger starting point for remapping the boundaries of narrative authority and diegetic chaos within the films of Stanley Kubrick. In a celebrated career that spanned more than forty years but astonishingly produced only thirteen feature-length films, Fear and Desire stands as the last exhumed text through which to better grasp the artistic evolution of one of cinema’s most preeminent contributors.

* * *

Sensing and recharting the virtual—themes, meanings, motives—in this cinematic body requires mapping new points of orientation while also unearthing maps that journeyed before. This project is not merely my own imagined territory, somewhere between these pages and the films discussed. It is also a negotiation with the prior narrative imaginations—namely, the impressions drawn from the work of other critics, as well as the acts of narrators and narrations throughout Kubrick’s films. To draw a map through the experience of these films, I first look back to the maps within the films themselves. And like many of Kubrick’s later films, Fear and Desire opens with a voice-over narration (David Allen). Unlike the later films, however (save, perhaps, the third-person narrators who open Spartacus and, to a lesser extent, The Killing,), the voice-over narrator begins Fear and Desire by plotting out for the audience some ambitious, if vague, philosophical ground. He intones seriously:

There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies that struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. For all of them, 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, hut have no other country but the mind.

In this low-budget, once forgotten effort, the third-person narrator opens the film by declaring that the narrative structure and its characters exist in “no other country but the mind.” The narrator in the film thus attempts to envision a map, charting out for us a narrative orientation to the story world. The narrator, writes Usai, “immediately imposes direct control over the course of the story.”11 The implication is that everything that happens in Fear and Desire thus exists through the mediation of this country of the mind—an illusory, narratively engaged realm that presumes authority over the characters and events within the film. In the early films of Stanley Kubrick, the country of the mind is but another facade—a way through which the mind imagines the country. But it is inadequate to the experience. The country of the mind is not the story world per se, and it is not in itself a map—the country of the mind is the understanding of a figurative or literal map, that which is marked as the orientation of a narrating consciousness to the story world beyond. The country of the mind is the narrative assumption about the story world therein charted. It is what the map orients us to within the story world. The country of the mind is an unembodied mediation between the narrator and the story world—a nonrepresented country expressed by, but also externalized from, the mind. It can be denoted figuratively by a voice-over, an expressionistic image, a sound—it can even be that which is denoted by the nuclear montage at the end of Dr. Strangelove, or charted by the Big Board. Kubrick’s films point to the country of the mind whenever a cinematic moment marks ephemeral narrative assumptions about the story world.

All Kubrick’s films situate instances of this facade (i.e., the country of the mind). What shifts and fluctuates is the rupture between the reliability and durability of these maps, the narrators, and the territories they seek to chart. The voice-over at the beginning of Fear and Desire supports the first instance of this kind of mapping and gives us little reason to doubt that the country of the mind varies much from the existential forest in which the battles play out. Yet in Eyes Wide Shut, events as they are mediated through the country of Bill’s mind—where women are murdered in order to be silenced, and he is stalked because of his past behavior—may not be what he experiences in the story world at all. In Fear and Desire and Eyes Wide Shut (and in every Kubrick film in between), I envision the country of the mind as that which the explicit or implicit narrator sees as the story world unfolding, though it is rarely if ever synonymous with the story world itself. Nor is the country of the mind the narration itself, either, but rather a consequence of the narration, the thematic and discursive vision of the narration.

Of course, the country of the mind is also a deeply presumptuous, even pretentious, concept, and it well symbolizes the overconfidence of the film’s formal and narrative ambitions. Norman Kagan regards Fear and Desire as a “fascinating effort”12 (if also the work of “high school intellectuals at play”13). Perhaps on this point, I do not deviate much from Kagan, though I do hope to offer much more than plot summary. But—like Kagan—I too regard the film not as a polished cinematic masterpiece but as a fascinating effort that, in any case, points to new ways of perceiving the films of Stanley Kubrick.

This present study, despite all the previous criticisms—both valid and overstated—of Fear and Desire, starts from the premise that we can learn a good deal about Kubrick’s body of work by looking carefully at his first film. I do want to establish the backlash Kubrick’s film faced. This hopefully calls attention to how the young filmmaker may have been especially conscious of Fear and Desire‘s weaknesses—as illustrated in the Warner Bros. press release described later in the chapter—and may have gradually, over the course of his career, rethought his style and production according to them. In the first part of this chapter, I wish to explore the stylistic decisions of Fear and Desire that Kubrick later refined, such as the use of voice-over narration, music, and multiple story threads14—all important elements in constructing an authoritative narrative presence. We find in Fear and Desires opening voice-over, for instance, a crucial clue to understanding the filmmaker’s early desire to elevate storytelling into and through the country of the mind. Specifically, I argue here that Fear and Desire allows us to rechart the journey of an artist from one who believed in the power of film as a transcendent medium, showing an ambitious understanding of the world and its own story space, to one who believed that film was most effective when letting go of its own obsession with meaning.

Because the characters and events exist seemingly as a projection of the mind of the narrator, Fear and Desire explicitly foregrounds an authoritative mediator between story and audience, asking viewers to trust the voice-over while the film attempts to play out this meditation on humanity and war. As one of the few to write on the film at length, Usai defends the film vigorously, in particular crediting the film’s visual style; however, even he concedes that “the verbal flamboyance of the prologue, and of the film as a whole, overloads the narration with explicit philosophical metaphors.”15 Through the use of multiple story lines, manipulative music, and voice-over narration, Fear and Desire posits an authoritative representation of the film’s story’ world—a complete reversal of Kubrick’s later films, which broke free from and even criticize the seeming obsession with narrative authority and claims to thematic clarity. In contrast to previous critical discussions of the filmmaker’s body of work, this study will show that Stanley Kubrick’s career can and should be reconsidered in substantive ways through the lens of his very first feature directorial effort. To this end, I argue that Fear and Desire was not just the director’s first feature-length film but also the first important one—not because his first effort was or was not a particularly good film (does it even matter?) but because Fear and Desire provides some crucial cues to understanding the ways in which narrative meaning can (and cannot) be constructed within and by a film. I believe we can better appreciate the later films by viewing them in light of Kubrick’s first feature.

Like the later Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket (as well as less overt antiwar films such as Dr. Strangelove and Barry Lyndon), Kubrick’s first film takes a moral stand against war; however, unlike his subsequent antiwar movies, which focus mostly on military establishments—the definitions of cowardice and desertion, boot camp, and the ominous War Room—Fear and Desire attacks war both more transparently and more vaguely, as a crime against humanity, and pays almost no attention to the institutional forces at work within the military unit (conversely, Kubrick’s other antiwar films often become so preoccupied with the inner workings of the military that their respective wars, such as WWI and Vietnam, seem secondary). Within Fear and Desire‘s relatively brief running time, these four main soldiers kill other enemy soldiers and kidnap an otherwise innocent country girl (later killed by one of the men, who lusts after her and subsequently lives in guilt for his actions) before eventually confronting more enemy soldiers, who are the doubles of the original soldiers (played by the same actors). After killing the enemies, their symbolic “twins,” they finally escape on a raft to their home territory. Even without much use for a guide, the themes of Fear and Desire— war as humanity battling against itself, with soldiers struggling to fight the demons within—would seem apparent enough to most. In contrast to his other antiwar films, however, the use of allegory in Fear and Desire illustrates how much the filmmaker explicitly points out his views on war to audiences rather than allow such ambitious themes to develop through the organic and dramatic experience of the film itself. As one example, Paths of Glory’s court- martial proves more subtle and effective as symbolic of war as self-defeating than Fear and Desire‘s method of twin casting.

Within Fear and Desire, additional uses of voice-over, mood music, and multiple story threads attempt to impose narrative meaning through this film’s country of the mind. The dramatic, booming score of Gerald Fried plays over the film’s credits, indicating early on the tendency to allow explicit narrative elements to establish Fear and Desire‘s tone. Fried, meanwhile, would continue this type of mood music in Killer’s Kiss, The Killing, and Paths of Glory (while Alex North—whose overt, potentially intrusive score for 2001 was also deleted, like the planned voice-over, from the sci-fi epic—would assume such duties for Spartacus). Later in Fear and Desire, as the four fleeing soldiers march through the forest, the film overlays their respective voiceovers, as each man discusses his anxiety about being trapped behind enemy lines. Such lines as “Nobody’s safe here,” “Are they watching me?” “They’re all scared,” “We’re gonna hang from the trees tonight,” and “I’m so scared” emanate from the men’s minds and echo in rapid succession over a montage of the men working their way through the forest floor. Stating how “they’re all scared” recalls the explicit opening discussion of “the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt.” This particular kind of intense, multiple first-person subjectivity—the overlapping countries of the mind—would never again be deployed in Kubrick’s films. Even the highly subjective narrative structure of something like A Clockwork Orange only serves to critique Alex’s violent asociality, hatred, and self-absorption rather than win him sympathy and allegiance. There is no real affirming or constructive subjectivity in Kubrick’s later films—by which I mean positive and constructive in the way the early voiceovers guide the audience or construct some semblance of meaning. The “interviews” in Full Metal Jacket, where characters answer questions to the camera (perhaps a moment of overt subjectivity or mindscreen), do not attempt to explain the emotions of the latter film’s soldiers in the way that Fear and Desire‘s voice-over had earlier; they may even detach the emotions and further undermine narrative authority in Full Metal Jacket by portraying the soldiers as generic and uninteresting in their discussions. In contrast to that style, however, Fear and Desire relies on the ability of each man to verbalize his mental and emotional state rather than to display such anxieties dramatically or between the lines of a standard military interview, as in Full Metal Jacket.
When the tense music returns in the next scene, as the soldiers approach the river, Fear and Desire yet again reminds audiences of the emotional tension being signified within the story. This kind of mood music returns shortly thereafter when the four men unexpectedly spot an enemy cabin; the music suggests that this location soon will be the sight of a dramatic confrontation, an emotional setup much like the drums that always play in the background, counting off the moments leading up to the executions at the climax of Paths of Glory. As the men approach the shack, the music becomes even louder and more forceful, building up the anxiety while awaiting their violent attack on the enemy soldiers inside (a similar musical buildup occurs when Sidney [Paul Mazursky] is left with the girl and the sequence leads slowly, but deliberately, to an attempted rape). The soldiers kill the men in the cabin, after which the third-person voice-over narrator returns, again attempting to put the themes within Fear and Desire into words, as Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp) looks out silently over the murdered enemy soldiers:

We spend our lives running our fingers down the lists in directories, looking for our real names, our permanent addresses. No man is an island? 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.

It is difficult to pinpoint just what exactly the narrator is talking about while “running (his) fingers down the lists in directories.” The metaphor Kubrick and screenwriter Howard O. Sackler employ here does not seem to fit the context of the massacre, other than as a (under)statement on each human’s inability to connect with other people—“we’re all islands.” This idea, though, establishes what would go on to be perhaps the dominant theme of Kubrick’s films and serves as an important way in which we can both remap Kubrick’s films and think about the country of the mind’s essential isolation from the same world it seeks to mediate.

Characters—all the way up to Bill Harford in Eyes Wide Shut—cannot relate to the people around them and must therefore fall back on their own mostly faulty assumptions about the world and its meaning. Thus, to avoid complete chaos, they resort to mapping out an arbitrary discursive order to make sense of their surroundings rather than beginning to move outside themselves and their own minds (off the isolation of the island), engaging actively with others, even at the risk of uncertainty and narrative chaos. This line also highlights Fear and Desire‘s penchant for vague abstractions— common in the dialogue in the film—where the distance for the men to the front lines is “only a short distance, the distance between life and death.” Fear and Desire also returns to this idea of people as islands at several other points, such as when Sidney begins to lose his mind and mumble incoherently. Positioning humans as being “islands” not only lays out a major theme of alienation within Fear and Desire (and many Kubrick films) but also again foregrounds the film’s focus on the issue of narrative authority. Such a moment in the film is not unlike when, for example, Mac (Frank Silvera) floats down the river in a raft—literally his own “island” as a consequence of the country of the mind. This sequence, which I return to later, is also accompanied appropriately by Mac’s voice-over. More generally speaking, rivers signified, ironically, social stagnation and estrangement in Kubrick’s films, if we pair the events along the river in Fear and Desire with those moments later on in A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, where each film’s protagonist retreats to gazing contemplatively by a river, both having been shut out from their respective societies and—as the latter film’s third-person narrator suggests—met with “coldness . . . and resentment.”16

After Sidney is left by the other three soldiers with the kidnapped girl, multiple story threads begin to emerge in Fear and Desire, and the elusive authority that first called these characters “into being” now begins using montage to draw explicit connections and meaning, about such themes as sanity, compassion, an animal instinct for survival, and basic human desires such as jealousy and lust, from the parallel sequences. The film cuts back and forth between Sidney (and the girl by the tree) and the other soldiers down by the river. This use of multiple story threads (echoed by both Davy’s flashback and Iris’s flashback within a flashback in Killer’s Kiss) reached its highest form in The Killings extremely complicated juggling of events and chronology leading up to the heist (well documented and dissected by Falsetto). Intriguingly, this elaborate intertwining of conflicting story lines was in fact prominently displayed in Kubrick’s first few films and, just as importantly, rejected in later films. After Dr. Strangelove, his later works focused linearly on single protagonists—Alex, Jack, Bill—or confined groups, such as Full Metal Jacket‘s two military units and The Shining‘s family unit. After experiencing the three isolated settings in Strangelove, we never see more than one dominant point of view within the same story world of a Kubrick film. The point here is that the process of orienting audiences to events within the diegesis—in essence, the act of mapping a country of the mind—becomes less foregrounded as overt events within the film become more spatially limited and confined. For example, though we can presume that much happens outside the scope of Bill’s perceptions within the story world of Eyes Wide Shut, there is no dominant, omniscient narrator who reveals it to us. Unmistakably, Bill is that film’s narrator—and he is wholly incompetent at the task.

Once Sidney kills the girl (then runs off in hysterics as Mac watches, understandably befuddled), the three remaining soldiers regroup and decide to try to kill the enemy general. Mac goes down the river in a makeshift raft, while the other two prepare to assassinate the leader. At this point, the film adopts its most complicated narrative structure, as the story moves between Mac on the river, Corby and Fletcher (Steve Coit) outside the enemy headquarters, and the general himself inside his office. Meanwhile, as Mac rides down the river, his own first-person voice-over emerges:

It’s better . . . it’s better to roll up your life into one night and one man and one gun. It hurts too much to keep hurting everyone else in every direction and to be hurt with all the separate hates exploding day after day. You can’t help it. The curse buzzes out of your mouth with every word you say. And no one alive can tell which is which, or what you mean. Yeah. You try door after door when you hear voices you like behind them. But the knobs come off in your hand.

Like the third-person narrator in Fear and Desire, Mac’s first-person voice-over attempts to stress his emotional state as well as the general ideas behind the film—humanity confronting itself, the desire for soldiers to stop fighting and killing, and how these desires subsequently eat away slowly at a soldier’s sanity—emotions never explicitly stated in Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket, where the desires of the soldiers are no more clear than the constant blank facade on the face of Leonard Lawrence, “Pyle” (Vincent D’Onofrio). The general’s speech, meanwhile, reiterates this parallel descent into madness, as he lectures about waiting to kill and to die and about preparing for death. In one of the narrative’s most visually explicit moments, Fear and Desire cuts between Mac and the enemy general’s respective speeches about self-loathing and awaiting death, clearly attempting to strike a thematic connection between the two men as equally disgusted with, and exhausted by, the act of war (echoing a similar parallel between the speeches of Spartacus [Kirk Douglas] and Crassus [Laurence Olivier] years later). During these moments, Fear and Desire intersplices the story thread of the other two soldiers, Corby and Fletcher, as they approach and eventually attack the enemy compound, with these men’s “doubles,” the general, and his aide subsequently gunned down. In the film’s final moments, these claims to narrative authority—through dramatic mood music, the various speeches on war, and the complicated parallel editing—work the audience deliberately toward Fear and Desire‘s violent conclusion. Thus, Fear and Desire repeatedly portrays a human mind as attempting to provide authoritative order to, and impose meaning on, the world this mind thinks it experiences. This notion offers a fascinating avenue through which to better understand not only differing forms of narrative order—those forms offered separately by such elements as the voice-over and music in early films, then attempted with less success by characters, such as Torrance and Harford, in later ones—but also the importance of the previously overlooked Fear and Desire. The formal and thematic properties in Kubrick’s films can be understood not apart from but instead through the lens of his first film, Fear and Desire.

* * *

It is not terribly surprising that Fear and Desire—though not all that bad and, in any aesthetic case, extremely important when examining Kubrick’s entire body of work—quickly fell out of circulation. “After 1956,” writes Usai, Fear and Desire “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.”17 As a result of such apparent shame, it is equally predictable in retrospect that it took nearly forty years after its original debut for Kubrick’s first film to reemerge for audiences.18 “Despite the opposite intentions of its creator,” adds Usai, “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.”19 When the film finally resurfaced in 1991 at the Telluride Film Festival, Fear and Desire was understandably highly anticipated; the film, however, disappointed many devoted Kubrick followers and most cineastes. Anticipating such a negative response, the filmmaker asked Warner Bros, to prepare a press release, stating that Kubrick “considers [the film] nothing more than a ‘bumbling, amateur film exercise,’ written by a failed poet, crewed by a few friends, and ‘a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious’ ”20 Despite the harshness of the words, Kubrick’s self-criticism was not without justification. Although Kubrick’s own personal opinion of the first film he directed is not essential for understanding either Fear and Desire or his larger body of films (it may even, the evidence so far suggests, inhibit it), such self-awareness does serve as the first of many points that may help indicate why the film was overlooked for so long. Kubrick’s self-consciousness over Fear and Desire in particular is especially striking. For example, Usai finds it rightly perplexing that the filmmaker was so anxious to distance this film above all, asking, “Why was Kubrick so adamant about suppressing Fear and Desire, but not his early shorts, or Killers Kiss”?21 There is something there that caused Kubrick so much artistic anxiety for so long, and it would seem only fair to speculate that this artistic self-consciousness influenced the production of his later films. While some have kindly (and not inaccurately) written the movie off as “an initial practice piece,”22 Thomas Allen Nelson nails Fear and Desires faults more specifically:

While the themes of Fear and Desire crudely reflect a number of later Kubrickian preoccupations, their expression resembles that youthful grab-bag of 1950s bohemian negativism and existential self-congratulation that a fledgling director no doubt found attractive during the period when he and his first wife lived in Greenwich Village.23

As a blatantly allegorical war film, Fear and Desire suffers from a transparent obsession with trying to make profound yet ultimately thin and abstract statements on life—the work of an ambitious filmmaker who had a vague sense of what he wanted to say about such issues as war and mortality but had yet to find an effectively cinematic way of saying it. Or at least, Kubrick revealed in Fear and Desire a film that was reaching through a “grab- bag” of provocative potential, without actually accomplishing much in terms of meaning. As the opening suggests, Fear and Desire believes in the mediating narrative power of the country of the mind—where meanings and intentions within the story world could he brought apparently to the level of direct perception. Supposedly, Kubrick himself attempted to market the film in the early 1950s as an “allegorical” and “poetic” 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.”24 Interestingly, the emphasis on the relationship with “the hostile world” directly foreshadows an identical phrase from the discarded opening narration of 2001, made fifteen years later. The conscious effort to omit such didactic words was no doubt intended in some way to avoid the pretension of Kubrick’s first film. Also echoing reactions to 2001, Kubrick boldly predicted that Fear and Desire “will, probably, mean many things to different people, and it ought to.”25 This last note certainly is also an ironic prediction—not only because this will be an appropriate response to many later Kubrick films but also because Fear and Desire’s use of the voice-over makes such a response to the film problematic, at best. There is little room for ambiguity in the film’s message, save perhaps in relation to its heavily muddled abstractions—abstractions that even the concepts in the title itself allude to (likewise echoed in the film’s original working title, the equally vague and distracted The Shape of Fear). Yet—lest I risk trampling too far here—it should be noted that I do not consider Fear and Desire to be a horrible film overall, just a flimsy dramatic exercise that collapses quickly under the considerable weight of its own narrative and thematic aspirations.

And indeed when the film first opened in 1953, the response was not overly negative. New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther noted that despite the fact that Fear and Desire “is uneven and sometimes reveals an experimental rather than a polished exterior,” the filmmakers still “succeed in turning out a moody, often visually powerful study of subdued excitements.”26 Reportedly, legendary film critic and screenwriter James Agee even took Kubrick out and bought the young filmmaker a drink, declaring, “There are too many good things in [Fear and Desire] to call it arty.”27 Nonetheless, the film, for all its stylistic and thematic ambitions, still lacked a strong narrative and relied more on telling Fear and Desire‘s themes than on showing such themes; from what can be uncovered in the film, Kubrick and Sackler apparently believed too much in the expository power of the abstract word. Even Crowther criticized the script as “more intellectual than explosive.”28 Indeed, among other characteristics, Fear and Desire repeatedly portrays the human mind as verbalizing abstract thoughts and providing authoritative thematic meaning and narrative order to events within the film. Fifteen years later (while working on 2001), Kubrick himself would dismiss Fear and Desire as “a very inept and pretentious effort.”29 Kubrick should not have been so afraid of the film and its circulation, yet the fact remains that his own artistic self-consciousness had a deep effect on criticism.

Subsequently, most scholars have seemed anxious to follow Kubrick’s lead, moving past the film and deemphasizing its place, along with Spartacus (another underconsidered effort), in the Kubrick canon. The limited availability of the film only further encouraged this dismissal, no doubt, but I suspect that Fear and Desire, however easy to access, was not initially an important stopping point for those—in the 1970s and 1980s—mostly interested in explicating the supposed awe-inspiring genius of Dr. Strangelove, 2001, and A Clockwork Orange. But now, it is more relevant for a new wave of scholarship to go back to places previously marginalized, well aware that so much terrain has already been otherwise scoured. Still, Kubrick’s first film is not without its scholarly detours—some critics have attempted to acknowledge and investigate Fear and Desire over the years, though those same few scholars generally dismiss Fear and Desire shortly thereafter, perhaps because of its thematic weaknesses or amateur production values.30 Typically, the film is mentioned in passing, such as when Michel Ciment observes (almost as an aside) that with Full Metal Jacket, Kubrick “was doing a remake of his first film, Fear and Desire,”31 an interesting possibility otherwise unsupported and unelaborated upon. No doubt, some scholars avoided the film because, as with its director, they simply felt it wasn’t any good (or good enough). My own intention here is not to add to the critical negligence by arguing that Kubrick should have known better than to tell a story allegorically, or to criticize him for making a film that on the surface seems highly pretentious. Instead, I only wish to establish the strong backlash Kubrick’s film faced and call attention to how we can specifically sense the ways in which the young, noted perfectionist may have been particularly sensitive to Fear and Desire’s weaknesses and subsequently worked to refine them.

Almost definitely, the most comprehensive look at Fear and Desire thus far has been Usai’s “Checkmating the General: Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire,” which was appropriately published in the George Eastman House’s own artistic and scholarly journal, Image.32 In this article, Usai attempts to unpack the history of the film and its crucial thematic and formal qualities. In fact, Usai goes so far as to argue that Fear and Desire “seemed instead to conceal—under the appearance of an eager but failed attempt—the essential nucleus of Kubrick’s world, the institutions that would lie dormant for almost twenty years, emerging finally in his two latest films [at the time of his writing], The Shining and Full Metal Jacket.”33 In particular, Usai compares the opening voice-over narration of Fear and Desire (“outside history”) to ‘Full Metal Jacket‘s depiction of military training and action as a timeless expression of human behavior.”34 In other words, Full Metal Jacket shows what Fear and Desire only tells, according to Usai. Such a connection between these two particular antiwar Kubrick films is not entirely a coincidence, as Usai implicitly develops the argument that Ciment only hints at—that Full Metal Jacket is in some ways a reworking or rewriting of Fear and Desire. Such an argument would have particular historical urgency for Usai, as Full Metal Jacket was the most recent Kubrick film at the time of his article (originally appearing in the late 1980s and then republished in English in the mid-1990s). Usai builds the argument that the film’s abstractions make Fear and Desire “a rather ambiguous war story”35:

Some of its elements are classic [to the war genre]: 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 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?36

Usai is less reserved in his praise for the film than other Kubrick scholars overall—not rejecting the film entirely or (as I argue here) showing how the film serves as a specific point for rethinking the evolution of Kubrick’s narrative sensibilities. Usai in fact goes so far as to suggest that—in some respects—Fear and Desire was not a practice piece, but rather the quintessential Kubrick film, right out of the gate, and that this transparency in a way is what may have troubled the filmmaker so much ultimately. It was, in a sense, too explicitly “Kubrick” for even Kubrick’s own liking. Looking over Kubrick’s entire body of work, Usai argues:

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. . . 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 the coming years.37

In a way then, Usai argues that (for Kubrick, at least) Fear and Desires serious flaws were not that the film failed to realize Kubrick’s later themes but that it realized them all too well. I am tempted to argue that Usai gives Kubrick a bit too much credit here—suggesting that Kubrick wanted to be a little more elusive and shifty in his deployment of the themes he apparently had already mastered as a storyteller, even though he had yet to make a feature-length film.

There is the oft-repeated chess metaphor here—“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.”38 Surely the other problem here is that it may be a bit too presumptive to suggest that Kubrick already knew exactly what he wanted to say. Certainly I agree that what have already been identified as several Kubrickian themes appear to be already in play in Fear and Desire. However, if we take one of the strongest effects from this first film to be the need to resist putting meanings into words, to resist meanings entirely, then perhaps it would be a mistake to assume automatically that there is a definite “agenda” or “strategy” beneath the surface of Kubrick’s later films. Perhaps Kubrick was not so much rethinking his cinematic chess game as he was unthinking it. For me, Nelson’s metaphor of the “youthful grab-bag of 1950s bohemian negativism and existential self-congratulation” works better than that of “the chess player” for attempting to articulate Kubrick’s ambitions or to conceptualize the production of Fear and Desire‘s thematics. Chess implies that Kubrick had it all figured out—the fully formed, fully mature, old-school auteur, toying with his audience’s assumptions and expectations. The grab-bag, on the other hand, suggests that Kubrick was a young, talented, and ambitious artist still in training, who was overreaching to say anything and everything he thought might have an effect on its audience. The grab-bag metaphor implies a soon-to-be great filmmaker who—despite great energy and effort—had not yet figured out what to say, or how to say it. As his career evolved past Fear and Desire, Kubrick conceivably did not attempt to go further into the country of the mind but rather attempted to move outside it entirely. Usai argues that the main revision Kubrick made after Fear and Desire was in better hiding his plan, crafting a more subtle cinematic story. Certainly, Kubrick and the rest of the film’s crew could not have been expected to master the filmmaking and storytelling process so quickly—an important point all these film critics openly acknowledge. I, meanwhile, do not disagree with these previous sentiments—I only wonder if perhaps Kubrick’s response to his first film is better thought of not in terms of telling a story better but as trying not to tell so much of a story at all. The story becomes—literally in The Shining—that there is no story.


1. Alexander Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 14.

2. Michel Chion, Eyes Wide Shut, trans. Trista Selous (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 41.

3. Chion, Eyes Wide Shut, 84.

4. In her book on an otherwise undertheorized topic, Claudia Gorbman asks rhetorically, “What and how docs music signify in conjunction with the images and events of a story film?” Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 2. In this study, I focus on what Gorbman’s discussion delineates as the signifying qualities of film music. In particular, this study employs the assumption that this type of music is a “signifier of emotion” (“soundtrack music may set specific moods and emphasize particular emotions … a signifier of emotion itself”) and a vehicle for “narrative cueing” (“music gives referential and narrative cues, e.g., indicating point-of-view, supplying formal demarcations, and establishing setting and characters”) (73).

5. Luis M. Garcia Mainar, Narrative and Stylistic Patterns in the Films of Stanley Kubrick (Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 1999), 58.

6. Mario Falsetto, Stanley Kubrick: A Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, 2nd ed. (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2001), 5.

7. Paolo Cherchi Usai, “Checkmating the General: Stanley Kubrick’s Fear and Desire”, Image 38, no. 1/2 (Spring/Summer 1995): 13.

8. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 13. While Usai makes connections between the different third-person narrators in Kubrick’s films, he does not highlight the later voices’ sense of narrative detachment and thematic irony, which mark them in sharp contrast to the early films—especially, but not only, Fear and Desire.

9. Most rigorously, Falsetto attempts to explicate a few of Kubrick’s voice-over narrations yet abstains from identifying any trends or ruptures among them, other than to differentiate first-person from third-person narrators in the different films. Falsetto clearly believes that the unreliable voice-over narrator goes back at least to The Killing, where he uses two instances of “temporal errors” to argue that there is an attempt by Kubrick to “undercut the conventional faith in the authority of the voice-over.” Narrative and Stylistic Analysis, 5. In his book, Falsetto attempts a very strict formal reading of the filmmaker’s most famous films (with the conscious intent of avoiding the one popular film Kubrick’s exact control over has been the most debated: Spartacus). Falsetto’s main focus is on the visual properties of Kubrick’s films, such as editing, the manipulation of camera shots, and point of view. Though Falsetto docs break down the pattern of plotting in films such as The Killing and Dr. Strangelove, he shows a greater interest in shot composition than in the dynamics of story and discourse. Overall, Falsetto tries to prove that Kubrick employed very careful and precise manipulation of temporal and narrative ordering, without focusing on a particular overall thematic argument.

Written five years later, Mainar’s work extends Falsetto’s discussion. Yet Mainar also attempts to bridge such an analysis of Kubrick’s films with less formalist approaches— primarily, the thematic and explicatory approach, usually influenced by the auteur theory that most prominent existing Kubrick scholars employ. Mainar singles out the following studies for this group: Alexander Walker’s Stanley Kubrick Directs (1972; expanded, with the help of Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti, into Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis in 1999), Norman Kagan’s The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (1972), Gene D. Phillips’s Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (1975), Thomas Allen Nelson’s Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze (1982; revised and expanded in 2000), Michel Ciment’s Kubrick: The Definitive Edition (1983; revised in 2001), and Robert Philip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness (1988; most recently revised in 2000). Mainar also identifies two distinct trends in Kubrick scholarship since the early 1970s, when such critical efforts first began emerging—”a formalist [approach] based on the analysis of style and narrative patterning, and a completely symptomatic [using David Bordwell’s definition of the word] study that draws on different interpretative cues present in the films and that generally leads the critic to postmodernist issues.” Mainar finds both areas lacking, with the former being “mere evaluation that stems from stylistic analysis” and the latter being a “consideration of postmodernist issues that at times seems completely disconnected from the films.” Subsequently, Mainar seeks to join the two divergent schools of thought, with the intention of bridging “the gap between structure and ideology.” Narrative and Stylistic Patterns, 2.

10. As quoted in Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor, and Ulrich Ruchti, Stanley Kubrick, Director: A Visual Analysis (New York: Norton, 1999), 184.

11. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 13.

12. Norman Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972), 18.

13. Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, 11.

14. I define “multiple story threads” as a narrative structure that has several distinct story lines moving simultaneously. I see these structures as instances of a narrative authority because they directly call the audience’s attention to a narrative presence that—by juxtaposing certain diegetic moments—is attempting to impose meaning on the story world.

15. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 13.

16. Usai argues that the river in Fear and Desire is that “which the film’s explicit allegory identifies as the endless flow of time.” “Checkmating the General,” 27. Such a reading would not be incompatible with A Clockwork Orange and Barry Lyndon, too, if we see their respective moments of contemplation as also a time for their acknowledging growing up and, even, growing old.

17. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 9.

18. It may not have been only artistic embarrassment that caused Kubrick to marginalize and disown the film for so long. In a parenthetical aside, Usai suggests that

[Kubrick’s] 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 television networks, among other ploys. “Checkmating the General,” 9.

19. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 10.

20. Quoted in Vincent LoBrutto, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Donald I. Fine, 1997), 91.

21. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 9.

22. Walker, Stanley Kubrick Directs, 44.

23. Thomas Allen Nelson, Kubrick: Inside a Film Artist’s Maze, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), 22.

24. These quotes come from a letter written by Kubrick to Fear and Desire‘s eventual distributor, Joseph Burstyn. As quoted in Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 3.

25. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 3.

26. Bosley Crowther, “Fear and Desire,” New York Times, 1 April 1953, 35.2.

27. As quoted in Gene Phillips, Stanley Kubrick: A Film Odyssey (New York: Popular Library, 1975), 18.

28. Crowther, “Fear and Desire” 35.2.

29. As quoted in Kagan, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, 16.

30. Aside from biographers such as Vincent LoBrutto and John Baxter, scholars Norman Kagan, Thomas Allen Nelson, and Gene Phillips give Fear and Desire the most scrutiny in relation to Kubrick’s larger body of work, though only Kagan devotes more than a page or two of criticism, much of which is plot summary.

31. Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2000), 234.

32. At the time of the article, Usai was a senior curator at the George Eastman House, one archive where pristine prints of film are still available, despite Kubrick’s attempts to remove the film from circulation. Thus, Usai’s decision and ability to write such a detailed article on the film is not so surprising.

33. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 11.

34. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 11.

35. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 8.

36. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 8.

37. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 27.

38. Usai, “Checkmating the General,” 27.

Source: Jason Sperb, The Kubrick Facade: Faces and Voices in the Films of Stanley Kubrick, pp. 17-35



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