Written by: Howard Sackler
Starring: Frank Silvera, Paul Mazursky, Kenneth Harp, Steve Coit, Virginia Leith
War has never displayed humanity at its greatest as the very act of it seeks to inflict damage on others and the desperation involved makes individuals revert to our most primal nature. Several war films have sought to highlight this very idea in displaying what men are willing to commit while representing their nation, and in short, it would not be actions they would proudly repeat back at home. As the title indicates, Fear and Desire displays these two facets and how it ultimately mentally destabilizes the men highlighted within the narrative.
Fighting in a war between two unidentified nations, a group of soldiers have crash-landed behind enemy lines and need to find a way back to safety. In their pursuit, they confront different potential threats thus exposing the way they’re processing their situation.
While providing no real reason to seek out it other than being a Stanley Kubrick completionist, Fear and Desire stands as both his feature directorial debut but also his personal least favorite work. Kubrick even went to the extent of attempting to attain all copies of this film in order to erase all memory of it. The film certainly does not measure up to the multiple masterpieces he has created and stands as his weakest work but what he created with such a minimal budget should be completely dismissed. With the limited resources provided, he tries to dig into humanity’s pursuit of desire and avoidance of fear.
Certainly his least impressive work but still something displaying a young filmmaker messing about with the medium. The film contains bits of what will ultimately be one of the greatest directors to ever live and for that alone it carries value. As a narrative it works in displaying the despair of these soldiers. Not much backstory gets provided as to what started the war, their individual motivations as soldiers, or which two sovereign nations are involved. This story erases any sort of pretense or expectations for the players involved. It simply sets the stage of two warring sides getting at the universality of what occurs within the narrative.
With the group of soldiers running together, they seem to have a level of composure in their unity. They just appear to be lost soldiers trying to make it to safety. Everything takes a shift when they run into a young woman coming from the river. Before running into the soldiers, she was initially seen washing some clothes with other women but gets apprehended by the men. Potentially a threat for how she could warn the local general of their whereabouts, the men decide to tie her up and leave one of the soldiers posted with her while they try to take out the general.
The sequence with this soldier and the young woman left me holding my breath scared for what would be depicted in the story. Instead of the basic way it could have gone and what other war films would easily fall into, Kubrick opted to show how much her presence purely perturbs this soldier. It gets to a point where he doesn’t know how to act when around her. It makes for an uncomfortable sequence of events where you assume the worst can happen at any moment, but it never does arrive where the mix of fear and desire come together to show the weak mental state of this soldier. This directly coincides with the rest of the squadron trying to take out the general of the opposing side. Two paralleling stories with vastly different results further implicating what it means to leave someone alone with an imbalanced power dynamic. When working together the rest of the squadron can get something done but when left alone, the results may fall into the sinister.
Highly ambitious but ultimately very simple, this early Kubrick film allows for some experimentation and while he would like nothing more than for the world to forget about it, Fear and Desire remains integral to fully encompassing his work as a filmmaker. The black-and-white photography looks striking for the minimal budget it had when in production. It lays out everything it needs in order to tell this story, which allows you to envision any set of nations engaging in the behavior presented in the film. The inhumane actions do not come from a specific nation or set of beliefs, but rather the natural consequence of sending out soldiers to war.