In 1993, exactly 40 years after its initial release, a copy of Stanley Kubrick’s little-seen first feature fear and desire has been uncovered and restored to its original splendor. Moviegoers and Kubrick fanatics around the world were shocked to learn the movie still existedand were eager to see it, as it had become the “holy grail” of lost media.
However, no one was more shocked than Kubrick himself, as he had destroyed the original negative and any copies of the film he could get his hands on. He hated fear and desire passionately, and was quick to share his opinion whenever asked, often calling it “an awkward home movie exercise”. When he learned of his planned “premiere” at the New York Film Forum, Kubrick threatened to prosecute the theater for copyright infringement. But since the film was in the public domain, Kubrick’s legal threats were toothless and only fanned the flames of interest.
Now, 70 years later, it’s time to take another look at Kubrick’s debut film and find out once and for all if the famed director was right to hide it from the world for as long as he did.
Kubrick’s first shoot
When Kubrick was 24, he quit his job as a photographer to pursue a career as a filmmaker. He was no total novice, having directed three well-received shorts to this point, but this was his first time making the leap into feature film.
With the Korean War making headlines, Kubrick chose to make a war film. He hired his high school friend (and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Howard Sackler to write the screenplay, which follows four soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in a fictional war, whose psyche slowly unravels as the war takes its toll. on them.
To raise funds, Kubrick asked his uncle – who owned a number of very successful drugstores – to finance the production for around $10,000. With such a small budget, Kubrick didn’t have much room to experiment. His crew consisted of fifteen people, and by all accounts it was a labor of love for everyone involved.
The movie was shot in the San Gabriel Mountains of California, and it was tough. Everyone slept in bungalows and lived on sandwiches for the duration of the three-week shoot. At one point, Kubrick used a field sprayer to create “fog” because they couldn’t afford a real machine. The resulting fog of insecticide nearly suffocated the cast and crew, but at least they got the hang of it.
But the problems continued in post-production. While Kubrick originally intended to do a silent picture in order to save money, he changed his mind while editing the film. The inclusion of sound, effects and music brought the budget to around $50,000. (The bloated budget is perhaps the most “Kubrickian” aspect of the film). His uncle refused to loan them any more money, so Kubrick turned to producer Richard de Rochemont for bailouts.
Despite these production difficulties, Kubrick completed the film. But now came the hard part: getting people to see it.
Release and reception
The world premiere of the film took place at the Venice Film Festival in 1952. Named form of fear at the time, the film was eventually picked up for American distribution by Joseph Burstyn, who specializes in European art house films. The title has been changed to fear and desireand in a brazen attempt to generate interest, the poster falsely advertised the film as a mysterious horror picture, with the following tagline: “Trapped… A desperate man and a strange half-animal girl.”
fear and desire was a commercial flop upon release. But the reviews were actually favorable; A New York Times The editorial staff praised the film’s execution and tenacity, despite its flaws. Still, the film didn’t get its money back, and Kubrick fell heavily into debt. He was forced to take on for-hire jobs to retire and fund his next picture, The Killer’s Kiss (his uncle wanted nothing more to do with his films).
As Kubrick’s career progressed, his hatred for fear and desire only grew. But was this hatred justified?
So… is it really So bad?
The short answer? No. But it’s not very good either.
The film suffers from a serious lack of momentum; although our tracks are trapped behind enemy lines, we never feel that their lives are actually in danger. They crack jokes, hang around, and casually arrange an escape plan without ever showing any real fear.
The “half-animal woman” is just a foreign woman who doesn’t speak English. When she sees our protagonists, they take her hostage for fear that she will denounce them. When a character is left alone with her, they slowly go mad with lust. It’s a development that feels totally undeserved and seems to be included only to underscore the “war is hell” theme that Kubrick is pushing.
Budget restrictions didn’t allow for any of the crazy cart shots or single takes that Kubrick would soon be known for, so there are plenty of static angles and bland reverse shots. And while cinematography is never bad, by itself (Kubrick – a photographer, mind you – shot the film), it seemed pretty basic. And the film’s clunky editing (also directed by Kubrick) didn’t help much.
There are things worthy of admiration. For starters, Kubrick and Sackler actually found a unique angle in the wildly popular warfare genre; by setting it in an unknown time, set in an unnamed country, and featuring fighters of unknown nationality (although it appears our heroes are American and their enemies German), the film is pleasantly apolitical. There’s no finger pointing, no justification – just the horrific nature of war. If only Kubrick had something more incisive to say.
All this to say: the film is dull. Not much is happening, and what is happening is not very exciting or challenging.
fear and desire lives in the shadow of Kubrick’s monumental success. It’s hard to judge the strength and quality of the film knowing that the same man would go on to make classics as authentic as Dr Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Full Metal Jacket, And A Clockwork Orange. We’re not analyzing the film for what it is, but rather for what it isn’t and how it fails to live up to the impossible standards set by Kubrick’s later creations.
Did fear and desire deserve Kubrick’s relentless hate? Probably not, but everyone is their own worst critic. Was it justified to have every copy of the film erased from the face of the earth? No way. And not because it’s a good movie (it really isn’t), but because it’s an important part of cinematic history. It’s a valuable resource for budding filmmakers; it shows that great directors are not just born, they are do through dedication, hard work and passion.
fear and desire launched the career of one of the most influential figures in cinema. And while it may not be a good movie, it’s certainly inspirational.