Fear and Desire: Stanley Kubrick’s First and Least-Seen Feature Film (1953)

Ask film­go­ers to name their favorite Stan­ley Kubrick pic­tures, and you’ll hear many of the same titles over and over again: Spar­ta­cusDr. Strangelove2001: A Space OdysseyA Clock­work Orange. These and the five oth­er fea­ture films Kubrick direct­ed between 1960 and his death in 1999 hold per­ma­nent pride of place as some of the most endur­ing and influ­en­tial works in the his­to­ry of the form. His fourth pic­ture, 1957’s Kirk Dou­glas-star­ring, World War I‑set Paths of Glo­ry, has drawn a good share of crit­i­cal acclaim, but noth­ing before it in his body of work has yet com­mand­ed the lev­el of respect asso­ci­at­ed with Kubrick and his cin­e­mat­ic lega­cy.

In 1956, he’d made the noir The Killing on the cheap; the pre­vi­ous year, he’d made the noir Killer’s Kiss on the cheap­er. But before even those came Fear and Desire, Kubrick­’s very first fea­ture, an exis­ten­tial war movie pro­duced in 1953 with mon­ey raised from his wealthy drug­store-own­ing uncle and pro­ceeds from a job shoot­ing sec­ond-unit on a doc­u­men­tary about the life of Abra­ham Lin­coln. You can watch the whole film, which has fall­en into the pub­lic domain, at the top of the post, or in a restored ver­sion, pre­ced­ed by a brief 1966 inter­view with Kubrick, right here.

By the time of Fear and Desire, Kubrick had already logged a cer­tain amount of film­mak­ing prac­tice direct­ing shorts. Still, he could nev­er quite get over his own per­cep­tion of the movie, which he made at age 24 fresh from his job as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er at Look mag­a­zine. He con­sid­ered the film “a bum­bling ama­teur film exer­cise” and “com­plete­ly inept odd­i­ty.” He lat­er, hav­ing burned the neg­a­tive, sought to pre­vent its screen­ing and dis­tri­b­u­tion when­ev­er pos­si­ble. Yet it had its high-pro­file appre­ci­a­tors even at the time of release: “Its over­all effect is entire­ly wor­thy of the sin­cere effort put into it,” said the New York Times; “Worth watch­ing for those who want to dis­cov­er high tal­ent at the moment it appears,” said crit­ic-schol­ar Mark Van Doren. Though far rougher than every film Kubrick would go on to make, Fear and Desire offers sev­er­al moments that reveal him as the direc­tor we now know he would go on to become. Grant­land’s Steven Hyden, in an arti­cle on the movie, quotes an attendee at one of its par­tic­u­lar­ly dis­as­trous pre­view screen­ings who remem­bers that “there were gig­gles in the wrong places, and it all seemed over­done and over­wrought.” He also quotes Kubrick­’s full reflec­tion on the expe­ri­ence in a New York Times Mag­a­zine pro­file: “Pain is a good teacher.”

Find Fear and Desire list­ed in our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Very First Films: Three Short Doc­u­men­taries

Killer’s Kiss: Where Stan­ley Kubrick’s Film­mak­ing Career Real­ly Begins

Stan­ley Kubrick’s Rare 1965 Inter­view with The New York­er

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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