Stanley Kubrick’s first feature as director was a remarkably fully-formed debut – an abstract war film about a group of soldiers who “keep our country and our time, but only inhabit the mind.” In the first of many mindscapes and cerebral spaces throughout Kubrick’s career, these soldiers inhabit a military plane that is divorced from any specific conflict, context or jingoistic imperative – a battlefield that represents the existential crises of military activity post-WWII, and the challenge of filming combat during the Cold War era. Shot on a shoestring, with a crew of only fifteen people, the cast is skeletal, consisting mainly of four soldiers – Mac, played by Frank Silvera, Sidney, played by Paul Mazursky, Fletcher, played by Steve Coit and Corby, played by Kenneth Harp – who are traversing a foreign terrain, and supposedly fighting a discernible or meaningful enemy, but are dissociated from any clear ideological imperative: “They say no man is an island, but the glaciers have melted, and now we’re all islands.” Instead, like these early moments in Kubrick’s own directorial career they are driven by formalism, by the need to acquire territory and field position for its own sake, even as the lack of any broader rationale imbues every acquisition with a mounting existential anxiety.
To that end, Kubrick pairs an acute attention to the minutiate of the topography these three men are traversing with a dreamlike and hallucinatory atmosphere. Nothing can be trusted here except the land beneath their feet, yet that land cannot ultimately bear the ideological burden that has been displaced onto it, meaning that even the most material and specific details quickly feel disembodied and ethereal, like projections of the soldiers’ feverish imaginations that have lost all trace of physicality or facticity. It does indeed feel as if the surface of the Earth has been reglaciated and reshaped by the time these soldiers arrive at their mission, leaving behind a landscape that is both familiar and strange, exuding a continuous transmutation that leads one of the men to compare it to Prospero’s island in The Tempest. Within that space, Kubrick frequently cuts to close-ups in disjunctive and unexpected ways, preventing the landscape every congealing into a coherent space, while also treating the human body as a topography in itself, and each body as too topographically disparate to ever quite permit a genuine sense of camaraderie to emerge amongst the men.
Since the soldiers are never really unified, there’s no clear sense of an enemy either. We rarely even see troops from the “other” side, as Kubrick instead opts for more amorphous and ambient threats – bombs dropping constantly in the distance – along with sudden bursts of scopic surveillance that freeze the men in their tracks. Yet even these brief moments of visual and sonic intensity are secondary to the visceral silence that contours and supervenes them – a silence mirrored in the slight pauses that prevent individual utterances ever quite fusing into dialogue, suggesting a perpetual and impermeable space between the characters, who are all going through their own personal and private torture, not unlike the more introspective moments in Sartre or Beckett. With so little at stake interpersonally, most of the violence is both unsentimental and expressionistic – especially a remarkable opening scene in which the four men kill three enemy soldiers – but even then Kubrick tends to deflect action into watching and waiting, which gives the film as a whole a slight touch of Italian neorealism, especially in the scenes along a local river, which recall the Po Delta of Rossellini.
Most of this watching revolves around this soldiers’ scrutiny of the “General” – an enemy general who they discover at a local base – who becomes a kind of transcendental signifier, a way of giving momentary meaning to the war, if only by providing a focal point for the soldiers’ restless and insatiable gazes. For a brief beat, fixating on the General seems to provide respite from this endless watching – and to promise that sight will soon be translated into direct action – but Kubrick pairs this narrative development with a stylistic shift in the frequency and tenor of close-ups, which occur more and more without background context, further disrupting our sense of time and place, but also displacing the General as the object of the soldiers’ gazes into the sheer fact of the gazes themselves. In addition, Kubruck moves further away from regular cross-editing at this point, fragmenting the syntax of the film to evoke what Deleuze would describe as a pure optical situation – a state in which the sheer act of watching has absorbed and overtaken any action that might spring from that watching.
That’s a particularly dramatic gesture for a war film, and part of what makes Fear and Desire such an enduring war film, splintering the characters as the story proceeds until dialogue only ramifies as the occasional interjection into, or out of, each man’s tortured monologue. These are the same tortured monologues of noir, while the film as a whole seems to spring obliquely from noir, like Kubrick’s next three films, which all suggest that some unspoken crisis in masculinity has permanently dislocated the relation between men as it stood mid-century. In the first great ending of Kubrick’s career, this dislocation precludes any real military standoff, as two of the soldiers leave by air, and two others meet on the river, which grows foggy, dreamlike and, finally, totally detached from regular time – a flow of optical situations and sensations that leaves one soldier only able to recall, repeatedly, that “I lost my watch.” Decked with ferns and fog, this journey already seems to prefigure Vietnam as a logical outcome of the Cold War atmospherics of the film, along with Willard’s final exchanges with Kurtz in Apocalypse Now: “Do you think he’ll come back?” “I’m not sure if we’ve come back”
In the end, then, Fear and Desire deflects military combat into melancholy anomie – existential wandering through air and across water. When the two waterborne soldiers finally meet downriver, it’s at the intersections of two rivers, the most diffuse and abstract space in the entire film. From there, Kubrick shifts back to the opening establishing-shot, which outlined this space in the first place, but nothing has been resolved or clarified – just materialized and etherealized more with each passing scene, until the film as a whole seems to hang in the space between the reality and fantasy of war more deftly than any other I can recall. Not only does that make for a brilliant debut, but an object lesson in how to make a low-budget war film – atmospheric and moody, punctuated with incredible combat scenes, but confident in its ability to subsist without extravagant set pieces, and stronger for it too.