Stanley Kubrick is one of the most influential filmmakers, and indeed artists, of the twentieth century. His repertoire includes major films of the late American studio era, such as Killers Kiss (1955), The Killing (1956), and Paths of Glory (1957), as well as later modernist expressions like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick’s oeuvre represents as complex and challenging a cinematic meditation as exists in the history of the form. Despite convincing arguments to the contrary, the allure-of-the-auteur signature in the historical evolution of Kubrick’s method maintains, as Schatz has argued, a romantic hold over the spectator. There is a desire to locate the precocious talent of the new filmmaker and the wisdom of the mature auteur in the same aesthetic brushstroke—the same remarkable and coherent vision. The Eureka! release of Kubrick’s first feature, Fear and Desire (1951), as well as several significant short films, is thus an important contribution to an assessment of Kubrick’s broader cinematic project.
Fear and Desire represents the first entry of what might loosely be termed Kubrick’s antiwar films. Indeed, in a body of work that confidently traverses adaptations of Nabokov, Burgess, Thackeray and Stephen King, the commitment to a philosophical meditation on war and its effects on the individual seems one of the director’s several concrete thematic concerns. Kubrick would return to similar questions in the making of Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket, in some sense bookending a career fixation.
Unlike other war films of the period (which were plentiful in the aftermath of the Second World War), Fear and Desire is a curiously philosophical meditation.
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The film’s narrative is infused with unpredictability, happenstance, and what Camus would describe as “the absurd.” It is an existential film, as Naremore argues in an essay included in the DVD booklet. While the voiceover is occasionally obtrusive, exposition such as “These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind” offers a provocative rendering of an allegorical setting; Kubrick’s film is not about a war, but about war itself. There are few generic traits here: no battles, no overtly stylized violence, no homecoming to model the image of disaffection and alienation. In much of the action, Kubrick eschews wide shots in an effort to render an undisclosed place; this is an environment, as the narrator indicates, “of the mind.” Kubrick utilizes contained, claustrophobic settings (arguably the consequence of limited resources as much as artistic intent), crossing directional lines of spatial continuity, and cutting exteriors and interiors alike into wildly expressive landscapes.
This philosophical mode underscores both narrative and image aesthetics. The classical war film genre of the late 1940s and 1950s maintained a steadfast commitment to narratives of continuity.
Consider, for example, The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), a John Wayne vehicle in which the story of a Marine Sergeant traces the conflict-development-resolution pattern of a great deal of American cinema of the period. In Kubrick’s hands, montage (the particular relationship between shots and its rhythmic intensity) fractures narrative and image continuity. Long shots are cut with extreme close-ups; reverse shots deliberately break from the angle of the originating shot; duration is broken up into shots that are temporally disjointed. In Kubrick’s hands, such devices function less as stylistic affectation, or an avant-gardist subversion of continuity, and more as a philosophical articulation through image and sound. Fear and Desire clearly partakes of Eisenstein’s montage aesthetics in a film like Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925). Cutting in Fear and Desire takes on political significance and carries a subversive political [End Page 401] message. This...