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The film, which does not indicate a specific time or place, begins with the following spoken narration: "There is a war in this forest, not a war that has been fought or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies that struggle here do not exist. And that's why we call them into being. This forest, then, and all that happens now, is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time, but have no other country but the mind." Stanley Kubrick's opening credit reads: "Directed, photographed and edited by Stanley Kubrick." Although Paul Mazursky is listed before Kenneth Harp in the opening credits, Harp is listed first in the closing credits. A March 1953 New York Times article refers to Mazursky, who made his motion picture debut in Fear and Desire, as "Irwin Mazursky," his given name. Mazursky went on to act in the 1955 picture Blackboard Jungle and direct such films as Down and Out in Beverly Hills.
Fear and Desire did not receive a certificate number from the Production Code Administration. The film was Kubrick's first feature. Although modern sources disagree on the film's exact budget, Kubrick stated in a 1994 Village Voice article that he raised $10,000 to shoot the film, and spent another $30,000 to add the sound during post-production. According to the Variety review, the film was shot on location in the San Gabriel Mountains and at a river in Bakersfield, CA. Kubrick, who had previously produced two short films distributed by RKO, made the film with his then-wife Toba, who acted as the film's dialogue director, and fellow Taft High School graduate Howard Sackler, who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his 1968 play The Great White Hope.
After its initial release at the Guild Theater in New York on March 31, 1953, and its subsequent Los Angeles opening on July 13, 1955, the film received a mixed critical reception. Although Variety called the film "literate" and "unhackneyed," and Newsweek described the twenty-four-year-old Kubrick as "bound to make his mark in the near future," Kubrick himself reportedly grew to despise the film, and, according to a June 1996 Daily Variety article, tried to destroy every print. A 1994 New York Times article reported that Kubrick had "recently asked Warner Bros. to issue a letter to call the film a 'bumbling, amateur film exercise.'" The print viewed, which sources state is the only one to survive, was preserved and is part of the collection at the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.