The early works of great filmmakers often get a home entertainment release purely because of the name attached to it rather than because they’re great movies. However it’s taken until 2013 to get Stanley Kubrick’s Fear & Desire a release, which is largely because the director himself spent a fair amount of time trying to supress it.
After he became a major name, Kubrick didn’t really want it seen, and indeed for a while it was thought that all prints had been lost. However an archive print kept by Kodak was held at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, which has since been supplemented by the original negative, which was discovered in Costa Rica and is now in the US Library Of Congress (it’s this print the new Blu-ray is taken from).
Even though it wasn’t completely lost, for a long time it was almost impossible to see (legally at least, as bootleg copies did exists). If you wanted to see the Kodak print you had to make an appointment and go to George Eastman House. There were also a couple of festival screenings in the 1990s, but generally Kubrick wanted it removed from circulation. The problem was that he really disliked the movie, as although it may have been his first feature-length movie, he saw it as a “bumbling, amateur film exercise… a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.”
Now that we can actually see the movie for ourselves we can see what he meant. This is not the Kubrick of 2001 and Dr. Strangelove, but it does reveal an artist on his way to becoming that. The film is burdened by the pretentiousness of a young man living a rather avant-garde life, who believes he’s got profound things to say (but who later realised they were just the rather over-earnest exuberances of youth and not half as deep as they seemed at the time). However while its affectations result in Fear And Desire feeling a little like a film student episode of The Twilight Zone, any serious film fan should still give it a look, because you can certainly see the beginnings of what made Kubrick great.
The film is set during a nameless war between nameless opponents, which a portentous voiceover at the beginning informs us ‘take place only in the mind’ (feel free to roll your eyes at that). Four soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines with only one gun between them. As they try to move forward they are gripped by things such as the fear of death, their desire for a woman they come across and a growing determination to kill a nearby enemy general. There’s plenty of allegory, symbols, testing of the human mind (with one soldier going nuts) and a lot of introspection, leading to an ending that would have seemed rather hackneyed even in 1953 – we have met the enemy and he is us (although that quote didn’t actually arrive until 1970).
Some have said Fear And Desire is Ed Wood bad, and while that’s a massive exaggeration, it’s not good. It’s a film that constantly seems to be trying to convince us of its intelligence, deep meaning and profundity, despite the fact it doesn’t really have any of that (which seems to be what made Kubrick cringe away from it in his later like). However it’s perfectly watchable, largely because the director was already well on his way to becoming a great visual storyteller.
The influence of Soviet montage is highly evident and he uses it to great effect in several places. Indeed his skill at knowing how to place images next to one another to create an effect is already quite impressive. There is undoubtedly a very talented mind at work here, it’s just a shame it’s all in service of something that feels a bit juvenile – an undergraduate short story look at the horrors of war and the conflict of the human mind.
In the special features film writer and historian Bill Krohn talks about how the theme that pulls together all of Kubrick’s movies is the breaking of the mind, whether it’s Jack Nicholson in Dr. Strangelove, Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove, or Private Joker in Full Metal Jacket. Here we see the unvarnished beginnings of that obsession, even if it’s all a little simplistic.
Those interested in early Kubrick will be pleased to hear that this release is a bit of a complete package, as for the first time it gathers together his three early documentary shorts too – ‘Day of the Fight’, ‘Flying Padre’ and ‘The Seafarers’. The first two are around 10 minutes apiece, one looking at a boxer as he prepares for a fight, while the other follows a Brazilian priest whose massive parish means he has to fly around to see his flock. They’re both quite interesting and decently made, although they’re more interesting for the experience they gave Kubrick in his days as a photojournalist, rather than because of any hints they give at what he would become.
‘The Seafarers’ meanwhile is a bit more intriguing as it’s essentially a 30-minute propaganda flick for the Seafarers International Union, extolling its virtues and presenting it as a kind of worker’s paradise. As it was made in 1953 and is exceptionally pro-union, Kubrick is almost lucky he wasn’t placed on an anti-communist blacklist, as this is far more ‘Red’ than anything most of those who were blacklisted ever made. Indeed to modern eyes its presentation of a sort of worker’s utopia seems rather impractical, especially its ‘we are all equal (irrespective of competence or experience)’ mentality. It’s very evident here that Kubrick is only a director for hire, but he shows skills at imparting the ideals of the Seafarers International Union, whether he personally believed in them or not.
It all ensures that while none of these films are Kubrick’s greatest, this is a bit of a must-have disc for anyone seriously interested in the director and how he went from being a young photographer to becoming one of the greatest directors who ever lived. Essentially these films are him growing up as a director and teaching himself to make movies – indeed the shoestring nature of these projects meant he had to learn how to do pretty much everything himself, from how to place lights to the skill of framing a shot. It’s all very interesting even if Fear And Desire itself isn’t the most amazing of movies.
That said, it looks surprisingly good. The HD transfer is surprisingly crisp and clear, thanks to the fact it was taken from the original negative and the Library Of Congress has ensured it’s been properly cared for and restored. The audio does sound a little tinny, but that’s because the entire movie was shot silent (for around $9,000) and then all the sound and dialogue was added in during post-production (adding another $20,000-$30,000 to the budget – most of which, incidentally, he got from his family), but it certainly looks good.
Overall Verdict: It’s certainly understandable why Kubrick was a bit embarrassed by his ‘juvenile’, rather pretentious first feature, but Fear And Desire is still an intriguing film that contains numerous hints towards what he would become. And with his other early shorts also included, it’s a great disc for anyone genuinely interested in the auteur.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac