You will find little to no argument among cinephiles that Stanley Kubrick was one of the best filmmakers there ever was, but before he cemented his place in history with the dual mindfuck of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange, or even before he proved he could be bankable with the mountainously successful at the helm of Spartacus, he was a budding auteur, operating on a shoestring budget, scraping the barrel of funding from friends and relatives to shoot his very first full length feature, Fear and Desire, back in 1953.
His debut, an uncharacteristically bland exposé of war behind enemy lines with a mix of arty pretensions that were undercut by technical shortcomings and generally hammy performances, was by no means a masterpiece, but it did however give a preview of themes to come while highlighting Kubrick’s love of classic Soviet cinema and his ability to mimic their editing and natural lighting techniques. Largely unavailable for public consumption, the film’s very few prints have been virtually unseen by the public due to Kubrick’s wishes that it be forgotten, as he felt it a work of amateur practice, not something he’d like to show along side the majority of his towering oeuvre. Nonetheless, here it is, on home video for the very first time.
Such as Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Full Metal Jacket, the subject is the futility of war and its grotesque ability to warp the fragile human mind. The conflict is between two unknown countries and the four lead characters have crash landed miles deep into enemy territory. After discussing their short list of choices, they decide their best option is to build a raft and float through the night, back across the border into the hands of friendlies. That is, until they discover an enemy outpost nearby, in which a high ranking officer seems to be maintaining residence. Before making any rash decisions, they also find a nearby cabin with a few enemy soldiers bearing arms and preparing food. Becoming more desperate, the four men breach the cabin, killing those inside, filling their empty stomachs and boost some fire power. This is where Kubrick’s oddities begin to show themselves.
Shortly after this event, the men are approached by a young woman. Out of fear of being caught, they apprehend the woman, kinkily binding her to a tree. She is left alone with a single soldier to guard her, but he has by then lost his mind, babbling on in a crazed state, sexually assaulting her, and setting her free only to shoot her before escape. In hysterics, he then runs off into the woods never to be seen again. One of the remaining soldiers propose they all risk their lives to take out the nearby general by causing a diversion on the raft while the other two storm the camp, to which the others uneasily consent. When the time comes to attack, the raft bound soldier floats to his death after being shot, while the others fight in close quarters only to find that when they look into the face of their enemies, they are looking into their own faces, quite literally killing themselves.
Drenched in literary references and existential voice overs, Kubrick’s debut aches to be a work of art, as many of the recent foreign imports had been at the time, but the film is lacking in a variety of ways. The ultra-low funding restricted Kubrick to a rental camera which he had never used before and no access to tracking, which he would become enthralled with in future productions. So, most shots in the film are static or mild pans, uncharacteristic of Kubrick. He also wasn’t familiar with recording sound on set, so he decided to reproduce the entire soundscape in post, which resulted in very stilted, disconnected sounding performances from actors who were already pretty stiff on set. He did however show his originality and passion by self producing a US made art house feature that dealt with war in unconventional, heady terms and still managed to get limited distribution outside of the Hollywood system.
With a freshly restored HD film transfer from the Library of Congress, Kino International has released the Kubrick’s debut for the first time for mass consumption. While not a thorough digital restoration like many of the classics have been receiving, the film looks quite good considering the limited production. There is fine detail in closeups, especially facial shots and those in the brief action sequences, and contrast of the black and white image seems to be dead on, but there are plenty of speckles of dirt and degradation throughout the film that weren’t removed or repaired. It shouldn’t detour anyone from a viewing, but when one sees the word ‘restored’, the expectation nowadays is that of The Wizard of Oz or The Red Shoes proportions, which took classic films from really rough shape to almost beyond a brand new film print upon their original release. The film’s uncompressed stereo track is truly hard to judge, as the originally produced audio was never great to begin with. Here it seems to be presented faithfully with no digital mars or artifacts, sounding crisp and clear. The disc itself comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, nestled safely in an attractive cardboard dust jacket.
The Seafarers (1953)
For some (including this reviewer), Kubrick’s short promotional documentary about the Seafarers International Union may prove to be the highlight of the disc. Shot right after Fear and Desire, Kubrick got his first chance to work with color film and experiment with tracking shots thanks to it being a financially backed production. Featuring distinct narration from CBS news anchor Don Hollenbeck, the half hour short lacks the thematics of Kubrick’s debut, but it is the first piece of filmmaking where he really had the opportunity to compose scenes with his signature style. Also unavailable for much of its existence, the short has received a restoration from the Museum of Modern Art and looks gorgeous with its early 50s golden tones.
Though forgettable by any standards, Fear and Desire remains a curious bit of film history merely for being Stanley Kubrick’s first feature. Through the lens of this fact we can take the film as a precursor of what was to come, an anti-war work that tried to delve deep into intellectualism while still playing within the realm of sexual quirks and grotesque imagery. The film works incredibly well when placed into a film history context, especially when paired with The Seafarers, and for that this Blu-ray release gets a hardy recommendation. Just don’t expect the greatness of Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket.