Stanley Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist. And perfectionists, unfortunately, are rarely prolific. Kubrick’s career as a director spanned nearly fifty years, but in that span of time the auteur only helmed thirteen feature films.
For a long time, only twelve of those films have been commercially available, but now that Kino Classics has released on DVD and Blu-ray the Library of Congress restoration of Kubrick’s debut feature, Fear and Desire (1953), movie fans can finally become Kubrick completists with a stunning transfer of a rarely-seen film to round out a great director’s accomplished career.
An Embarrassing, Excellent First Feature
Stanley Kubrick never let his embarrassment over his first feature film be a private matter. Once he established a reputation, the director attempted to personally acquire as many prints of Fear and Desire as he could find to limit its circulation. While several repertory screenings occurred at New York’s Film Forum and the Library of Congress in the 1990s, the film was largely absent from public consciousness until now.
I popped Fear and Desire into my Blu-ray player with understandable trepidation, fearing that Kubrick’s embarrassment over the film was an accurate reflection of its quality, and the Fear and Desire would be a historical curiosity at best. I was surprised and delighted to find a boots-on-the-ground war film that hints at an already-assured visual style and represents a trial run of the depth and moral ambiguity that would later come to dominate Kubrick’s thematic concerns.
Fear and Desire concerns a group of soldiers navigating their way through enemy territory after a plane crash. The setting is an unidentified war in an unidentifiable country, fitting for a film released in the decade of the “quiet” Korean War and during the presidency of a man who famously warned the nation of a never-ending military-industrial complex. Far from the patriotic heroes of war-era Hollywood, these soldiers exhibit a rather quick descent into insanity, initiated by one soldier’s abuse of a local woman (eccentrically portrayed by future director Paul Mazursky).
While not written by Kubrick (it was Howard Sackler), Fear and Desire fits perfectly into the auteur’s oeuvre, as it explores man’s perpetual state of madness and stands as an antiwar statement that predicted the filmmaker’s subsequent Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket. The film also shows Kubrick’s impeccable eye for framing. Clearly putting his photography skills to work, Fear and Desire features some compelling employments of composition and center-based framing that would come to represent Kubrick’s signature visual style. In fact, this film’s style has far more in common with Kubrick’s later work than his largely handheld second feature, Killer’s Kiss.
Fear and Desire is certainly not a film without its flaws (the markedly non-Kubrickian introductory narration verges on Ed Wood-level pseudo-philosophizing), but it’s hardly just an early curiosity piece by somebody who would later find “greater” accomplishments. Fear and Desire is a strong and compelling film on its own, as well as a powerful and stark independent vision made during an era of conformity and Hollywood mass production. Kubrick was already showing signs of challenging the conventions of the system.
Fear and Desire’s transfer is gorgeous and near-perfect. Flying in the face of apocryphal impressions that this little-seen film is shoddy and amateurish, Kino’s high quality HD transfer allows the early artistry of the filmmaker to profoundly resonate.
The film’s sole special feature is a color industrial film Kubrick made the same year as Fear and Desire: The Seafarers, which promotes the seafarer’s union. This 28-minute short also exhibits Kubrick’s evident compositional skills, even in something as supposedly “devoid” of artistry as industrial filmmaking. The Seafarers an interesting historical document worth preserving for fans of the director and as a remnant of an era invested in the collective good of the American working class.
That said, it’s rather surprising that this disc doesn’t come with some historical information about Fear and Desire or the nascent era of Kubrick’s filmmaking career at large. There are certainly scholars who would have been willing to lend a commentary track to accompany the film, and with a film that one can’t help but view through the framework of what the man behind the camera would accomplish later in life, the historical context of an expert would seem essential for the full appreciation on behalf of the audience for whom this disc is intended.
Fear and Desire is essential viewing for Kubrick devotees. It’s inevitably a bit disappointing to “complete” the feature filmography of any director one is thoroughly invested in, but (aside from the lack of a commentary track) I can’t think of a better way to bring a great director’s first work out of obscurity than with Kino’s magnificent transfer of this fascinating film.
You can purchase Fear and Desire from Kino here or through the image link below: