Even the greatest of artists have to start somewhere. Stanley Kubrick is often thought of as the finest and most consistent director to have ever lived, delivering a straight run of eleven films many call masterpieces (I wasn’t a fan of Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita is divisive too, but many love them). These films have been pored over and analysed for years, but his first two feature films are often ignored, especially his debut, Fear and Desire. There’s a very good reason for the lack of coverage though. When Kubrick had become a well known and prestigious director in the 60’s, he withdrew Fear and Desire from circulation, embarrassed by his first foray into the film world. In the 90’s it reemerged at a couple of special screenings in the US without Kubrick’s permission. Around that time, when it was mentioned to the director, he described Fear and Desire as a “bumbling, amateur film exercise… a completely inept oddity, boring and pretentious.” That description didn’t help it get wider interest and it has rarely been seen outside of a few festival screenings until Kino Video released it on Blu-Ray and DVD in the US late last year and Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label has now followed suit.
Fear and Desire is a brief, odd little war movie based around an unnamed conflict between unnamed countries. A group of soldiers have crashed behind enemy lines on an island and must find their way home. Along the way, the fear of being caught, the horrors of their actions and the desire towards the woman they take prisoner get too much for them, especially a young soldier (Paul Mazursky) who eventually snaps. On their journey off the island they happen across an enemy camp too and one of the soldiers (Frank Silvera) is adamant to kill its general and finally ‘achieve something’ in his life.
Fear and Desire is not nearly as bad as Kubrick’s description makes out, but it certainly doesn’t rank close to his more well-known work. What needs to be remembered are the limitations he had in making the film though. This was a truly independent production. As Kubrick puts it, “the entire crew […] consisted of myself as director, lighting cameraman, operator, administrator, make-up man, wardrobe, hairdresser, prop man, unit chauffeur, et cetera. The rest of the crew consisted of a friend of mine, Steve Hahn, who took his holidays with us and knew something about electricity; another friend, Bob Dierks, who helped me set up the equipment and put it away, and did a thousand other jobs; my first wife, Toba, who tried to cope with all the paperwork and minor administration; and three Mexican laborers who carried the cases around.” On top of this, Kubrick had only directed two short documentaries prior to this (which are included here) and, according to the Bill Krohn piece on the disc, only learnt how to use the film camera for the shoot after the rental company showed him when he came to pick it up. The director’s previous experience was as a photo-journalist.
So, taking these facts into account, the film is obviously rough around the edges. Despite this, you can see the seeds of Kubrick’s talents shining through though. His photographer’s eye shows in his attractively shot close ups and effective use of natural light. Two sequences where the soldiers kill their enemies in cold blood are incredibly stylish too, making good use of montage, bold lighting and fairly abstract framing.
Taking a surreal approach to the war film, focussing on the effect war has on the minds of the soldiers and displaying this in an occasionally experimental manner, means in ways this was quite ahead of its time. The ideas bring to mind Apocalypse Now (produced a couple of decades later), but unfortunately the results are nowhere near as strong. There is a lot of voiceover used, taking us into the minds of the protagonists, but this rarely works, being unnecessarily descriptive or just generally sounding forced and clunky. The dialogue in general is rather awkward with poetic elements not settling with the general discussions. This isn’t helped by some poor performances either. Kenneth Harp is rather painful as the group’s lieutenant, sounding rather stilted throughout. Mazursky on the other hand is way over the top as the crazed youngster. The balance is poor between these two with Silvera, the strongest performer, attempting to keep things together with a more grounded interpretation.
The editing and handling of the action (other than the two killings mentioned earlier) is poor too, causing confusion at times when continuity falters and the 180 degree rule isn’t adhered to, then lacking in tension and excitement elsewhere. Thankfully the film is very short (a little over an hour), as the pace is slow. If it were a full 90 minutes or more it would drag terribly.
So Fear and Desire does feel a bit amateurish at times and the performances in particular make it a bit of an awkward watch, but there is still talent on display and you can see sparks of the Kubrick everyone knows and loves in aspects of it. Big fans of his films should definitely give it a try, but don’t expect much beyond curiosity value.
Fear and Desire is out in the UK on 28th January on Blu-Ray & DVD, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. I was sent the Blu-Ray and the film looks incredibly good considering it has long been hidden away. As ever Masters of Cinema have gone above and beyond to make sure their releases are made from the best versions possible, with a sparklingly clean transfer and strong, clear sound.
Added to the film you get a 15 minute piece from Kubrick expert Bill Krohn on Fear and Desire as well as his shorts of the period. This is an interesting watch, filling you in on the difficulty Kubrick had on the project and just how inexperienced he was. It helps you appreciate the film a bit more as well as see where this lead the director in the future.
On top of this piece you get three of Kubrick’s early shorts – Day of the Fight (1951, 12 mins), Flying Padre (1951, 9 mins) and The Seafarers (1953, 29 mins), the shooting of which was a job took on to fund the sound work on Fear and Desire. They’re all straight forward documentaries which have dated badly due to their overbearing and old-fashioned voiceovers which dominate proceedings (on location sound is rarely used). You can see Kubrick’s photo-journalist background in play though and hints at his keen eye for strong visuals in places. Kubrick fans will find these vaguely interesting with Day of the Fight working best for me, but generally they’re fairly dull (especially The Seafarers).
Of course, being a Masters of Cinema release, you also get a booklet full of essays and interviews and this is excellent as always.