Kubrick’s ‘Fear and Desire’ finally sees official release

October 22, 2012

It took many years after his death, but director Stanley Kubrick’s disowned debut feature has now finally seen official release. Thanks to restoration work by the Library of Congress for Audio Visual Conservation in Culpeper, Virginia and Kino Classics Kubrick fans can finally watch Fear and Desire in quality HD. Released on Blu-ray and DVD on Oct. 23, this rarely seen movie has always been the holy grail of early Kubrick features because he famously forbade it from ever being shown not long after its completion in 1953, calling it his “student film.”

I had only seen it once before on a blurry DVD dubbed from a VHS copy. You can imagine the horror of watching it in such a state. In fact, you don’t need to imagine that atrocity, which sacrificed much nuance in the degradation of the image and sound. Kino has released a clip comparing this popularly bootlegged version and the newly restored version:

Watching it on Kino’s new blu-ray proves what a revelation this movie is, something no one could have ever noticed on the awful bootleg copies circulated by collectors. Unless you are among the lucky few who have seen rare 35mm screenings of it, you have not seen Fear and Desire until you’ve seen this new restored version.

Shot in 1953, Fear and Desire encapsulates many elements of the modern indie film. Kubrick borrowed money from relatives to fund it, which allowed him to maintain creative control. The credits show Kubrick not only directed the film but also acted as the film’s cameraman and editor. Only 25 years old at the time, Kubrick clearly proved himself an inspired visionary, working outside the more shallow storytelling of Hollywood. Though the film suffers from some ham-fisted over-reaching at bigger statements, one cannot help but admire Kubrick’s effort knowing the evolution that lay ahead for this great, intellectual director.

Though the credits only attribute the screenplay to Howard Sackler, a photo of an early draft of the script in the Stanley Kubrick Archives credits Kubrick as a co-author. This would not mark the last time a Kubrick film was solely attributed to one writer though Kubrick in reality also had a hand in writing the script. The opening credits of Lolita (1962) note the novelist’s author Vladimir Nabokov as the only screenwriter, but it has long been known that Kubrick had co-written the script. It is therefore fitting that themes in Fear and Desire crossover with much of Kubrick’s later movies.

In a letter dated Nov. 16, 1952, Kubrick described Fear and Desire as “a drama of man lost in a hostile world— deprived of material and spiritual foundations— seeking his way to an understanding of himself and life around him.”* If there is ever an existential war film— not just an anti-war film— it is Fear and Desire. The film opens with a wide shot of the forest from the slope of a hill. As the camera slowly pans the landscape, a narrator explains: “There is war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, or one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist, unless 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.”

The film follows four soldiers whose plane has crashed several miles behind enemy lines. Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp) leads the bloodthirsty Sergeant Mac (Frank Silvera), the innocent Private Sydney (Paul Mazursky) and the ambivalent Private Fletcher (Stephen Coit). Corby seems to get most of the lines and they sound clearly cut in a studio. The sound quality on this restored version of the film is amazing, but the dated lack of outdoor ambiance gives the film that obvious stagey quality so many films of the era suffer from. But when the lines are not overwrought, they do seem insightful to Kubrick’s theme. Early in the film, Lieutenant Corby says, “We spend our lives running our fingers down the lists in directories, looking for our real names, our permanent addresses. No man is an island?” He pauses to laugh. “Perhaps that was true a long time ago, before the Ice Age. The glaciers have melted away, and now we’re all islands, parts of a world made of islands only.” It’s an existential truth the resonates even more with the phony, perceived worlds we surround ourselves in today’s modern age of editable social networking provided by the evolution of the Internet.

Adding an odd quality to the film is the fact that the film never spells out what country these men are in or where they are from. Sure they have American accents and the enemy seems to be modeled after Germans, with their blond hair and the general’s Doberman Pinscher. But Kubrick does something very interesting as Harp also plays the role of the enemy general and Coit an enemy Captain who both also have a chance to ruminate on their roles in war. The general seems particularly full of guilt about his role in the war and practically says he deserves death. “Waiting,” he says in the shadowy confines of the house he is operating from. “Waiting to kill. Waiting to heal. Waiting to die … Sometimes, as I look at these maps, I wonder if my own grave isn’t being planned.”

When the group stumble across a peasant girl (Virginia Leith), she never says a word in her native tongue, whatever that may be. One of the men tries to speak Spanish to her, but she does not respond. The Lieutenant speaks slowly in English at her, pointing and gesticulating. She only repeats the word “boat,” as if discovering the word for the first time. The men give up and tie her to a tree, leaving shell-shocked Sydney to watch over her, as the rest of the men leave to hide a raft they had constructed of tree trunks earlier in hopes of using it to float down a river. Though Sydney has been left traumatized by an earlier incident where his compatriots stabbed two enemy soldiers to death for their rifles, after a series of misunderstandings, he winds up killing the girl. It sends him over the brink. When Mac finds the girl dead and Sydney with the smoking gun, Sydney rants, “It wasn’t my fault! The magician did it. Honest! Prospero the Magician. First we’re a bird, and then we’re an island. Before I was a general, and now I’m a fish! Hoorah for the magician!” He begins to laugh maniacally. “The river, it’s blood, Mac.”

Mazursky, who would later go on to be more famous as a director than an actor, gives an over-the-top performance, but the film is filled with moments like these. From Corby’s over-serious and cold musings to the odd angles of men jumping at the camera before Kubrick cuts to them jumping on someone else. It was a failed, if ambitious attempt of creating something visceral and involving for the audience. Kubrick works hard to create atmosphere. He does a fantastic job with depth of field shots, staging beautiful and engaging scenes that harken to Kubrick’s prior experience as a photographer. The shadows breaking up the images of these men offers something beyond atmospherics. These are men deep in conflict with the Jungian shadow, their humanity fractured and base, a characteristic struggle in Kubrick’s films. The final shot of the raft coming out of the fog with the dead, or dying, Mac and the mad Sydney makes for a powerful closing shot rich in both visual and thematic texture, predating Coppola’s Apocalypse Now by more than 25 years.

Beyond themes and writing, the early Kubrick is certainly present as an auteur with his fingers in every aspect of filmmaking. Beyond his role as director, cinematographer  and editor, he also already seems quite aware of the importance of musical score. His choice of music by Gerald Fried shows an evolved awareness. It’s shifting atonal quality suits not only Kubrick, whose most famous score for 2001: A Space Odyssey included the eerie music of György Ligeti, but also appropriately suits the themes of internalized conflict that drives the film. Though certainly rough around the edges, Fear and Desire is as powerful a testament as anything else he put together pre-Paths of Glory (1957), his first real masterpiece.

Earlier this year, Kino had announced it had wished to not only release Fear and Desire in hi-def but also Kubrick’s very first known film, “Day of the Fight” and his follow-up, “Flying Padre” (see this post). These two short documentaries were to be part of an “Early Films” collection that would also include “The Seafarers,” Kubrick’s last documentary before shooting Fear and Desire. Instead, “The Seafarers” is offered as an extra on this release. The 30-minute documentary was a contract job for the Seafarers International Union (SIU). Though far from an autuerist work, it marks Kubrick’s first color film. The restoration on ‘the Seafarers” by the Museum of Modern Art is not as impressive as that of Fear and Desire, but one must also be aware that it was shot in 16mm, which naturally has higher film grain. Which reminds me, I should note something about the picture quality of this release: both have tiny scratches from the film sources scattered about here and there, and some parts of Fear and Desire look blown out in the bright daylight, but, once again, the shadows in the feature are extraordinary, the depth of which no one would have noticed in earlier, unofficial releases. I did not notice any pixilation whatsoever on the blu-ray. Pixilation is also not present in “the Seafarers,” but the film certainly has some rough edges in the images due to its age and smaller frame. But it truly looks great for a film shot in 1953.

Beyond the banal subject matter of the SIU’s promoting union membership and its litany of benefits (which sound pretty good compared to employee rights nowadays), the truly interesting aspect for Kubrick fans and scholars is the staging and composition of his shots. Kubrick certainly brings talent to the film and not only takes his role seriously as a documentarian but as a filmmaker honing his craft. His camera is almost always drifting. The composition of his shots always have depth and dynamism. It’s an interesting artifact of a skilled filmmaker who produced too few features. As that, even the inclusion of this film should excite those interested in the master filmmaker.

It remains unknown if the other two short films will ever see the light of day in restored form as Fear and Desire and ‘the Seafarers” have received, but one might expect them to appear sometime. In the meantime, there’s always YouTube, which offers this blurry version of “Day of the Fight:”

And the “Flying Padre,” as well:

Here’s what restoration work could do for these; I’ll leave you with the new trailer for Fear and Desire:

Hans Morgenstern

*From the Cinema of Stanley Kubrick by Norman Kagan

Kino Classics provided an advance blu-ray review copy of this release for the purposes of this review. EDIT: turns out some screenings of this restored version of Fear and Desire will take place, even in my city of Miami: O Cinema will host several screenings beginning Nov. 8 at 7 p.m. at its new Miami Shores location. The next day, on the West Coast, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art will screen the film as part of its on-going Kubrick exhibit, 2012 A Kubrick Odyssey

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

One Response to “Kubrick’s ‘Fear and Desire’ finally sees official release”

  1. Misfit Photos Says:

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