The good news is that Kino has just released Stanley Kubrick’s rarely-screened feature-film debut Fear and Desire (1953) on DVD and Blu-ray, mastered from a 35mm print that was recently restored by the Library of Congress. The disc includes an equally rare short Kubrick made that same year called The Seafarers, a 28-minute color film commissioned by the International Seafarers Union.
The bad news is that Fear and Desire isn’t a good movie; I might go so far as to call it amateurish. Any serious student of Kubrick’s work will still want to see it, but it no more anticipates Paths of Glory or Full Metal Jacket than a talented student’s home movies anticipate Lawrence of Arabia. It does affirm the young filmmaker’s seriousness of intent, as well as his ambition; not every photographer getting his feet wet in the film medium would have chosen an abstract anti-war tract for his first feature project.
Seeing Fear and Desire during Stanley Kubrick’s lifetime was something of a challenge: he actively repudiated the film and sought to have every surviving print destroyed. He even enlisted the help of Warner Bros., his longtime distributor, to “urge” major archives to turn over their copies—without much success.
In 2010, George Eastman House showed its 35mm print at the American Cinemathèque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, in a well-attended screening hosted by the archive’s then-curator Caroline Frick Page. Here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Fear and Desire (1953) is a pretentious war allegory written by Howard Sackler, who enjoyed greater success some years later with his play The Great White Hope. It’s understandable why the director tried to suppress showings of the picture in later years, but it also reveals a young photographer getting his feet wet in cinematic storytelling. Adding immeasurably to the evening’s experience was a q&a session afterward with Page and filmmaker Paul Mazursky, who costarred in the film. At first he was reluctant to say anything critical about the picture, which he hadn’t seen in forty years, but he quickly acknowledged its obvious flaws. A natural spieler (and former standup comic), he entertained the audience with recollections of how he landed the job just as he was about to graduate from Brooklyn College, took his first-ever airplane ride with costar Frank Silvera to Los Angeles, and survived the threadbare production for five weeks. Summing up, he suggested that we should think of it as the equivalent of a student film, and that’s as good an assessment as any, so long as it’s noted that this was a student with an unusually keen eye.”
Still, we should all be grateful to Kino for making this milestone work by a major filmmaker available for film buffs and scholars to study, warts and all.
Fear and Desire on DVD and Blu-ray.