I was always hesitant to undertake Kubrick's first feature film, partially because the director himself was so critical of the work and completely dismissed its value during his lifetime, perhaps helping to explain why it went unseen for so long. I was also rather hesitant to view the film, because as it stood prior to this Kubrick was one of the few directors I was a aware of who had a flawless oeuvre, in so much as he had not made a single bad film. I was quite concerned the Fear and Desire, released in 1953, some four years before he would start to get attention with his equally prescient war film Paths of Glory. Popping the bluray from Kino, based on a Library of Congress print was instantly gratifying and I am not sure why I even had a notion that anything with Kubrick's hands upon it could be terrible. Fear and Desire was good, in fact, it was really really good. The black and white chiaroscuro really pops of the screen and makes for a cinematic feast of contrast and shadow play that would go on to signify the film noir movies the director would make in the following years. Between the intense close-ups of the characters faces and the over all existential themes of the brief first feature, one can easily identify this as a film by the late director, although it is also quite obvious that he has drawn some heavy influences from the neo-realist directors, as well as some tricks for psychological intensity from the surrealist movement. I realize that it has some dubbing issues, the acting can be a bit iffy and it is rather clear that the film was shot on a low-budget in and around Hollywood. With that being said, this film is still heads above most other war films and proves that Kubrick is undeniably one of the great masters and perhaps one of the few great directors to make it through his career without a notable failure, critically speaking, most audiences were not ready to engage with such deeply profound material, nor were its more unconventional methods ideal for a non-European audiences. However, I can only imagine what it must have been like to be an earnest cinephile that just happened to pop into one of the rare screenings of this film, it must have been a revelation.
The film in classic Kubrick fashion is heavily existential, as well as critical of masculine confrontations. With a cast of only five actors, some of which play multiple roles, Kubrick manages to really delve into some psychological issues and focus on power plays and sexual awakenings. The plot is deceptively simple, a group of stranded pilots must make their way across a river to safety, but become aware of the presence of an enemy general close-by changing their plans to jump on a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain military praise and recognition. Of course the task of getting to this general is easier said than done as building a raft proves tedious, not to mention the capturing of a curious village girl, as well as the killing of a handful of guards in a house, almost motivated entirely by their desire to take their food. Kubrick paints a picture of a bestial world when it comes to war, something that he would echo time and again, both in Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory, as well as suggest its possibility in other non-war settings. Extreme close-ups of characters eye lines would become a trademark of the director, whether it be Private Pile having a mental breakdown or Alex DeLarge's introduction in A Clockwork Orange, suffice to say this method is used heavily within Fear and Desire and combined with natural lighting and the shading of trees, these intense close-ups take on a whole new level of eeriness. I want to reemphasize the ways in which this is truly an introduction to Stanley Kubrick, it has all his classic traits jammed into a far too short film, which just explodes off the screen via its 35 mm transfer. Furthermore, it is a welcome reminder to those who may be interested in independent work that just because an individual does not possess a large amount of production money does not necessarily mean that they cannot make a masterpiece. Fear and Desire is on a low-fi masterpiece level with Carnival of Souls and that is saying a lot coming from somebody who absolutely adores that film.
Buy a copy of the bluray from Kino, sure it is only sixty minutes long and relatively pricy at the moment, but in doing so you are invariably opening yourself up to a fresh cinematic experience, as well as supporting film restoration and archiving, something I am passionate about and has proven to save quite a few significant films over the past years.