FEAR AND DESIRE follows a squad of soldiers who have crash-landed behind enemy lines and must work their way downriver to rejoin their unit.
In the process, they encounter a peasant girl (Virginia Leith) and tie her to a tree, where she is tormented by a mentally unbalanced soldier (future director Paul Mazursky). Before making their escape, the soldiers determine the location of an enemy base and formulate a plot to assassinate its commanding officer.
Almost sixty years after its initial release, Stanley Kubrick's first full length feature film, 'Fear and Desire' finds its way to home video in a controversial fashion. The distributor went out of business, and prints seemingly vanished, lost to time (or, in amusing anecdotes, snatched up by Kubrick himself), with the master director insisting that the film not be seen. With Kubrick's death in 1999, the only control over his films would be handled by his estate, and in recent years, sightings of the film have increased, including the first ever television broadcast in 2011. With the Kino Classics release of the film on Blu-ray and DVD, the film is now available to own for the first time ever in non-bootleg form.
'Fear and Desire' takes place at an unknown time, in the midst of a nameless war between two unidentified countries. A group of four soldiers (Frank Silvera as Mac, Paul Mazursky as Sidney, Kenneth Harp as Corby, and Stephen Coit as Fletcher) have crash landed six miles behind enemy lines, and plan on rejoining their countrymen by rafting on a river that sweeps across the battlefield. Their journey is interrupted due to their discovery by a wild woman (Virginia Leith), deteriorating mental states, and the discovery of an enemy general, who one soldier obsesses about killing instead of retreating to safety.
In the Kubrick filmography, 'Fear and Desire' stands out like a sore thumb. With a family-aided self-financed micro-budget to work with, Howard Sackler's first script, and a lack of experience in lengthy narratives, the lack of polish and purpose is evident from beginning to end, with the film serving as a disjointed compilation of themes that seem unrelated to each other, the plot is sometimes abandoned for lengthy bits of internal dialogue or spoken self-examination. From this film alone, one can see flashes of Kubrick's potential in the prolonged sequences, though some moments, like shots that last less than a second in rapid succession or the cabin ambush that results in the death of a couple of enemy combatants whose violence is inferred as we focus instead on the food of the fallen soldiers, draw us out of the experience to remind us of the fact that this is an amateur film, regardless of whose name is attached to it.
Still, flawed as it is, there is a lot to like with this early Kubrick artifact, and sometimes the lack of real funding opens the door for some very neat bits of storytelling, from which the main message of the film should be derived. The more we see of the enemy soldiers, the more they deter our main characters from their goal, the more the complexities of war and the human survival element come into play. The fact that two actors (Harp and Coit) play dual roles opens the door for their characters to discover that their enemy shades resemble them eerily, reminding them of their own mortality, and that they're not fighting a faceless country as much as they are people just like them.
'Fear and Desire' features a few memorable sequences, including a prolonged plot point featuring Leith's curious, almost savage girl being tied to a tree and left in the watch of Sidney, who finds himself falling for the girl's immense beauty, leading to tragedy for both, one a casualty of war, the other's mind suffering the same fate. Additionally, the raft, when finally deployed, turns from an object viewed as a salvation for most of the film to one that instead damns its inhabitant to certain death. Even something as simple as a nameless dog, lost in the carnage of war, finds itself seeking shelter from the separated soldiers before returning home to its master, the enemy general, reminds us of how similar both sides of the war are. 'Fear and Desire,' in my eyes, shows flashes of potential, but at the end of the day is hampered by its limitations, and I have great respect for Kubrick for recognizing his own shortcomings and trying to keep his image as a filmmaker untarnished, even when this film was his greatest achievement. The great learn from their mistakes, and since the past hasn't remained as buried as it was intended to be, with this film we see another side of a man who would capture our hearts and imaginations in the years to come.
The Disc: Vital Stats
Kino brings 'Fear and Desire' to Blu-ray on a Region A locked BD25 disc. There is a five sided sleeve that replicates the box art covering the disc case in early pressings. The menu on this release does not include any setup options, as it is presented in its original language with no subtitle options.
Available on home video for the first time (authentically), Kubrick's 'Fear and Desire' is presented in 1080p with a somewhat uneven picture. The opening ten or so minutes are bombarded with a drastic dirt, line, and scratch assault, along with some minor picture warping (causing some random compression and expansion in odd areas). But, thankfully, the picture has long stretches where these issues are almost entirely obliterated, offering us a fantastic look at the flick. Contrast levels are solid, even if blacks aren't entirely deep, with incredibly natural and sharp whites. When the picture is clear, the textures (particularly on the leather jacket and some of the foliage) are phenomenal, and the amount of detail in skin is more than appreciable, with outright gorgeous extreme close-ups, and hair that is almost constantly supremely defined and sharp. There is some very minor, almost insignificant brightness flickering which aren't an issue at all, at least not compared to the few dull, flat shots found in the latter half of the movie. The vignettes on this film are very sporadic and, as such, can draw the eye unnaturally, particularly when a scene has numerous shots, some featuring the rounded, darkened edges, others entirely clear and blocky at the corners. This disc, whose transfer was mastered in HD from archival 35mm elements (restored by the Library of Congress, no less), isn't entirely even or consistent, but still does a fantastic job in bringing this film oddity to home video, for the world to finally see.
The audio on 'Fear and Desire' doesn't fare as well, with a Linear PCM 2.0 track loaded from wall to wall with issues and limitations. There are hardly any truly "quiet" and peaceful moments in the film, and that's not due to the score or dialogue, as there's constant whir and hum in this track. Worse still, there's a rash of blowing noises that can seem like distant artillery that are actually noises from microphones or other sound capturing processes that can be quite loud. Dialogue has the occasional bit of hiss to its bluntness, while the score has very shrill high ends (though it is pretty darned clear, I'll give it that much). One cannot fault this disc for the gunfire that sounds like firecrackers of various sorts going off, as it sounds exactly as it was probably recorded. Still, the noises on this disc detract from the viewing experience, and are very much in need of a massive, major, expensive restoration to sound even halfway respectable.
Stanley Kubrick's 'Fear and Desire' was locked up by the master director for a reason, and viewing the film does somewhat tarnish the legacy of cinema's most meticulous perfectionist. The film is interesting, but it lacks a major portion of what makes the rest of his filmography a must watch. The man himself considered the film amateurish, and didn't want it out to the public, so Kino's release of the film is questionable at the very least. This Blu-ray is beyond decent for what it is, and may very well be a must own for Kubrick fanatics, but a part of me wishes I never watched the film.