Stanley Kubrick himself once argued that making good movies and making cheap movies need not be mutually exclusive, but he all but disowned his own micro-budget debut feature FEAR AND DESIRE, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD on the Masters of Cinema label today after a limited UK theatrical release. Dismissing the film as a "bumbling, inept film school exercise", it's a great irony that as his budgets and relationships with major studios improved, so did the acclaim from critics: far from being blunted by the studio system, Kubrick seemed to thrive in it, bouncing off the commercial restraints to create some of the most enduring and enigmatic pieces of cinema of the 21st Century.
Left entirely to his own devices (as well as directing, he also served as editor, producer and cinematographer) as he is in FEAR AND DESIRE (and, to a lesser extent, in his noir thriller follow-up KILLER'S KISS), Kubrick's work doesn't feel as pointed or well-realised as his later work. It's somewhat understandable that the filmmaking would feel hesitant here: this is a debut feature, after all, with Kubrick still navigating a transition from still photographer to film-maker.
This lack of confidence manifests itself in FEAR AND DESIRE in the choppy editing style; the variable acting quality; and some portentous use of voiceover, a hangover from his short films (also included on the MoC disc). Portentousness is undoubtedly the film's biggest problem, with a script from Pulitzer-winning poet Howard Sackler that is leadenly symbolic and feels aloof when it should be impassioned, full of unwieldy lines like: "Cold stew on a blazing island - we've just made a perfect definition of war..."
Described as an 'ambiguous allegory" by Kubrick, the film focuses on four soldiers in an unknown war, trapped behind enemy lines after a plane crash. The four fashion a make-shift raft and journey downriver, along the way meeting a beautiful peasant girl, and formulating a plan to kill a general holed up in a nearby house.
Despite the garbled pomposity of the script , Kubrick is still one of the greatest anti-war voices in cinema, with pacifist masterpieces PATHS OF GLORY, DR STRANGELOVE and FULL METAL JACKET still to come. His shot selection and command of mise-on-scene is also impeccable, even at this early stage - indeed, there are a few signs of his trademarks developing, with the climactic violence horrifying and absurd, the hint of one of his favourite themes in doppelgangers, and a dog even gets the Kubrickian close-up. This is enough is enough to manufacture a queasy, heady atmosphere that channels the spirit of Joseph Conrad far better than Sackler's laboured words, and it's impressively sinuous given the limited resources at his disposal.
Anyone hoping to unearth a lost gem will still likely be disappointed by FEAR AND DESIRE - it's not exciting enough as a war film, and too underripe and frustrating to be intellectually satisfying. Put into the context of Kubrick's career, however, it's still a worthwhile watch: clocking in at barely an hour, it's definitely worth that paltry investment, and the excellent photography alone is enough to sustain interest through some of the more muddled moments.
The MoC transfer is excellent, and as well as Kubrick's unremarkable early shorts the set includes a 15-minute interview with Kubrick scholar Bill Krohn, as well as a colour booklet that features a new essay on the film by James Naremore.
FEAR AND DESIRE is released on DVD and Blu-ray today. Order it from Amazon.co.uk here.