Early Kubrick

“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.”

‘Day of the Fight’, ‘Flying Padre’ and ‘The Seafarers’, made in 1951, 1952 and 1953, and ‘Fear and Desire’, made in 1953, all directed by Stanley Kubrick, are the monumental American director’s earliest films. The first three are short documentaries he made for RKO-Pathé and the Seafarers International Union, whilst the fourth is his first feature film. The documentaries offer a fascinating, although slightly surreal, insight into the birth of his visual style, ‘Day of the Fight’ in particular demonstrates his transition from photographer to cinematographer to director all in the space of twelve minutes. The three films aren’t profound and their subject matters are parochial and abstract, but Kubrick’s sense of framing, his inventive use of angles and camera movements and his feeling for light and dark are all in evidence. ‘Flying Padre’ in particular, even though it is only nine minutes long, anticipates his epic science fiction movie ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. ‘Fear and Desire’, whilst disowned by the director, is the final result of this transition, but the first step towards his genre-hopping, scaled up classics. In this film, four soldiers are trapped behind enemy lines and are forced to improvise to survive. They encounter enemy soldiers, a peasant girl, and a general. In one memorable scene, one of the soldiers guarding the girl suffers from a psychotic episode which Kubrick depicts viscerally, using the camera to tell the story of his mental breakdown. As with the documentaries, ‘Fear and Desire’ is a rough film and in no way does it compare to the run of classics the director would go on to make, but within its sixty minute running time, you can see the foundations of all the techniques the made his films so distinctive and well-regarded.

Would I recommend them? Maybe ‘Fear and Desire’ for completists, but the documentaries, particularly ‘Day of the Fight’ and the ‘Flying Padre’ are so short that you might as well. ‘The Seafarers’ is a strange and slightly polemic curiousity, well shot but somehow far from feeling like Kubrick. Watch ‘Fear and Desire’ in a double bill with ‘Full Metal Jacket’ for a war-movie bookend.

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