If you had told me a year ago, hell even two months ago that the suppressed Stanley Kubrick film Fear and Desire (Kino, 10/23) would be out on Blu-ray I wouldn’t have believed such crazy talk.

After all Kubrick had notoriously pulled his feature debut (it clocks in at an hour) because he could. Owning F&D outright Kubrick, who produced and directed and edited and photographed the 1953 film, was able to sequester most copies outside of museum archives. Indeed, the Library of Congress from first hand elements executed this restoration.

Kubrick as a director was an artist and a brand name. When people reach that kind of acclaim it’s easy to see how they would want to re-write their career bios by eliminating their journeyman works. Anthony Burgess, who wrote A Clockwork Orange (one of Kubrick’s most seen films) was also a biographer of George Orwell and tells a story of how Orwell upon being a success would buy up copies of an early novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, and saw that it was never re-published in his lifetime. It just makes one want to read it that much more; likewise with Kubrick’s first effort, it just demands to be seen.

Contrast and compare you will as it’s a given that a Kubrick fan has seen all 12 of his official features, so you would be justified in making that a baker’s dozen. Fear and Desire looks super sharp in its Blu-ray transfer and recalls that the 1.33:1 format was still widely used in the early ‘50s. An additional industrial color film Kubrick made for the Seafarers Union, quite normal in all respects, is also included.

To watch Fear and Desire, a tale of war where the locations (mainly a forest) and uniforms suggest some unnamed country, is to immerse oneself in the ideology of post-WWII America. In some aspects F&D resembles a low rent version of the kind of films Samuel Fuller was making about the Korean conflict like Fixed Bayonets! and The Steel Helmet. The truth is Kubrick was a one-man DIY operation, and Fear and Desire should be a template for modern day filmmakers working without budgets.

Men on a mission get lost behind a line of demarcation, bicker about command and come face to face with their own, ah, fears and desires. The bridge between the conflicts experienced in F&D and Kubrick’s Paths of Glory are concise; military madness always dominates armed battle. Frank Silvera (who also starred in Kubrick’s next film Killer’s Kiss) and future acclaimed director Paul Mazursky are among the players. Mazursky in particular has some creepy moments when he’s left to guard a femme that the soldiers have tied to a tree so she won’t reveal them to the enemy. Fear and Desire isn’t some kind of great film, but it’s damn serviceable and a must-see for Kubrick mavens. Future film historians will zero in on Kubrick because he made great films, but also because his output is so minimal compared to the giant directors of the past.

(If there’s any sort of movie karma then next perhaps we can expect the long unseen Jerry Lewis film The Day the Clown Cried, a film Lewis never released, to appear on disc. Some people say Clown was unwatchable but I suspect Clown, about a circus clown in a Nazi concentration camp, was so far ahead of its time that people in 1972 couldn’t grasp its heaviosity. Certainly a gifted filmmaker like Lewis has yet to have his place in the pantheon of cinema acknowledged.)

— Michael Bergeron