‘The Seafarers’: an early documentary made by a young Stanley Kubrick

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It’s likely that even the most casual cinema fan will have seen a Stanley Kubrick film in their lifetime, whether it be the horror classic The Shining or the epic sci-fi 2001: A Space Odyssey. Throughout his career, the filmmaker consistently made incredible works of art that irrevocably changed the landscape of the film industry.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find an actor or filmmaker who doesn’t sing the praises of Kubrick, whose ambitious movies spanned genres such as war, historical epic, dark comedy and horror. It appeared as though nothing was off-limits for Kubrick – his creativity was unbounded, and his perfectionism propelled him to make near-flawless films.

Kubrick was always ahead of his time, which is evident in the stunning visuals and themes explored in 2001: A Space Odyssey as well as the infinitely modern-looking A Clockwork Orange. Additionally, the filmmaker was unafraid to push boundaries, with the latter movie exploring violence, sexuality and punishment so viscerally that Kubrick had to withdraw it from British cinemas to prevent copycat crimes. His final work, Eyes Wide Shut, exposed elite sex cults, and the haunting masked ritual scene will certainly linger with all who watch it.

However, before Kubrick was able to become a master of fictional feature movies, he cut his teeth in the documentary industry, making several shorts which allowed him the chance to experiment with the camera. Unfortunately, these short films hardly allowed his creativity to shine, but they gave him greater familiarity with cinematography, which he was learning after beginning his career as a photographer.

His film short film was 1951’s Day of the Fight, which was only 12 minutes long. Then, he made his first fictional feature, Fear and Desire, the following year, which proved to be a failure despite Kubrick’s best efforts. Thus, he returned to making documentary shorts for the next few years until making his next feature, Killer’s Kiss, in 1955.

One of his most significant achievements as a documentary filmmaker was The Seafarers, released in 1953. For the first time, Kubrick was able to work in colour, a medium he exclusively used from 2001: A Space Odyssey onwards (although he also used colour for 1960’s Spartacus). 

The documentary was made in partnership with the Seafarers International Union, presenting it in an exciting and attractive way. Coming in at 30 minutes long, the movie is only really worth watching if you’re a diehard Kubrick fan desperate to box off all of his work. It would take the filmmaker another few years to truly establish himself as a cinematic talent, with The Seafarers providing little in terms of particularly memorable documentary-making.

Still, small Kubrickian elements peek through the surface, such as a unique tracking/dolly shot, which suggests that this budding director possessed filmmaking potential. By the end of the decade, Kubrick’s hard work paid off, and he soon became a cinematic titan, although he never made another documentary.

Watch the film below.

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