Fear and Desire

Fear and Desire
(Alternate titles: Shape of Fear,The Trap)
   Joseph Burstyn, Inc. , 68 minutes, 1953. Producer: Stanley Kubrick, Martin Perveler; Director: Kubrick; Screenplay: Kubrick and Howard Sackler; Cinematography: Stanley Kubrick; Art Director: Herbert Lebowitz; Makeup: Chet Fabian; Editor: Kubrick; Production Manager: Bob Dierks; Cast: Frank Silvera (Sergeant Mac), Kenneth Harp (Lieutenant Corby/enemy general), Paul Mazursky (Private Sidney), Steve Coit (Private Fletcher/aide-de-camp), Virginia Leith (young girl), David Allen (narrator).
   After cutting his teeth by making some documentary shorts, young director STANLEY KUBRICK then decided to make his first feature film. He borrowed $10,000 from his father and his uncle, a Los Angeles druggist, and added $3,000 of his own. Then he went on location to the San Gabriel Mountains, near Los Angeles, to shoot the picture, which is about a futile military patrol trapped behind enemy lines in an unnamed war.
   The script was written by playwright Howard Sackler (author of The Great White Hope), an old friend of Kubrick’s from high school. Other friends helped out during the location shooting in the mountains, assisting Kubrick in setting up and putting away the equipment each day. Kubrick’s first wife, Toba, served as dialogue director. But it was Kubrick himself who filled most of the jobs associated with shooting a film: he was director, cinematographer, prop man, and general factotum.
   Since he had saved money by shooting his short subjects without sound and adding the soundtrack to the film afterward, Kubrick tried the same method with Fear and Desire. However, because postsynchronizing a sound track for a feature film is more complex than dubbing sound for a short, Kubrick ran into problems that added $20,000 to the $9,000 that had already been spent on shooting the picture. As a result, Fear and Desire never earned back its initial investment, even though independent distributor JOSEPH BURSTYN was able to book the picture on the art house circuit, where it garnered some good reviews. For example, one critic singled out as visually compelling scenes such as the one in which an enemy general is shot. Norman Kagan reports in his book on Kubrick that it was the respected critic James Agee whom Kubrick recalled as making the kindest remark about the movie. After seeing the film,Kubrick and Agee had a drink in a Sixth Avenue bar in Greenwich Village in New York. “There are too many good things in the film,” said Agee,“to call it arty. ”
   Nonetheless, Kubrick later thought of the film as inept and pretentious, although it was still important in helping the 25-year-old director to gain invaluable experience in his craft. In a letter to the distributor, dated November 16, 1952, quoted by Kagan, Kubrick described Fear and Desire as a poetic allegory, “a drama of man lost in a hostile world-deprived of material and spiritual foundations —seeking his way to an understanding of himself, and life around him. ” There is, furthermore, “an unseen but deadly enemy” lurking around him, an enemy who is shaped from the same mold that he is. Because this film is no longer in circulation, it is appropriate to summarize the scenario in some detail. (This writer has seen it. )
   The allegorical intent of the picture is made clear from the beginning, as a narrator sets the mood of the film: “There is war in this forest; not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies that struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. . . . 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. ” The four men who make up the military patrol on which the film focuses are Lieutenant Corby (Kenneth Harp), Mac (FRANK SILVERA), Fletcher (Stephen Coit), and Sidney (PAUL MAZURSKY, later the director of such films as Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, 1979). Their plane has crashed behind enemy lines and Lieutenant Corby suggests that they build a raft and float down the river out of enemy territory. While they are moving through the woods, the quartet comes upon some enemy soldiers, whom they summarily ambush and kill. Next they happen upon a girl whom they tie to a tree and gag, fearing that she would otherwise turn them over to the enemy. Sidney, who has been on the verge of hysteria ever since the plane crash, becomes more and more upset as his craving for the girl grows inside of him. Finally he unties the struggling girl and, as she tries to run from him, shoots her dead. In a panic he disappears into the forest.
   When the others return, Mac persuades them to kill an enemy general whose headquarters they have come across nearby. Mac insists that this one courageous act will finally give meaning to their otherwise aimless lives, and they agree. Corby and Fletcher are to move in on the general and his aide and kill them while Mac employs diversionary tactics to preoccupy the general’s guards. When Corby focuses on the general and his aide through his binoculars, he discovers that the general is a double for him and the general’s aide is a double for Fletcher (the general and his aide are played by the same actors who enact the roles of Corby and Fletcher). Fletcher shoots both of the men, but the general does not die immediately. He crawls toward the edge of the porch and Corby fires, finishing him off. As Corby looks into the general’s dead face, he sees his own countenance staring back at him. These images thus round off the film’s theme that the basic brotherhood of mankind cannot be destroyed even by war, for the enemy is but a reflection of one’s self.
   At the end of the film, Mac, severely wounded, is seen lying on the raft which he and his comrades had built earlier, floating toward the shore. With him is Sidney, still traumatized by what he has done, whom Mac has picked up along the way. Standing on the shore waiting for them are Corby and Fletcher, who show no signs of satisfaction over having successfully completed their mission.
   Kubrick was too hasty in writing off Fear and Desire as a “student film. ” Among the film’s virtues is Kubrick’s handling of the camera, with which he creates limpid visual images, particularly in the shadowy forest scenes. Mazursky stands out as Sidney, who succumbs to fear of death and desire for the girl whom he attacks and then murders. His plight underscores the thought that one’s most deadly enemy is the person within, and that therefore it is in the country of the mind that humanity’s real battles are fought.
   Kubrick’s own description of the film—as a drama of man deprived of material and spiritual foundations, lost in a hostile world in which he seeks to understand himself and the life around him-could well serve as the keynote of all of his films. In each of them Kubrick presents someone who is trying to cope with the tough world in which he finds himself, just as he does in Fear and Desire.
   ■ Baxter, John, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography. (New York: Carroll and Graf, 1997);
   ■ Howard, James, Stanley Kubrick Companion (London: Batsford, 1999);
   ■ Kagan, Norman, The Cinema of Stanley Kubrick, rev. ed. (New York: Continuum, 1989);
   ■ LoBrutto,Vincent, Stanley Kubrick: A Biography (New York: Da Capo, 1999).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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