KUBRICK-BY-BRICK | Fear and Desire


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As his first feature-length film, it’d be natural to pinpoint Fear and Desire as the first time many people experienced a Kubrick picture. Unfortunately, the term ‘many’ would be wrong; the movie was only shown twice in New York’s Times Square as part of a double bill, and after that it was incredibly difficult to get hold of – especially considering the director’s own dismissal of his hour-long debut as ‘a bumbling amateur film exercise’. But there’s a lot more to Fear and Desire than you would originally imagine, and that the man himself would ever admit.

fearanddesire2The plot: Four soldiers have crash-landed in an unspecified territory, in the middle of an unnamed war, hilariously underarmed and six miles behind enemy lines. During their time exploring the mysterious surrounding area, they come across a beautiful native (Virginia Leith) who they hold hostage – but who is also eventually killed by the troubled Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky). The entire project was borne after Kubrick witnessed both his shorts Day of the Fight and Flying Padre in RKO’s theatre; he claimed to his family and friends that he was a filmmaker now, and after quitting his day job at Look magazine as a photojournalist, he went to work on his debut, pulling in childhood friends Howard Sackler as screenwriter and Gerald Fried as composer. (Interestingly, all three worked on their high school magazine Taft together, which ultimately led Kubrick to become interested in photography in the first place.) Locating the shoot in California’s San Gabriel Mountains, the salty Stanley had a production crew of fifteen, including five actors, an ex-wife, and a handful of Mexican labourers. For a first feature, it was an almost routinely troubled shoot; during scenes were he needed heavy mist, Kubrick had neither the money or the resources to get a proper fog machine. His solution? A crop sprayer, infused with oil and water, made for convincing on-screen fog – the offshot being that the residual insecticide still lacing the sprayer helped asphyxiate the crew while filming. Any famous Kubrick dolly shots present are the result of a pram-mounted camera. Another problem the director faced was in post-production, but admittedly as a result of his own filmmaking naivety; assuming it would be cheaper to dub the sound after shooting as opposed to recording on the spot, the toilsome feat of adding the dialogue, sound effects and music later on turned out to be financially draining, taking the initial budget from $9000 to somewhere under $40,000, spurring the onset of taking on directing gig The Seafarers for the required money to complete the job. The result of this effort, for good or bad, was Kubrick’s first war movie – a genre he’d come back to with Paths of Glory and Full Metal Jacket – that was equal parts portentous, melodramatic, silly, yet loaded with some of the important traits that would define his later and (much, much) greater work. 

fearanddesire1That’s not to say there’s a lack of ambition here; Kubrick exhibits an articulate preoccupation with death and the potential madness that follows in this work, one of the final images being the now-completely insane Sidney drifting down the river on a raft, shared with his dead (or dying) fellow Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera). It’s a haunting image that transcends the rest of the picture’s leaden philosophising, Kubrick’s confidence in the power of a single suspended image punctuating a movie that is thematically potent at its best, and meandering and preachy at its worst; avid gesticulations of Shakespearean quotes and allusions to Twain, Conrad and Eliot litter the piece, giving you a sense of its forthright intent of poetic ambition. Hand-in-hand with this, it becomes overly clear while watching that Kubrick is intent on conveying the notion that morality is as murky as the landscape the marooned soldiers traverse – a signature scene being the pivotal moment when they ambush an unsuspecting pair of enemy soldiers, killing them and stealing their weapons. The ensuing uzi fire-like edit of their deaths, mixed with their still-warm food flying everywhere, is an impressive example of Kubrick’s expert melding of not only sound and image, but of sensation too; Fear and Desire, in the same overall vein, is ultimately a film about emotion trumping rational thought in heinous circumstances. Pvt. Sidney’s murderous madness is just one of the ways in which Kubrickian war can deconstruct any preconceptions of the duality between sexual desire, and the fear of death – thus fulfilling the title’s promise. Lt. Corby, played by Kenneth Harp, is the groups’ stoic leader, his chin turned up in every and any direction abject danger may coalesce – but even he, looking upon the dead bodies of the two enemy soldiers, entertains a soliloquy about humans as ‘islands’.

And that’s just what Fear and Desire is – an island from the director’s other work. Overarchingly haunting, mildly compelling and simply not that good, it doesn’t belong in the pantheon of great Kubrick films. This doesn’t mean that it’s a recommendation for Kubrick completists only, of course; many positive things would come of the adventure – for instance, screenwriter Sackler would later win a Pulitzer in 1969 for his play The Great White Hope, and a strong visual and thematic influence can be seen as far as Russia, nine years later, in Andrei Tarkovsky’s debut Ivan’s Childhood. Kubrick’s own grasp of the war polemical would also develop and, within his own capacities at least, be perfected in the years to come; if anything, Fear and Desire remains an endlessly interesting springboard for greatness.


> Next: Killer’s Kiss would develop Kubrick’s cinematic eye, bringing elements of noir to his palette and greater nuances of plot and character to his repertoire. But just how does it fare compared to his other works?

< Previous: Everyone has to start somewhere. FilmOnTrial explores the early short films of the master.

About GaryGreenScreen

Freelance film critic.


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