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Pain - and fear - lies on the riverside

Kino Lorber
Mac and Corby on the unnamed river - amidst a war - in Stanley Kubrick's 1952 directorial debut "Fear and Desire."
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OKLAHOMA CITY – In preparation for a book I am hoping to write in the coming year on the phenomenon that is the 1980 horror film The Shining, I thought I would take some holiday “off time” to watch all of Stanley Kubrick’s films in chronological order.

Of course, this meant popping in Kubrick’s fascinating directorial debut, Fear and Desire, released in the United States on April 1, 1953, nearly exactly 15 years before the release of his masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was widely released April 2, 1968.

Fifteen? Interesting. Exactly 15 people were involved in the production of Fear and Desire, which is, most assuredly, an anti-war film, that was written by screenwriter and filmmaker Howard Sackler. It was Sackler who was responsible for the “uncredited rewrite” of the Jaws script (based on Peter Benchley’s novel), having conceived of Quint’s unforgettable monologue about the horrific sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis at the end of World War II (Note "This magical thinking" and "Southern waters"). It was the Indianapolis - Quint tells Hooper and Brody – that was delivering the parts of “Little Boy,” the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat to Tinian Island.  “Little Boy,” which would be used on the city of Hiroshima, Japan in August 1945, was the result of the successful “Trinity Test” at White Sands in New Mexico on July 16, 1945.

As a side note, in my April 16, 2015 Dust Devil Dreams post “Train in vain (blast from the past),” “Little Boy,” I learned, was a nickname given to Wilmer by Humphrey Bogart’s character in the John Huston-directed film noir The Maltese Falcon (Bogart was 42 when it was filmed), played by well-known character actor Elisha Cook, Jr. Wilmer was in an (assumed) gay relationship with an older man. “Fat Man” was named after Sydney Greenstreet’s character in that same film. The code names for the bombs used in Japan were chosen by a Manhattan Project physicist named Robert Serber.” Incredibly, Cook would appear in Kubrick’s third film, The Killing, released in 1956.

The Manhattan Project, eh? A nickname I gave to the “glass box” used to access a portal to another dimension in Twin Peaks: The Return ("What happens in Vegas (Harry's lodge is gone)." That was before I realized that the ACTUAL Trinity Test would be utilized in Episode 8 (“Gotta light?”) And the Manhattan Project was also the nickname Kubrick used for his early production work for what would be 2001: A Space Odyssey, believe it or not.

But don’t want to get too sidetracked. Back to Fear and Desire

While the film was, in Kubrick’s words, “A bumbling amateur film exercise,” (yes, the technical and continuity errors are worth noting – this was Kubrick before KUBRICK) the themes ring true in our world, more so than I would have realized at the moment the credits began to roll last night.

The opening narration, courtesy of David Allen, sets up the story: “There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor 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.” (bold emph. mine).

The four soldiers – Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), Pvt. Fletcher (Steve Coit) and Pvt. Sidney (Paul Mazursky - who, in 1965, co-wrote the pilot of The Monkees TV show, in which he appeared) – are six miles behind enemy lines in a wooded and mountainous area in this unknown country. Their plane has been shot down and they make their way to a river, where they build a raft and look to reach their own battalion.

All the while, they encounter a peasant girl who doesn’t speak (Virginia Leith, who died exactly two months ago at age 94) and tie her to a tree so she doesn’t blow their cover behind enemy lines.

Things get weirdly interesting, between Sidney, who is guarding the girl, and ends up killing her, and Mac, who spots an airplane on an airstrip near a house where the enemy’s general is staying. The emphasis is on the horrors of war and the atrocities that often befall innocent people in these wars - as we see daily in the Middle East and elsewhere on our troubled planet.

A plan is hatched. Corby and Fletcher will attack and kill the general (weirdly, the actors playing Corby and Fletcher also play the general and his assistant) while Mac takes the raft downriver to the house and distracts the guards at the general’s house, allowing for the airplane to be taken by Corby and Fletcher – which is what happens.

All the while, Sidney (quoting Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Prospero the magician) goes crazy after killing the peasant girl and goes all “Lance Johnson” in the river, freaking Mac out. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if Francis Ford Coppola was thinking of Fear and Desire when filming the overtly anti-war Apocalypse Now. I mean, think about this line from the film, spoken by Capt. Willard (Martin Sheen), when preparing to kill Col. Kurtz: “Part of me was afraid of what I would find and what I would do when I got there. I knew the risks, or imagined I knew. But the thing I felt the most, much stronger than fear, was the desire to confront him.


Fear and Desire was released while the Korean War was raging. It was a box office bomb and, as I noted, one that Kubrick was not proud of. And yet the message, that, as Corby tells Fletcher; “Nobody ever was” really ready to fight in war, with Fletcher saying, “I guess I’m not built for this.”

Concludes Corby: “It’s all a trick we perform when we’d rather not die … immediately.”

So, the credits roll and it’s late. I check Twitter to see if anything has been going on all evening. And boy, was I shocked to see what I saw!

While I was watching Fear and Desire, the White House announced that Iran’s top two guy – a general who is at an airport in Baghdad, Iraq (not far from the Tigris River) is assassinated by a drone strike.

From the UK Daily Mail: “Four precision missiles were fired from a deadly remote-controlled 4,900 pound U.S. drone, decimating a convoy that Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran's Quds force, was traveling in and tearing his body 'to shreds'.   

Soleimani, commonly known as the second-most powerful man in Iran and tipped as a future president, was so badly maimed in the strike that he had to be identified by a large ring he wore on his finger.

He had just landed in Baghdad airport on a plane from either Syria or Lebanon around 12.30am when he was met on the tarmac by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, deputy commander of the pro-Iran Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq.   

Muhandis pulled up to the aircraft steps in two cars before Soleimani and Mohammed Ridha Jabri, public relations chief for the PMF who had been traveling with him, climbed inside and were driven away.

Moments later, as the cars passed through a cargo area headed for an access road leading out of the airport, the convoy was struck by missiles fired by an MQ-9 Reaper drone - a deadly unmanned aircraft that is designed primarily for offensive strikes.

Both vehicles were instantly reduced to smoldering wrecks - killing Soleimani, Muhandis, Jabri and two others who have yet to be identified.”


So, the fictional events that played out in that 68-year-old film seem to mirror actual events playing out on the world stage - at the same time I was watching said film. A major general in Iran's Quds forces, is killed at an airport (by an airstrip in Fear and Desire) and not far from a river (the Tigris, running through Baghdad, not far from Baghdad's airport). In the film the unnamed general is killed in a building near an airstrip, not far from a river. And the ending left things somewhat open to interpretation. No resolution, really. Like it is in the present. Needless to say, seeing that breaking news immediately after watching a film like Fear and Desire was all a little too weird, particularly in light of the synchromystic things that have been going on in my life of late,

Pray for peace. No World War III.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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