Sunday, June 14, 2015

Lord of the Flies (1963) [filmed in 1961]

Directed by:
Peter Brook

William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies has gone down as one of the most widely-read and acclaimed books of the 20th Century and beyond thanks to the author's melding of solid, deceptively straight- forward storytelling with allegory, making it an excellent tool to introduce various literary devices to students (hence why it is usually a staple of high school and college English curriculum). TIME Magazine even included it on their list of the 100 Best English-Language Novels written between 1923 and 2005. The novel itself can be enjoyed on many fronts. If nothing else, it's a fascinating premise: What would a bunch of young, unsupervised boys do if stranded somewhere with no adults around, no rules, no laws, no structure or discipline and left to their own devices? The fact it also happens to be rich as an allegory on human nature and societal structure is just the icing on top. Golding himself summed up his intent rather simply by stating it's "... about the problem of evil and the problem of how people are to live together in society." That basic concept is put front and center in director Brook's film adaptation and relayed with a raw, rough-around-the-edges, primal power despite obvious technical issues that arise along the way.

An airplane full of young British schoolboys - ranging from about 6 years old to early teens - crashes somewhere on an uninhabited island. Ralph (James Aubrey), the son of a Navy commander who thinks the paternal figure he idolizes will soon come find them, stumbles upon the chubby, insecure, bespectacled, talkative Piggy (Hugh Edwards) first and the two make their way down the beach, discovering more of their schoolmates as they go. Along the beach come a second and smaller group of slightly older boys, led by Jack (Tom Chapin). Things begin harmlessly enough, with the kids essentially viewing the experience as some extended camping trip. They play games, laugh, play pranks, gather fruit, start a fire and build a shelter from branches as they await rescue. Using a majority rules vote to establish a new leader in Ralph, the group set down a few basic ground rules at the outset to maintain order, like using a conch shell as a platform to speak without interruption and keeping a fire going at the island's highest peak so any passing aircraft may see it. But things quickly go to hell.

Once one of the boys claims to see a "snake-like" shape-shifting beast stirring among the bushes at night (which later turns into a mythical sea beast), a seed of superstition and paranoia encroaches on the new society and things escalate from there. Jack and his group deem themselves "the hunters," sharpen spears, paint their faces, dress in animal rags, leave pig heads on stakes as an offering to their perceived new God and quickly descend into a life of violent tribal savagery, while Ralph loses his power and his numbers once his rival proves he can provide better and has no issue using deadly force as a means to silence those who oppose the new way. After having swayed the majority of others over to his side, Jack and his few remaining allies realize their own lives are in grave danger.

Filmed in 1961 in Puerto Rico, this low budget (250,000 dollars) production had numerous technical issues that needed tending to before it could finally be released in 1963. The major problem was the audio, most of which was not actually recorded on location due to various natural noises the filmmakers really couldn't do anything about. As a result, most of the dialogue was dubbed in later and, sadly, they didn't do a very good job of it. Audio levels really seem off throughout. Many seem to have issues with the casting of inexperienced boys instead of trained child actors in all of the roles, which results in some wooden, amateurish and / or stilted dialogue readings. Personally it didn't bother me all that much, but it obviously does some viewers. If you can ignore the above issues, this is a visually splendid film that's atmospherically photographed on beautiful locations and manages to generate a great desolate feel apart from the 'civilized' world.

Most importantly of all, Brook actually does the source novel justice. Very little of importance was left out and the director conveys exactly what the book was trying to say. That's especially impressive considering he had to narrow down around 60 hours (!) of total filmed footage to just 90 minutes for the theatrical release. Supposedly a 100-minute version was initially released to the Cannes Film Festival, but I don't believe that cut has ever been made commercially available. A more polished and bigger- budget color remake was made in 1990 by director Harry Hook. Though it's not a completely terrible movie, it still lacks the character and artistry of this original version and is less effective as a result.

Flies was chosen as one of the Top 10 Films of 1963 by the National Board of Review. The Criterion DVD - a digital remaster supervised by editor and cameraman Gerald Feil - is now the way to go if you can afford it. It comes with loads of great extras, including a commentary track with director Brook, producer Lewis M. Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman and Feil, a 2008 interview with Brook, home movies taken on set, actor screen tests, deleted scenes, stills galleries, outtakes, a trailer, an audio recording of Goldman reading excerpts from the book accompanied by appropriate stills from the movie and many other supplements.

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