RETRO-ACTIVE: THE BEST FROM THE CINEMA RETRO ARCHIVES
By Lee Pfeiffer
Criterion has released a deluxe Blu-ray edition of director Peter Brook's 1963 screen adaptation of William Golding's landmark novel Lord of the Flies. As virtually anyone familiar with literature of the latter half of the twentieth century probably knows, the story involves a group of British schoolboys who are among the refugees deported from England out the outbreak of what is, presumably, a third world war. Their plane is shot down over the ocean but it crashes off shore from a remote island. All of the adults die but the boys miraculously survive and make their way to dry land. Realizing their survival is in their own hands, the boys (the age of whom ranges from pre-pubescent to early teens) set about the task of building shelters. They quickly master the essentials of staying alive and learn to start fires and to hunt and fish with reasonably effective hand-made tools. Inevitably, the fragments of a society begin to coalesce but there is stark contrast in philosophies. Jack (Tom Chapin) is an assertive, take-charge older boy who quickly learns he can use his aggressive personality traits to rise to a leadership position. Jack proves his worth by quickly going native and relishing the opportunity to play king. His skills are essential when it comes to providing food for the group. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Ralph (James Aubrey), a sensitive and thoughtful boy who rivals Jack as leader of the group based on his intellectual superiority. When the rivalry becomes heated, Jack and his numerically superior group of followers resort to violent methods to suppress Ralph and his friend Piggy (Hugh Edwards), a pudgy and harmless boy who must indulge many degrading insults and taunts. The resulting battle of wills leads to numerous tragedies and a conclusion that finds Ralph alone and being hunted down by his former schoolmates, who intend to kill him.
It's clear that Golding intended to use this scenario as a microcosm for society in general. He initially regarded himself as an optimist regarding human nature but that changed during his service in WWII, when he witnessed behavior that he thought was so horrendous that he became convinced that evil is far more prevalent in the world than he had suspected. That cynicism is carried over into the film, which is such a literate version of the novel that no one is credited as a screenwriter. Director Brook would assemble his cast of young boys (none of whom had any acting experience) and read passages and dialogue from the novel prior to filming each scene. The technique worked remarkably well. Brook's shoestring budget of $300,000 was cut in half after his ill-fated, short-term alliance with famed producer Sam Spiegel, who began to make significant changes to the production in the hopes of making it more commercial. When he insisted on adding a group of young girls to the mix, Brook ended their partnership but had to pay Spiegel half of his meager budget to cover expenses he had never even authorized. Left with only $150,000 in the coffers, Brook (who is primarily known as an acclaimed director of avant-garde theatrical productions) managed to get everyone to the island of Vieques off the coast of Puerto Rico, where most of the footage was shot. Brook could not afford a seasoned cinematographer so gambled on hiring a local still photographer, Tom Hollyman, whose work on the film is simply remarkable (though he would never make another motion picture). Hollyman's footage was supplemented by footage taken by Gerald Feil, who was given a hand-held camera and told to shoot anything he found interesting. The result is a superb compilation of both men's accomplishments. The movie was shot in B&W for budgetary reasons but it also worked beneficially in terms of the impact of this stark, bleak tale. Raymond Leppard's brilliant score combines British schoolboy songs with ominous jungle themes. It must be pointed out that, despite the impressive performances of the young cast members, only one- James Aubrey- decided to gravitate into acting as a profession. The real hero, however, is Brook himself, whose exercise in the ultimate "guerrilla movie making" still stands the test of time as a powerful and fascinating film.
Criterion's special Blu-ray release does justice to the movie on every level beginning with a superb transfer that emphasizes the glorious cinematography. The extras in the set are:
Audio commentary track featuring Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, cinematographers Tom Hollyman and Gerald Feil
Audio of William Golding reading excerpts from the book, accompanied by scenes from the film
Deleted scene with optional commentary track
Insightful interview with Brook from 2008 (in which he pointedly says he never made a commercial movie because he refused to compromise with the studios in terms of his artistic vision)
Wonderful home movies taken by the young cast members.
1980 British TV interview with William Golding (one of the few he ever gave)
A new interview with cinematographer Gerald Feil
The original trailer
Feil's 1975 short film documenting Peter Brook rehearsing cast members in Brooklyn for one of his off-beat productions. For those of us who do not "tread the boards" for a living, the rehearsals seem bizarre and resemble an exercise class more than an acting rehearsal. Some of it is unintentionally funny: the kind of pretentious scenario that is often spoofed by Woody Allen, with actors chanting and seeming to run about without rhyme or reason. Yet, who are we to argue? Brook's reputation as a major theatrical director remains firmly intact.
A collector's booklet featuring essays by Peter Brook and film critic Geoffrey Macnab
In summary, the Criterion release of Lord of the Flies is essential viewing for classic movie lovers.