Our review of Lord of the Flies (1963) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published August 5th, 2013, is also available.
Evil is inherent in the human mind, whatever innocence may cloak it…
The company that invented the words "special edition" lovingly brings Peter Brook's 1963 adaptation of William Golding's novel to DVD. A unique and original film, Lord of the Flies is a stunning achievement, especially considering the conditions under which the film was shot.
Lord of the Flies is another in a long line of films adapted from various print material. The novel is a classic in its own right, and your enjoyment of the film may be colored by your familiarity with Golding's work. The movie adheres as best it can to the story presented in print, but a few moments have been lost in the translation. I for one believe that none of the feeling or the message gets lost in translation, however.
As good as this work is unto itself, the back story and other additional tidbits make it all the more fascinating. Here's a rough overview of the story itself, which we should all be very familiar with by now. It is the beginning of the "next" war. A planeload of British schoolchildren is being flown out of the country and away from danger. The plane crashes and thirty children survive. All others perish. The crux of the story begins when two of the children find each other and the rest begin straggling in. Together they make a motley crew who must now begin looking after their survival. Their ages vary and two of the older children begin to face off, wanting to lead the group. Over time the group of children degrades into a troop of savages, dancing around lit fires and worried about nothing but the next hunt.
The film is clearly filled with message, symbolism and subtext. Designed to show the downward spiral of mankind into a hateful, despot filled community, the film (and book) largely succeed. The film is also designed to show what can happen to children without continued adult supervision. In fact director Peter Brook comments on the jacket that based on his experience of shooting the film, his largest disagreement with Golding is that rather than the slow movement toward destruction portrayed in the book, catastrophe would ensue "within one long weekend."
Which brings us to the back story. Brook employed a full staff that had never been involved in a film. None of the kids involved had any real professional experience. Neither did most of the staff. I actually think of it as The Blair Witch Project in reverse. Instead of taking professionals and making us believe they are real people, Brook takes real people and makes us think they are actors. The cast and crew were transported to a remote island in Puerto Rico and principal shooting was completed in a relatively short time (the children had to be back in school at the end of their summer break). Unfortunately, the sound could not be shot directly in sync with the film because of the noises of the jungle and the ocean. So the kids were brought back for run-throughs of the same scenes at the end of each day's shooting. After principal photography had been completed, the team took up residence in Paris for a year to sync up the dialogue word for word, picking and choosing among the four or five tracks that had been recorded for each scene.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing is what happened to the kids after they left the set. We are told, in one of the extras, that these rather ordinary children almost uniformly shot to the top of their class and became ritual overachievers in school and out. Whether this was due to being treated largely as adults for that summer, or due to some other factor is unknown by me. But I am told a documentary was made in later years where the main characters are reunited as adults on the very same island by a British documentarian. It certainly has piqued my interest enough to wish it too was included on this disc, and may even be enough for me to try to search it out on video.
Another outstanding part of this disc is the myriad of extras. The commentary track is a particular standout. I know some people prefer the interaction of multiple people commenting at the same time, but I much prefer the Criterion method, and have said so often. For those of you unfamiliar with the way Criterion does their commentary tracks, you MUST at least rent a Criterion title with a quality commentary track with multiple people. Criterion records each individual separately and then cuts and pastes the most important or telling comments at each stage of the film. This way of producing commentary tracks is obviously more time consuming and expensive than the other, but it is worth it.
This commentary track includes audio from director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman and cameraman/editor Gerald Feil. The track itself is filled with behind the scenes information and detailed analysis of the film. It is truly wonderful. Also included on the disc are excerpts from the novel read by the author William Golding. These are actually excerpted from a Listening Library recording of the book recorded by Golding, and they are nice to have here. The remaining extras include an excerpt from Gerald Feil's documentary The Empty Space showing Peter Brook's method of creating theater, a production scrapbook, outtakes, home movies, a deleted scene (with commentary and a reading by Golding), and the original theatrical trailer (also with commentary).
The video here is rather outstanding, and we learn from the commentary track that it is only with this 1994 restoration that we finally are able to see the film as it was originally intended. The black and white images are very nicely rendered, despite the amateur camerawork, or maybe one might even say because of it. According to the Internet Movie Database, the film was shot open matte with the intention of matting down to 1.66:1 in theaters, but both this DVD and its predecessor laser disc are presented in full frame 1.33:1. Why Criterion chose this manner to present the film is open to some question. Perhaps this was the director's intention and IMDb is wrong. Or perhaps the director requested the matte be opened for home release a la' Stanley Kubrick.
The audio is presented in its original mono English. As mentioned prior, most of the entire film was dubbed, re-dubbed or synced after the fact. The best part of the audio track, without doubt, is the terrific score by Raymond Leppard. There is a recurring theme, which is a bit haunting, not quite as eerie as that in Picnic at Hanging Rock, but just as effectual. The dialogue is a bit thin and tinny, but considering the circumstances, is pretty well done.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There really is little to complain about with this film. The only things one can complain about revolve around most of the artistic choices made by the director. One might argue with the omission of the conversation between Simon and the lord of the flies which takes place in the novel, but it is easy to sympathize with the director over the difficulty in reproducing that moment on film. And we also learn in the commentary track that Golding may have actually preferred this approach as well.
The only other complaints one could consider leveling all relate to the thin budget of the film. Brook set out to make this film in as sparse a manner as possible, deliberately selecting the black and white stock used during filming. He has said that the film has a bit of a documentary feel to it, which was entirely his intention, as he believes in setting things in motion and then observing what transpires. This is all part of his method for creating theater. Brook has long searched for a way to make actors look less like they are acting and more like they are doing exactly what is on screen. This was probably as close as he'll ever come.
Lord of the Flies is clearly an important work—a bit of a grand experiment that succeeded wonderfully. The film was well received at Cannes and this is clearly a wonderful example of what can be achieved by an individual with a vision.
Criterion is dismissed from this court with our heartfelt thanks for creating yet another beautiful and truly special DVD. Peter Brook and his team are applauded for his efforts during the summer of production and the year of editing afterward. The boy actors are all commended for a fine performance.
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