Lord of the Flies, Blu-ray (1963/2013)

by | Jul 30, 2013 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Lord of the Flies, Blu-ray (1963/2013)

Director: Peter Brooks
Cast: English schoolboys in America
Based on novel by William Golding
Studio: Janus/ The Criterion Collection 43 [7/16/13]
Video: 1.37:1 for 4:3 black & white 1080p HD
Audio: English PCM mono
Subtitles: English
Extras: Commentary track by director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, Dir. of Photography Tom Hollyman, and Editor and Camerman Gerald Feil; Audio only of Golding reading from his novel with corresponding scenes from the film; Deleted scene with optional commentary; Brook interview (2008); Behind-the-scenes materials; Golding on The South Bank Show on TV (1980); New Feil interview; Excerpt from Feil’s 1975 documentary showing Brook’s theater methods; “Living Lord of the Flies” – footage shot by the boy actors during production (on Super 8) with voice-over by actor Tom Gaman; Theatrical trailer
Length: 90 minutes
Rating: *****

Researching this review I was amazed to learn that there was a second color remake of Lord of the Flies released in 1990. As with the remake of Psycho, it’s a flop. This black and white masterpiece was made on a shoestring after a big British studio wanted to spent lots of money on it, move it from the small island Brooks selected near Puerto Rico to an island off Australia, and even suggested changing the all-boys cast to all-girls and making them Americans instead of English. Brooks said all he wanted was “the kids, a camera, and a beach,” and he finally got it.

They didn’t have a script, but worked directly from Golding’s book, shooting the film consecutively. They didn’t even worry much about costumes, just letting the boys’ clothing look increasingly damaged during their days on the island. Some technical advances also made the film possible. The main cameraman had been only a still photographer before but got some tips from a cinematographer. Although the producer sent along a huge studio Ampex in a crate, the crew never opened it but used a new battery-operated Nagra portable recorder with 5-inch reels. They had a second cameraman shooting vegetation and other shots on the island which they could cut in. They spent a very long time editing down both the 35mm film that was shot and the 5-inch reels of audiotape.

Lord of the Flies opens like La Jetée of the year before, with B&W stills (although all of Le Jetée was stills except one shot). It suggests that these English school boys of wealthy parents were being flown to Australia to continue in school since the world was  supposedly approaching a nuclear war. The plane crashes near this small island (in the South Pacific) and the adult crew is killed but all the boys survive. The island is a sort of paradise, with food and water, and all they need to do is govern themselves until they are rescued. The principal characters come on the scene first: Ralph and the over-weight intellectual “Piggy.” They find a conch shell in the surf and Ralph blows it, summoning the other boys. They vote on a chief to lead them and Ralph wins, with Jack coming in second. There is a surrealistic scene that almost seems out of a Bunuel film, with some of the boys in their heavy Anglican choir robes, marching along the beach singing “Kyrie Eleison.”

It is decided that a fire must be kept burning to signal any overhead planes that the boys are there. But Jack leads some of the boys (his “gang”) on a hunt for a wild pig and lets the fire go out. This is the beginning of the descent of most of the boys into barbarism. Jack takes over as the chief and moves to a more fortified place at the other end of the island. They take and break Piggy’s glasses in order to re-start the fire. Some of them climb to a high point and sight a seriously injured pilot, whose billowing parachute they had mistaken for some sort of “beast” on the island. Eventually there are only Ralph, Piggy and a couple others together, while the rest of the boys have become part of Jack’s domain, and these kill Simon at night, who they mistake for “the beast.”  Jack’s tribe even adorn their bodies with primitive decorations from plants they find on the island.

[Warning: Spoiler] In a visit to the fortification by Ralph and Piggy to get his glasses back, one of the tribe dislodges a boulder from above which kills Piggy. The tribe then sets fire to the island and pursues Ralph to supposedly kill him. At the last minute Ralph dramatically comes upon a uniformed adult of the armed forces and they will obviously be rescued.

The extras are fascinating, as usual with Criterion, especially the interview with author Golding. Brooks did a near-perfect job of bringing Golding’s story to a visual presentation. Some of the boys talk now about how being in the film was one of the high points of their lives. All of them benefitted greatly from the positive effect of being in the film, though only one went on to be an actor. The essay in the printed booklet is also a must-read. 4K digital remastering is excellent, with a wide range of grey scale in the Blu-ray version. The details of the sound effects, and especially the score by Raymond Leppard, come alive as never before. It’s a dark and involving fable which looks almost like a documentary. It could never happen that the poor TV reality shows could even approach this level of communication.

—John Sunier

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