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The Merchant Ivory Collection

Home Vision Entertainment
1972 / B&W & Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 106 min. / Street Date June 22, 2004 / 29.95
Starring Lewis J. Stadlen, Anne Francine, Thayer David, Susan Blakely, Salome Jens, Ultra Violet, Martin Kove, Kathleen Widdoes, Sam Waterston
Cinematography Walter Lassally
Production Designer Jack Wright
Film Editor Kent McKinney
Original Music Joe Raposo
Written by George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue
Produced by Ismail Merchant, Joseph Saleh
Directed by James Ivory

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Between 1969 and about 1975 the nation's best source of sophomoric humor was The National Lampoon. It took up the reins dropped by Mad Magazine and rode into the Nixon years on a steady diet of rude, confrontational satire. Two of its wildest writers were George Swift Trow and Michael O'Donoghue. They contributed witty, cynical insults about the war and a had a healthy contempt for the rich: one of their works was a fake magazine ad showing a despondent young man - the text was a plea for charity because he'd never had true beluga caviar and his Bentley was more than five years old. Another article invented fictitious final diaries of Che Guevara, making fun of Marxist ideologues. A third was fake correspondence between network executives over the best way to organize a war between two starving African countries so as to provide gore and suffering for a reality TV show.

Those jolly English-Indian filmmakers Merchant and Ivory must have been taken by the Lampoon's wit and attitudes, for these two contributed the screenplay (and the lyrics to the theme song) for Savages, an intellectual satire that starts off hilariously but grinds to a pretentious halt somewhere in the third or fourth reel. Beautifully shot and cast with a remarkable group of actors, the film nevertheless forgets a prime rule of black comedy - leave your audience far enough behind, and they'll get just as bored as the mouth-breathing masses you're criticizing.


Seen in an ersatz German documentary, the Mud People are about to sacrifice their Princess'es yearly mate when a croquet ball leads them out of the forest and onto the grounds of an abandoned Victorian estate. Soon they're dressing like proper society people and having formal dinners, and their savagery has been converted into acid "polite" conversation and priggish attitudes.

For the first couple of reels, Savages shapes up as a bizarro comedy in high style. The title sequence introduces the large cast of English drawing-room types with judgmental additions to their names. Penelope is a "High-Strung Girl," Iliona is a "Decadent" and Archie a "bully." The opening song rings out like a standard from the early 20s: "They call us Saaa-vages!" But as soon as the titles are over the film switches to B&W with an intertitle covered with little racist drawings of black natives - "The Mud People." The next dozen minutes or so introduce us to the ignorant tribe that wanders naked in the forest. Untranslated German narration comes in from time to time, commenting in patronizing words that most of us can't understand. Silent movie intertitles announce little anthropological facts about the Mud People. They capture a naked young woman of the Seed Masher tribe. They are preparing to smash in the head of consort of their princess (a yearly ritual) when the above-mentioned croquet ball flies in like the bone in 2001 or the Coke bottles in The Gods Must be Crazy and Allegro Non Troppo. Nothing could be more English than a croquet ball, and we finally figure out where things are going when the group finds a deserted mansion waiting for them - as they explore the interior we know they're going to transform into the cheap-matinee types in the opening titles. The film changes from sepia to full color, and the situation leaps ahead rather awkwardly to a point where the Mud People are now shaved, curried and combed and dressed in finery. They also unaccountably speak "frightfully proper" English (at least the English actors do) when before they hadn't mastered speech beyond grunts and groans.

For a while we think the show is really going somewhere. The characters have taken on the pretense of civilization and formal, elitist manners. They're soon expressing petty jealousies, criticizing each other and showing an overdeveloped awareness of social position - who's important, who's out and who's in. "The Capitalist" Nürder (Thayer David of Journey to the Center of the Earth) throws his weight around as if he'd be a bad man to displease. The "Woman in Disgrace" Emily Penning (Salome Jens of Seconds) flaunts herself scandalously. The dark "Forest Girl" (Asha Puthli) has become a uniformed maid. The other characters are a selection of women with various neuroses and erotic interests, and the men vocal but mostly ineffectual. Warhol's Ultra Violet is a lesbian, Martin Kove continues to be a bully and a young Sam Waterston a sensitive fellow with a limp. Top-billed Lewis J. Stadlen is Julian Branch, a musician.

At first the neo-society folk quote books and trivia in a vain attempt to impress each other. They at first applaud Julian's performances, but suddenly decide he's a talentless nothing and snub him. People wander speaking Marienbad-like dialogue that's amusing until we realize that it all is just the author's joke on the audience; much of the text is twice-removed from anything we can decipher as wit or sense. The basic situation is brilliant but the so-called satiric wit of the two Lampoon writers breaks down into obscure "concept" humor that's purposely out of reach. Savages becomes a meaningless, self-indulgent theater piece like the one ridiculed in You're a Big Boy Now.

This critique of England or perhaps polite society anywhere, becomes an interminable series of carefully acted non sequitirs. It's interesting to see young actresses Susan Blakely and Kathleen Widdoes but their roles aren't well-defined. Eventually the group goes into its 'decadent' period and starts behaving naughtily. One member drowns in the pool and is just left there. The film peters out without laughs or a recognizable point, with the neo-society fleeing into the forest again. Try as hard as we could, the only thing that seemed to add up was the croquet game where the spoiled alpha male insists on cheating - if the croquet ball is the germ of upperclass influence, the croquet game resembles something out of Alice in Wonderland. To what purpose, we don't know.

Home Vision presents the Merchant Ivory Collection DVD of Savages in a beautiful enhanced transfer that brings out every nuance of the excellent photography and soundtrack. Like the other titles in the collection, there's a Conversation with the Filmmakers which in this case isn't as harmonious as the others. Merchant and Ivory clearly feel this film was a creative failure and don't have much to relate about it beyond compliments for their hardworking cast. Merchant tries to say it did well in Boston until Ivory steps in courageously to assert that the project was an all-around bust.

A now-for-something-completely-different extra short subject is Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization, a 60-minute docu by Ivory on Nirad Chaudhuri, an Indian Scholar.

I was an usher at the west coast premiere of Savages in 1972, when it played at Filmex. I saw the beginning and shared the audience's gales of laughter at the opening reels, but had to leave to sell candy or something and didn't return until the end when the crowd had lost its smiles. Now I know why.

The Merchant Ivory Collection is bringing us literally everything by the talented director-producer team. Hopefully The Deceivers won't be too far away. It's a chilling and borderline fantastic film about the Thugee stranglers, with an excellent early performance from Pierce Brosnan.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Savages rates:
Movie: Fair, almost Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Interview, second docu feature (see above)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 21, 2004

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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