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William Golding's influential short novel Lord of the Flies has been on High School reading lists since the middle 1960s; this first film adaptation was made in 1963 by the noted stage director Peter Brook. The tale of thirty-odd British schoolboys marooned on a remote island is a disturbing yet believable allegory for the human condition. According to the essay by critic Geoffrey McNab included with the disc, producers Michael Balcon and Sam Spiegel took turns trying to launch film versions, commissioning scripts from Nigel Kneale, Richard Hughes and Peter Shaffer. Fidelity doesn't seem to have been the primary concern. One script altered the story to add lost schoolgirls into the mix. Peter Brook's response to the final miniscule budget available for the project was to take a small crew and the boys to an island off Puerto Rico loaned to the production by the Woolworth Company. Brook filmed his cast of non-actors in loose fashion, using the book as a script. The resulting film Lord of the Flies is a very literal adaption of Golding's work.
After their airplane crashes in the ocean a number of boys from a British boarding school gather on a beach. The thoughtful Ralph (James Aubrey) comforts some of the younger children and listens to Piggy (Hugh Edwards), an asthmatic, overweight kid who wears glasses. Joining Ralph's bunch are some choirboys led by the aggressive Jack (Tom Chapin), who assents to a vote that makes Ralph leader. At first the group is organized and regimented. Holding a conch shell gives one speaking rights at meetings. Piggy suggests keeping a signal fire going. His eyeglasses are the group's only way to light the fire. Jack's choirboys become hunters and succeed in killing a wild pig. When Ralph tries to get the boys to keep up basic responsibilities, Jack splits the group in two. Jack uses fear of a possibly imaginary Beast on the hill to align the boys behind him for protection. Ralph and Piggy's reasoned words are ignored. Jack sticks a pig's head on a pike as an offering to the Beast, and soon his painted warriors are following whatever command he gives. Young Simon (Tom Gaman) discovers the true nature of the Beast, but doesn't get a chance to tell anybody about it. It soon becomes clear to Piggy and Ralph that Jack will order his tribe to kill them.
Lord of the Flies sets up its story with a photo montage to establish that the boys' plane is lost during some kind of war -- which is never again mentioned. In a matter of weeks the group has shed its veneer of good manners and fair play ("We're British, and British is always the best!") for a juvenile plunge into Joseph Conrad's pagan idolatry and utter savagery. The strongest boy's promise of fun and anarchy easily wins over Piggy's boring lectures; Ralph can only watch the jet planes fly over after the group's signal fire has been allowed to burn out. Much of the book is transferred to the screen, even the disgusting sight of Simon staring at the rotting pig's head covered with flies. Things never become as suspenseful as they might, but the only element truly missing is Golding's frightening vision of a hallucinatory chaos, a yawning pit of primal horror. The sequences with the "Beast" don't attempt to visually express the fright factor.
What we get is a Boy Scout campout gone very, very wrong. Quoted in another of the disc's text extras, director Brook says that after the filming he could well imagine that only a long weekend would be needed for the choirboys to be transformed into pagan savages. 1
The directorial philosophy seen here appears to be very loose; we're told (and some of the footage in the disc extras shows) that Brook set the boys loose to behave as they will. Yet Jack and Ralph have very defined characters, and the dialogues are clearly scripted. The very measured cadence with which Hugh Edwards reads his lines slows Piggy's delivery down to a crawl; it comes off as amateurish. After capturing very telling looks and relationships, Brook will also occasionally let a self-conscious gesture slip through, as in one scene between Jack and Ralph. The end effect is one of carefully guided amateur performances. They'd be on a par with those of Italian neo-realism if the situations were more natural. Hardly anyone from the cast continued in acting. Hugh Edwards eventually went to medical school. James Aubrey was swimming at an Army base in Jamaica just a couple of days before Brook found him for the shoot. Of all the boys only he and Nicholas Hammond have had long careers in film and TV.
Brook's cameraman Tom Hollyman appears to use no lights yet manages many fine images. He tends to favor striking silhouettes and displaying the little warriors' body paint. Brook conveys most of the action well enough, even though the framing is frequently a little claustrophobic. In some scenes we have little feeling of spatial relationships. One might imagine a more structured filming plan making the film coverage more chaotic as the group becomes more savage, but the film's rough surface is uniform throughout.
Most importantly, the story's action plays as credible, even when common sense would suggest that boys under these circumstances would be expected to be more panicked. The rigid school life might keep some of them in line, but we're surprised that nobody is injured through an accident. We're well aware of how things have changed. Who would handle the insurance liability factor, with those boys climbing around on those sharp rocks, above the surf? Give just a few boys some sharp sticks, and it's to be expected that somebody will get poked in the eye.
I remember my first viewing of this show as quite a suspenseful experience. We certainly side with Ralph, although Jack's natural charisma shows through until the killings begin. If the finish of Lord of the Flies doesn't have the impact of Golding's book, it's probably because it's just so relentlessly literal.
Criterion's Blu-ray of Lord of the Flies is a 4k remastering of a very early DVD (number #43) that didn't have all that satisfactory of a picture. On TV prints as well the B&W cinematography clogged up and much of the dialogue seemed unintelligible. Criterion's new transfer is sharp and smooth with an excellent range of contrast. All that island undergrowth doesn't smear into video mush, and we get a better look than we want at both the Beast and the Lord of the Flies pig's head.
The transfer is at 1.37:1 even though the main titles are composed to fit within a 1:66 scan. Yet a theatrical framing might compromise a few compositions, so this aspect ratio choice may be the wisest choice. Even at 1:37 many shots feel uncomfortably tight. Criterion's notes state that the flat aspect ratio is the original, without elaboration.
Are disc producers Elizabeth Pauker, Mark Rance and Erik Saks new names at Criterion? They've assembled an attractive group of extras. An audio commentary features Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, cinematographer Tom Hollyman and editor Gerald Feil (who also supervised the transfer). A deleted scene is present, along with BTS footage, home movies, outtakes, stills, and Living "Lord of the Flies", a collection of home movies filmed by the kids themselves on the set, accompanied by a voice-over from actor Tom Gaman.
Author Golding reads from his novel in an audio extra, and appears on a TV talk show from 1980. Editor Feil is interviewed in one extra and another is an excerpt from his 1975 docu on Brook's directing method. An original trailer uses much of the opening montage, critic quotes and just a couple of scenes from the film.
The insert booklet contains an informative essay by Geoffrey Macnab and a reprinted excerpt from Brook's autobiography. The cover artwork by Kent Wiliams is very attractive.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Lord of the Flies Blu-ray rates:
1. I was a sorry young member of perhaps the worst Boy Scout troop in recorded history. Adult supervision on outings was nil. Older thug kids terrorized the younger ones. Once arrived at some godforsaken weekend campout location (like the desolate mudflats of the Salton Sea) the whole group would somehow find a way to get involved in the most dangerous activity imaginable, like playing on heavily-trafficked railroad tracks. Merit badges? I don't have to show you no stinking merit badges.
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