Grade: A-Lord of the Flies (1963)

Director: Peter Brook

Stars: James Aubrey , Hugh Edwards, Tom Chapin

Release Company: The Criterion Collection

MPAA Rating: NR

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Peter Brook: Lord of the Flies


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I always admired Peter Brook's original 1963 adaptation of William Golding's novel The Lord of the Flies. For some reason, this simple movie left indelible images with me ever since I first saw it back in the 1960s. I was intrigued by the prospect of getting the Criterion special-edition DVD, and I am even more amazed by the production. Why Harry Hook tried to remake it, in color, is beyond me. The 1963 version is definitive.

If Hook aimed to make his version more authentic by giving more prominence to Simon and including Simon's conversation with the "Beast," he missed the mark badly.

Dragging out the pacing longer (to parallel Golding's novel) does nothing to communicate the spirit of the book either; ironically, it takes a director known for his stage work to translate Lord of the Flies more appropriately to the screen. Brook's version merges so closely with the spirit of Golding's book that the two mediums are inseparable. I can hardly think of the novel without visualizing Brook's Lord of the Flies, and vice-versa.

Most of us have read Lord of the Flies in high school. You are probably already aware that the story involves an airplane that crashes near a deserted island. The adults perish in the crash, yet some English schoolboys survive and hope to be rescued. The boys fashion a reasonably democratic government that soon collapses into total anarchy, bringing to the forefront universal questions about the nature of man.

Brook's concept required using non-actors for the 30-or-so boys who made up the cast, and about 3,000 candidates applied. The winning schoolboys basically spent their 1961 summer vacation in a secluded part of Puerto Rico, re-creating the Lord of the Flies situation: with no parents, and with much independence. A remarkable sidenote: Most of these ordinary children blossomed into leaders and top scholars the next school year. That should supply significant evidence about effective child-rearing.

A couple of the boys have worked in the film industry since Lord of the Flies was released, but this is the sole film reference on most of the boys' resumes. Of the main characters, only James Aubrey (who plays Ralph) added an extensive list of subsequent films to his credit. That's not surprising. He has enough charisma to carry Brook's film, and we identify with his struggle for rationality in the midst of chaos.

Aubrey's crying scene at the end is authentic, and came after many failed attempts using onions and other techniques. The method acting finally worked on him, and his tears originate from somewhere—it's immaterial whether it results from understanding the role or from realizing that his summer vacation was ending. The tears are real.

Brook successfully sought a naturalistic, documentary appearance for his film. That's why he looked for British boys or American boys who had grown up with a similarly restrained mentality that would reflect Golding's novel. Without parental security and control, it didn't take long for the boys to loosen up and begin to act like normal kids. Much of the action was improvised.

The most obvious place you can observe this improvisation is during the swimming scene that immediately follows the fire-building sequence. None of this is scripted—the camera simply rolls on the boys at play. We see them horsing around in the ocean, and watch a couple of little ones conduct miniature crab races. Especially good is a quiet scene showing the gentle Simon (Tom Gaman) caressing a chameleon that jumps onto his face—watch Gaman's personality come through as the camera remains with him.

Even more remarkable: The cinematographers were complete amateurs too! Neither Gerald Feil nor Tom Hollyman had ever been behind a movie camera before. Like Brook's casting of amateur actors, this also lends to the au natural aspect of the film.

It was strictly on-the-job training for both Feil and Hollyman, yet it works. Their handheld cameras capture some remarkable shots along the way. I especially like the sparkling reflection on the water after Simon's body slowly turns over in the ocean. It would be nearly 20 years before Feil would get behind the camera again in some B-horror flicks. Hollyman never filmed another project.

With widespread amateurism on the set, how did Brook pull off such an effective film? The secret lay mainly with extensive editing that took nearly 2 years to complete. The major editing involved the sound—there was no way to record 95 percent of the dialogue live, due to the continual crashing of the ocean waves.

At night, Brook would gather his child troops inland, to record the day's dialog in a quieter setting (so that it could be dubbed in later). There are only a couple of spots where you can notice the soundtrack and picture being slightly out-of-sync, but that certainly beats being inaudible. Of course, the most haunting part of the soundtrack relies on the memorable schoolboy chants. If you've seen Lord of the Flies, the "Keerie-aye, keerie-o>" strains are now pulsing through your brain's audio tracks.

I highly recommend checking out the new DVD version. The 1994 restoration marks the first time we can see Lord of the Flies as it was originally intended. The DVD also contains interesting bonus material, highlighted with an extraordinary commentary track that features director Peter Brook, cinematographers Tom Hollyman and Gerald Feil, and producer Lewis Allen. Their background information helped me appreciate the film much more, particularly with Brook's insights clearly demonstrating his concept being completely in harmony with the novel.

There are great anecdotes related through the commentary, like how overpowering the smell of the pig's head was, and the difficulty they had getting flies attracted to it. We also learn that Piggy was the last role to be cast, and was found through an ad when young Hugh Edwards responded that he may have been the character they were looking for. Even Edwards' response demonstrates that he really does fit perfectly into the Piggy role.

Every film has crises. We learn through the commentary that Lord of the Flies nearly came to a crashing halt when lead actor James Aubrey went down with an ankle injury. Had it been broken, they would have cancelled the whole project—t had to be completed during that one summer period before school started up again.

One noteworthy DVD extra tidbit comes courtesy of author William Golding. There's a track on which Golding reads excerpts from his novel as the namesake film plays quietly behind him. If nothing else, this track should convince most people that Brook's methods of getting naturalism worked into Lord of the Flies have successfully translated Golding's vision, and we don't need a modern, extended, colorized version to kill his powerful story.

Brook's film isn't perfect, but remains the most effective way of visually capturing the essence of Golding's Lord of the Flies.

 


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