Writer: None credited
Cast: Jack Aubrey, Hugh Edwards, Tom Chapin, Tom Gaman
Running time: 92mins
What’s the story: Young schoolboys, stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash, degenerate into warring beasts. Ralph (Aubrey) and Piggy (Edwards) attempt to maintain order. But, the other boys are more drawn to the violent choirboy Jack (Chapin).
What’s the verdict: Always depressing to declare a film about man’s innate barbarism is as relevant today as when released almost 55-years ago. But, Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies, adapted from William Golding’s novel published almost 65-years ago, remains a cautionary fable.
The irresistible premise was borne of Golding’s musing to his wife, how would the child characters of such classics as Treasure Island and Coral Island really behave if marooned with no supervision? An idea then refracted through the lens of the author’s conclusions about humanity following active duty in World War II.
Such is the allegorical appeal of children tumbling into savagery that Lord of the Flies’ influence encompasses virtually the entire Young Adult dystopian future canon (Battle Royale, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, etc.).
It can also be felt in Stephen King’s The Children of Corn (King’s fictitious town Castle Rock also owes its name to the book), Madagascar (it’s true!), an Iron Maiden song, an episode of The Simpsons and more.
The book is an undisputed masterpiece. Not as acknowledged is that Brook’s film is a (Palme D’or nominated) classic. A surreal, thrilling, intelligent and heartbreaking example of a singular vision scorched onto the screen, (myriad) obstacles be damned.
Visually, the filmmakers incorporated the documentary camerawork of cinema verite, jagged editing of the French New Wave, and the beautifully composed eccentricities of Powell & Pressburger. Later movies such as if…., Walkabout and Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence seem to owe a debt to what was achieved here.
The film’s unusual tone and shade is partly attributable to a near pocket-money budget. Lawrence of Arabia producer Sam Spiegel, after purchasing the rights from Ealing Studios, envisioned a big budget bastardisation of the novel.
Peter Shaffer’s original script was rejected and successive rewrites incorporated schoolgirls, a quest adventure and a happy ending. Ultimately the film would carry no screenplay credit, the filmmakers improvising around the book.
When Brook threatened to walk, Spiegel relented but awarded the director his freedom at the cost of a miniscule budget (various accounts on the special features range from $150K to $300K).
To get the boys on the island as efficiently as possible, opening credits utilise still images to introduce the school, an impending nuclear war, the airborne evacuation and plane crash.
As another money saving technique, photographer Tom Hollyman was employed as a first-time cinematographer. His stark, metallic black and white visuals drain the lushness and romanticism from the paradise location (the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico).
Using non-professional child actors, legendary theatre director Brook employed method techniques to immerse his young cast in their roles, crucially shooting the film in sequence.
Awkward opening scenes befit the characters sizing up each other to decide upon leaders and scapegoats. The crescendo of violence in the final twenty minutes is more chilling because by this point the children were wearing their characters like comfortable clothes.
Brook, Hollyman and 2nd cameraman/editor/associate producer (!) Gerald Feil captured extraordinary moments of hushed beauty and sequences of savagery through a then-innovative method of recording vital action with the main camera and a secondary camera snatching unscripted reactions and events.
See the tense exchanges between rival leaders Ralph and Jack or a nocturnal bonfire of barbarism (lit with flares to nightmarish effect) for how revolutionary was the method in the madness.
In keeping with the feel of a fable, the plane crash is merely a means to place the boys on the island. None of them look or behave like they have survived a terrifying ordeal, so their actions cannot be attributed to post-traumatic stress.
All these smarts and innovations were at the service of a first-rate story. The metaphor is clear: innocence is easily corrupted, paradise becoming perdition (quite literally in the hellfire denouement). And those who preach a higher power are most venal of all…
None of this would work without Golding’s characters lifted and shifted successfully to screen. Thousands of children were auditioned, each part matched with the perfect lad.
Aubrey, an old soul in a young body, carries the film as the decent Jack, aware of how rules and principles keep anarchy at bay. As his antithesis Jack, Chapin delivers the right balance of suave charisma and cruel strength to become a leader behind whom others will rally.
Rationality, placed in mortal danger as the frenzy grips, is present in the form of Gaman as the quiet Simon and Edwards as the tragic Piggy. Both are ostracised, Simon for his oddness, Piggy for his gawky pudginess and annoying intelligence. And whose broken glasses represent the smashing of civilised behaviour, and image repeated in Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 masterpiece, Straw Dogs.
This rejection means neither are taken on an expedition to discover the ultimately benign nature of “the Beast”, a creature who haunts the children’s imaginations. Instead, offerings are made to this phantom menace, notably the pig’s head mounted on a spike in the film’s central image.
Edwards responded to a story in The Daily Telegraph about the filmmakers’ difficulties in finding a suitable Piggy with a handwritten note to Brook reading, “I think I am the Piggy you’re looking for. I enclose a photograph”.
And ultimately it is the protection of Piggy’s ideas that becomes the central battle. Ideas that are necessary but not fun, personified in Edwards’ unglamorous physique and drawling Hitchcock-like speech (there is a delightful image of Aubrey and Edwards with Hitchcock at Cannes in a behind-the-scenes special feature).
Interestingly, only Aubrey and tertiary player Nicholas Hammond (Spider-Man on 1970s’ TV) pursued acting after this.
Finally, Lord of the Flies is a stark reminder to not allow nationalism (the ultimate form of tribalism) to cloud judgement.
Jack haughtily exclaims, “We’re English and the English are best at everything”. That sort of thinking led to Brexit, ineffective leaders without a plan, and the rest of us stuck on an island wondering what catastrophe we’ll blunder into next.
Told you it was still relevant.
DISC AND EXTRAS
We must guard against taking Criterion’s restoration jobs for granted. The presentation here showcases Hollyman and Feil’s crisp photography, adding weight to the heavy foliage, crashing sea and heavy tropical clouds. Increasingly dirty faces and torn clothes are also displayed with a clarity that charts the boys’ downward spiral.
The beach and jungle was too noisy to shoot live sound, so dialogue for the day’s scenes was recorded separately in a quieter area. The mono soundtrack has rightly not modified the obvious ADR and post-synching required.
One of the great unmade film documentaries is the tale of Lord of the Flies’ long road to the screen. But, the 1993 audio commentary, featuring Peter Brook, DoP Tom Hollyman, cameraman/editor/associate producer Gerald Feil, and producer Lewis M. Allen is a fantastic talk track charting the film’s troubled production.
Vieques was selected because it was the closest island to New York, where many of the cast lived (being children of ambassadors and businessmen), and because the land was controlled by the US military. But, Vieques also became a hospital site for the wounded during the Bay of Pigs invasion, meaning swarming helicopters disrupted filming. And the colonel controlling the island wasn’t initially keen on a film crew traipsing about.
Elsewhere there are tales of a lab assistant in New York ruining shots by puffing cigars while developing the film, and bored kids threatening to strike.
To resolve the latter, Brook put the young ‘uns to work as clapper loaders or prop hands when they weren’t required in front of the camera. They were also given equipment to make their own movie, a horror short quaintly titled “Something Queer in the Warehouse”, which sadly was either never finished or didn’t survive.
We learn how a year was spent painstakingly matching the soundtrack to the image. Plus Orson Welles’ offer, after viewing a rough four-hour cut, to fix the movie if given a case of wine and one month in an edit suite.
We’ll let you find out about the colourful key grip Jim Sheldon yourself.
15 minutes of behind-the-scenes presents the custom-made tracks and dollies built to shoot on the island, plus stills of how a climactic rock fall on a key character was achieved.
Interviews with Peter Brook and Gerald Feil, 32 minutes and 19 minutes apiece, provide more information and reflection. Feil is the unsung hero of the movie; brought on for six months as a cameraman, he spent three years on the film, wrestling with the edit, finally being awarded the title Associate Producer for his trouble.
A 17-minute extract from Feil’s documentary on Brook’s theatre techniques, The Empty Space, illuminates the director’s technique.
A 25-minute excerpt from a 1980 episode of the South Bank Show on Golding reveals the author to be erudite and affable, and astonished by his success.
A brief two-minute deleted scene illustrates the closer friendship Ralph and Jack had in the 100-minute version of the film screened in competition at Cannes. The final release version runs 90-minutes, focussing more on the film’s central thesis.
This scene comes with Golding’s reading from a Lord of the Flies audio book. His reading has also been edited to fit the film as a separate track and is a fascinating reminder of what a stunning adaptation Brook achieved.
Tom Gaman narrates his experiences on Living Lord of the Flies, a six-minute piece featuring footage the children shot. Shame the 1996 reunion documentary, Time Flies, couldn’t be included (it can be found here on YouTube).
But, a trailer and booklet round out a first-class presentation of a film primed for rediscovery.