In writing his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, William Golding set out to subvert the optimistic adventure found in the British magazine Boys' Own and like-minded books. If boys were to find themselves alone in the wilderness, they wouldn't be perfect little Boy Scouts, he reasoned. Absent authority, a troop would quickly become a mob, abandoning discipline and perhaps morality, literally running wild. Embarking from this starting point, Golding ended up with a disturbing and finally poignant story of lost innocence, with overtones about the nature of man and the thin veneer of civilization. In 1963, Peter Brook—certainly one of the most famous dedicated theater directors of all time—released his film adaptation of Golding's novel. Brook's goal: to enhance Golding's prose with seeing-is-believing reality, so that his "beautiful fable" could not "be refuted as a trick of compelling poetic style."
While showing great fidelity to his source, Brook succeeded in delivering a version of Lord of the Flies that could best be described as psychological horror, made more visceral by the sight (the Bacchanalian frenzy on the beach) and sound ("Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Bash her in!") afforded by cinema. Brook summed up the desert-island tale—precipitated by the crash landing of a planeload of British schoolboys—thusly: "children, and children from the best families, some of them in choir school...[put] down in the Garden of Eden. From nowhere come disagreements and disputes. They do not realize the trouble is within themselves. Finally, they destroy paradise." The story hinges on three principal boys: Everyboy Ralph (James Aubrey), the bespectacled "Piggy" (Hugh Edwards), and choir leader Jack (Tom Chapin). A born leader, Ralph begins to organize, temporarily assuaging Jack—the tallest boy, who's accustomed to things being done his way—by appointing him to lead his choir in hunting. The overweight Piggy (who Ralph instinctively sells out by revealing the unsavory nickname shared in confidence) stands by as the primary voice of reason.
The central at-odds triumverate lends itself to Freudian analysis (Jack's increasingly violent "id," Piggy's nagging "superego," with Ralph's "ego" struggling to hold the middle ground and do the right thing), and Brook's film doesn't preclude such a reading. But the film goes for a documentary feel, and in some ways, it was, the camera recording this collection of young amateur actors whisked to a Puerto Rican island with little in the way of imposed stylistic flourish (in that category, I'd only put the resourceful still-frame title sequence and the scene in which Brook deliberately makes the cooking and eating of meat repulsive). Brook handles Golding's wild card character of Simon (Tom Gaman)—the Christ figure closest to seeing the truth—with an objective quietude, even when Simon has his feverish encounter with the pig's head on a stick that is "the Lord of the Flies" (words that are also the translation of "Beelzebub"). Answering fearful rumor of a creature lying in wait, Simon quietly offers, "Maybe there is a beast. What I mean is, maybe it's only us."
That theory is born out in boy's inhumanity to boy, unleashed when order is abandoned ("The rules are all we've got," Ralph pleads impotently). Brook captures the thrill of lawlessness and the unnerving human capacity for savagery, by which the boys mirror their elders who are in the midst of an unspecified war. As in Golding's novel, a disorienting thrill of fear accompanies the arrival of Jack's black-clad choir, sweetly singing "Kyrie eleison" (ominously, "Lord, have mercy") as they march in proto-fascist formation, a blot moving across pristine shoreline. Though the juvenile acting is uneven, it improves over the course of the film, with several key moments captured with searing clarity (including the famous climactic line "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart..."). Given the high degree of difficulty—a location shoot with over thirty children—Brook's filmmaking debut remains something of a marvel.
Not surprisingly, the Criterion Collection has done a bang-up job of presenting Lord of the Flies on Blu-ray. A new 4K scan from 35mm sources—worked down to a 2K digital restoration for this release—yields beautiful results that easily outshine the previous DVD release. While impressive all around, the picture shows its biggest improvements in the twilight scenes, where higher resolution reveals previously obscure information in the shadowed figures on the beach. Detail and nighttime shadow detail has made a leap throughout, contrast is perfectly calibrated, and grain is natural for a filmic feel; framing is also improved from the DVD. The uncompressed linear PCM mono track maximizes the source and even perked up my subwoofer once or twice.
The comprehensive collection of bonus features—including everything from the previous DVD release—lends the film greater context in a number of areas. For starters, Golding is well-represented. On one audio channel (indexed in Criterion's proprietary "Timeline" menu), Golding performs readings from his novel, which have been aligned with the proper scenes in the film. This track also comes with prefatory and concluding comments by Golding that amount to a mini-commentary on his own work. The disc also includes a "Deleted Scene" accompanied by a Golding reading (more on that anon) and a sizeable excerpt from the 1980 documentary-series episode The South Bank Show: William Golding (24:36, HD). The show includes interview clips of Golding discussing his own childhood and the development of Lord of the Flies, as influenced by his experience of war.
The disc also includes a terrific composite audio commentary featuring director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman and editor Gerald Feil. Brook explains his approach and, as do his colleagues, the execution of that approach with great anecdotes from production; there's an all-around sense of well-earned pride in the unique endeavor.
The "Deleted Scene" comes with optional commentary by the same four crew members and a separate track with the corresponding Golding reading (1:57, HD). The scene derives from the "Huts on the Beach" chapter of the novel.
A 2008 "Peter Brook" interview (32:32, HD) finds the filmmaker expounding on the project's development and his practical and stylistic strategies, while a new "Interview with Gerald Feil" (19:36, HD) covers the challenges posed and solutions devised to photograph children on location.
A collection of "Behind the Scenes" material (totalling 15:37, HD) comprises home movies and screen tests, outtakes, and stills.
While I wish we could've gotten the entire documentary—as it's an important one to theatrical history—Criterion also includes a strong excerpt from Feil’s 1973 documentary The Empty Space (16:32, HD), with Brook in action and discussion as a theater director.
The brand-new montage "Living Lord of the Flies” (6:08, HD) presents home movie footage shot by the cast and their families, with a voice-over of actor Tom Gaman reading his 1998 essay of the same name.
Lastly, we get the "Trailer" (1:54, HD) and the customary booklet of liner notes: an essay by film critic Geoffrey Macnab and an excerpt from Brook’s autobiography The Shifting Point.
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