DVD Review: Lord of the Flies (1963) - The Criterion Collection

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Fifty years later, director Peter Brook’s adaptation of author William Golding’s Lord of the Flies retains its startling sense of realism. So much has been said about the 1963 film, it seems there’s hardly anything left to discuss. The Criterion Collection recently reissued it as a two-DVD set, loaded with extras and a booklet containing an excellent essay by film critic Geoffrey Mcnab. Shot in stark, high contrast black-and-white, its tightly-paced 90 minutes play out like a vaguely nightmarish documentary.

The narrative has long since entered pop culture consciousness. A plane full of prepubescent boys crashes on an uninhabited island. An unnamed, ongoing war necessitated their evacuation. The flight crew has perished, leaving the boys to their own devices. Forthright Jack (Tom Chapin) emerges as a bullying leader, hell bent on hunting for wild animals and generally holding court over the weaker-willed children. Ralph (James Aubrey) and Piggy (Hugh Edwards) split off as a small faction dominated by rational, measured thinking. The situation disintegrates rapidly as the majority of the boys, lacking any sort of discipline normally enforced by adults, resort to primitive behavior.

Lord of the Flies 2 (380x214).jpgWhat still works so well is that director Brook wasn’t trying to portray every bit of nuance and subtext laced throughout Golding’s novel. As he explains in an excellent interview found on disc one, Brook’s intent was to provide a visual link to the text. He sought to capture the tone of the original writing while putting actual faces to the names. To show in unflinching detail the cruel measures some of these boys were willing to lower themselves to. In a way, his film works best as a companion piece to support the far more incisive novel.

The film is utterly unsentimental, almost to the point of chilly nonchalance. Brook doesn’t guide us in any significant way. His hyper-realistic style eschews any cheap pleas for sympathy. The boys’ plight is presented as a simple matter of fact. As the story unfolds, one might identify with the chubby, bespectacled, practical, and na├»ve Piggy. Perhaps Ralph’s thoughtfulness might strike a chord. Also breaking out of the intentional sameness of most of these kids is Simon (Tom Gaman), the sensitive but brave child who is alone in his conviction that the suspected island “Beast” doesn’t exist.

But there are no “cute kid” moments to be found here. Humor at times, yes, but zero of the typically cloying approach taken by too many filmmakers when directing a very young cast. Brook selected non-actors, correctly believing that a lack of formal training would capture the guileless (and at times clumsy) qualities required to convey Golding’s conception.

Lord of the Flies 3 (380x323).jpgIn addition to the 30-minute interview with Peter Brook, this Criterion edition includes a plethora of supplements, some ported over from previous editions and others new. A 1993 commentary track features Brook and a number of participants. Another alternate track finds author Golding reading his original text, matched to the corresponding scenes. Three “Behind the Scenes” featurettes give us a peek at unused and test footage while we hear recollections from various participants. There’s a vintage interview with Golding and a new interview with cameraman/editor Gerald Feil. Silent home movies shot by some of the cast members are accompanied by the reflections of Tom Gaman (Simon), “Living Lord of the Flies.”

It’s an involving, rewarding set of extras that really adds to one’s appreciation of the film Peter Brook made. It’s even claimed that Lord of the Flies was not only the first film to ever use a Nagra for recording location sound, but also the first feature shot using a zoom lens. I’m not entirely sure either of these claims is true, but it’s interesting that it was apparently among the earliest to utilize those soon-to-be-commonplace technologies. A half-century hasn’t dimmed the film’s vitality and kudos to The Criterion Collection for assembling such a comprehensive package. This edition is also available as a single-disc Blu-ray version.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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