William Golding was 43 years old when his first book was published. The year was 1954, and the title of the book was Lord of the Flies. It is hard to imagine a publisher, or even an agent looking twice at a 43-year-old novice writer these days, as “youth” has become our religion. When it came time to bring Lord of the Flies to the screen a few years later, the producers took as big a risk as Golding’s publisher had. They chose Peter Brook as director, a man who had done impressive work in experimental theatre, but had only worked on two low-budget films. Incredibly, lightning struck twice. Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963) would become a classic in its own right. The film has received the lavish Criterion Collection treatment, and has just been released as a double-DVD, remastered and filled with bonus materials.
Golding always referred to his story as a fable. Lord of the Flies has become so iconic that people who have never read the book or seen the movie still know the basics of the plot. It concerns a group of boys who find themselves alone on an island, and very quickly resort to the laws of the jungle. The structure of it is beautiful. As we discover, these boys are not just some random group, but of the English upper class. Many are the sons of high-ranking military men. Their experience on the island is a parable for the breakdown of society at large.
At first, the boys are willing to abide by rules, and elect the even-tempered Ralph (James Aubrey) as Chief over the zealous Jack (Tom Chapin). Being in charge becomes Jack’s only concern though, and he achieves it in a brutal manner. He and a few others kill a pig, proving their superiority at providing food for the group. Then he introduces the concept of the Beast. The introduction of the Beast was one of Golding’s most inspired touches. There is no Beast of course, but the idea of it provides a common enemy for the lads. In the history of man, there has always been a Beast. For much of my life, it was the Soviet Union. Today, it is terrorists. Down through the ages, there have been infidels, demons, criminals, you name it. To unite and control the masses, there has to be a Beast.
I find Piggy (Hugh Edwards) to be the most fascinating character of the group. He represents the rational, evolved side of mankind. To him, creating rules and following them is the only way to survive. He is weak though, and his eyeglasses mark him as an intellectual. In another of Golding’s brilliant devices, Piggy’s glasses represent a number of things. They are his eyes, but they are also the most valuable tool on the island. Magnifying sunlight through them is the only way the boys have to make fire. The conflict between Jack’s renegade hunters and what is left of the island society comes to a head over Piggy’s glasses. And as history has shown, brute force always beats reason.
Lord of the Flies won the Nobel prize for literature, and for good reason. It is a phenomenal work. In just telling this story on the big screen, Brook had a winner. But his methods in filming brought things to a whole new level. His goal was to make the movie seem like a documentary, which he achieved. The filming took place over the summer of 1961 on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico. Most of the boys had very little acting experience, and there was not much of a script. They were told what was to happen in a scene, then allowed to improvise. The results speak for themselves, as everything feels natural.
The newly restored 4K digital film transfer looks incredible, and was supervised by editor and cameraman Gerald Feil. Since I had already seen this movie fairly recently, I decided to watch it with commentary, and this provided a lot of insight. The commentary features Brook, Feil, producer Lewis Allen, and director of photography Tom Hollyman. Even more intriguing is the commentary of Golding, who reads from the book over the accompanying scenes. The Golding reading is from 1977, when he recorded it for the Random House Listening Library. I particularly enjoyed his introduction, when he explains “The story is the problem of evil, and the problem of how people are to live in society.”
One of the real treats in the bonus features is titled "Living Lord of the Flies." While on the island, Brook gave the boys some 8 mm cameras to use. This previously unseen footage has been edited to six minutes, and is shown over an excerpt of a reading by Tom Gaman (who played Simon). He reads from an essay he wrote in 1998 about his experience in the film.
In 1980, Golding appeared on the English program The South Bank Show. This was his first interview in 20 years, and runs for 25 minutes. There is also an interview with Brook, recorded in 2008 for the French Le Cinema en liberte, which runs 30 minutes. The third and final interview is with Feil, which appears to have been done for the Criterion Collection, and lasts 20 minutes. The Empty Space is a documentary made by Feil in 1975, and the 16-minute excerpt included examines the methods Brook used in directing the film.
The extras also include a 15-minute "Behind the Scenes" segment, which features home movies, screen tests, stills, and outtakes. We also get a two-minute deleted scene between Jack and Ralph, plus the theatrical trailer.
I mentioned that I had seen this film fairly recently, and I would like to share the reason behind that. Somehow, even with all of my interest in film, I had never seen Lord of the Flies. Then about a year ago, my son came home from school raving about it. He was in high school, there were just a couple of days left before summer break, and one of his teachers had screened it for the class. I was a little embarrassed, but got over it and rented a copy for us to watch together.
I may have been embarrassed, but I was also impressed. His choice of movies tends toward the typical superhero blockbusters, nothing “arty.” But here he was, turning me on to a 50-year-old black and white classic. My point is that Lord of the Flies is not “just” some classic to be revered, but one which even speaks to our IMAX 3D-inundated Millenials. I think it speaks volumes to just how good the movie is, and this Criterion Collection edition is definitive. See it now, before your kid does and shows you up.