Lord of the Flies (1963)

Lord of the Flies is one of those classic novels that eluded me. Not that I wasn’t aware of it–I worked in a bookstore for five and a half years, after all–but never particularly considered reading it. I didn’t even particularly seek out the film–I found a reasonably priced copy of the Criterion, which is naturally the grounds for instant purchase (if you were not aware). Still, the story is firmly enough entrenched in our culture that I had the overall beats in my head already–boys crash on island, in absence of adults, revert to awfulness.

As expected, a group of schoolboys from England crashes on an island, the plane disappearing into the ocean and no adults surviving. Ralph (James Aubrey) finds himself being followed by another surviving boy, who tells Ralph that he will take any name other than his schooltime nickname of “Piggy” (Hugh Edwards). The two find a conch and use the sound of it to draw in the others who survived–Simon (Tom Gaman), twins Sam and Eric (David and Simon Surtees), and many others, eventually followed by a large group of boys dressed in choir uniforms, led by Jack (Tom Chapin) and Roger (Roger Elwin). They begin attempts for form a small civilization to make certain they can both survive and hopefully draw the attention of passing vehicles for rescue.

While I can’t very well compare this film to the novel–not having read it–synopsis alone suggests a rather firm similarity, and the brief bit of the novel reading that Criterion included indicates the same, for whatever all that is worth. Peter Brook apparently took a group of non-professional actors in constructing the cast, and it shows. Curiously, I discovered that a PopMatters reviewer wrote: “The true surprise in Lord of the Flies is how little these child actors actually feel like ‘child actors’. With few exceptions, the acting rarely seems to be forced or flat. This practiced, well-honed craft aids Brook’s vision of a fly on the wall approach that pulls the viewer into each scene.” While this certainly encourages me not to trust the analytical skill of said reviewer as far as I can throw it,¹ it does highlight, through a skewed lens, the naturalistic and innate talent of the boys the film is built upon. Certainly, a story that has no adults to speak of for the vast majority of its run time, that is built on themes of humanity, evil, and tensions between civilization and chaos, individuality and populism, and even some hint of, perhaps, classism, absolutely necessitates a deft hand with performance. Mind you, part of the success here is the clearly amateur nature of the actors present, and an early realization that a decent percentage of the film is constructed, dialogue-wise, from ADR and the effects this tends to have.

The construction of the film verges on experimental: to introduce the situation, the film opens with still photographs, panned, zoomed, shaken and only occasionally treated to indicate the progression of events that leads to the boys’ arrival on the island. Editing and pacing don’t chop things down so carefully as to streamline actions and interactions perfectly–it’s not line-line-line-line-action-action-line, it has pauses and noises and other, again, naturalistic elements that enhance the atmosphere and immersion, never feeling like the boys are figuring out or remembering what to do, but are not so thoroughly trained that they meticulously count off beats or rapidly call and answer. The camera itself, too, is languorous, and it hovers readily, and pans slowly when the situation suggests a relative idleness. But it flashes, crashes, swings wildly and rushes when the boys themselves are frenzied or deep in action. The score by Raymond Leppard is light and thin in its way–it’s largely one lighter woodwind theme with some forlornness too it, and a brassy theme of nearly martial horns, often accompanying moments of prideful group activity–whether that activity is moral or not. This allows for some juxtaposition that serves the film quite well.

I did find myself struggling, somewhat, with the rather simplistic evil of Jack and company–the “I have strength, therefore I’m better, and we don’t need a plan, just sharp sticks” attitude and abdication of responsibility for failure (with full, proud embrace of success) felt too “easy” as an examination of how the evil inherently possible in humanity is so omnipresent. Jack’s immediate jerkishness telegraphs this, and requires nothing of the loss of civilization to prove he’s just kind of an asshole. That said, I confess that as time has gone on, the “I am so strong, ignore my mistakes which do not matter, and forget these people obsessed with ‘rules’ and ‘civility’ and ‘morality'” seems far from unrealistic to me…

¹And, being an abstract, I can’t really throw it at all.

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