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Lord of the Flies: The Criterion Collection

Voyager Home Video

Starring James Aubrey, Hugh Edwards, Tom Chapin,
and Tom Gaman

Based on the novel by William Golding

Written and directed by Peter Brook

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Put a glass of water in front of British novelist William Golding. Then ask him if it's half-full or half-empty. If Golding's influential 1955 novel Lord of the Flies (and Peter Brook's film adaptation) are anything to go by, Golding won't just tell you the glass is half-empty, he might say whatever is there is of little value. Disturbing, dramatic, and woefully pessimistic, Golding's Lord of the Flies asks a simple question: What would happen if a group of young schoolboys were stranded on a tropical island, with only a scant understanding of civilized behavior and no adult guidance? It was a question Golding pondered only briefly when he first conceived his novel, and the result was a tale about young boys in public-school uniforms who readily cast them aside for war-paint, tribal behaviors, and a "might-makes-right" ethos that has scarred the vast chronicle of human history.

A faithful re-telling of Golding's novel, Brook's 1963 Lord of the Flies is equally valuable, for where Golding may have used language to subtly convey the psychological turmoil and violent episodes of children who exist in a world without consequences, the skilled Brook brings these conflicts alive, aided by a solid production team, a capable cast of young actors, and stark black-and-white photography that effectively strips Golding's tropical paradise of anything resembling organic life.

At an unspecified point in the future (as it was written in 1955, Golding's novel conceivably could occur in our present day), a worldwide war has forced a group of English schoolboys to evacuate the country via a high-altitude jet aircraft, which inexplicably crashes over the south Pacific. Jettisoned safely to a small island, young Ralph (James Aubrey) meets the rotund, shy Piggy (Hugh Edwards), and with the call of a conch shell Ralph summons the other surviving boys. As Ralph has summoned them, he quickly is elected as the leader (or "chief"), and a few rules of civilization are established, including regular meetings and the various duties that all will perform in the hopes of getting rescued. But, almost immediately, Ralph is challenged by Jack (Tom Chapin), the leader of the school choir, who declares that his group will be "hunters." Before long, Jack's bullying, exciting hunts, and wild ways seduce most of the other boys to see him as a leader, as they prefer his offers of fun and protection over Ralph's precocious ideas of democracy and rationalism. Other boys suffer in the process, including Piggy, who enjoys looking after the youngest boys and cajoles Jack for his barbaristic ways, and Simon (Tom Gaman), an almost mystical young child who sees through Jack's warnings of a "sea-monster" and tries to discover the truth about the crash for himself.

Allegorical on almost every level, Lord of the Flies functions literarily much like Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984, using a simple story to illustrate truths the author believed to be most relevant to his 20th century readers. But while Orwell was committed, almost fanatically, to decrying the threat of totalitarianism (and thus asserting that enlightened democracy is something worth defending), Golding's story — and Brook's film — approaches the nature of civilization and self-government from historical, anthropological, and sociological viewpoints, where the line between savage tribalism and ordered civilization is a much finer distinction than one might suspect. To Golding, rational self-government is possible (the famous final scene of the film illustrates emphatically that this brief ordeal has merely been an aberration from the manners of conventional civilization), but it is a social structure that is arrived at through centuries of progress — progress that easily can be dismantled when people are thrown into a desperate crisis.

Criterion's DVD of Lord of the Flies is a definitive edition, with a good transfer (in the original 1.33:1) and audio in the original mono (DD 1.0). The print looks very good for a European film from the '60s, with many sequences free of damage and with strong low-contrast details. However, there are a few scenes that have substantial flecking and lines, and, while minor, it's unfortunate these elements couldn't be digitally corrected before the DVD release. Supplements include a commentary track (from the 1993 Laserdisc edition) with director Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman/editor Gerald Fail; some home-movies and tests by D.P. Hollyman, along with outtakes and a production scrapbook; a deleted scene and a trailer, both with commentary; and an introduction and excerpts from the novel read by Golding himself on a third audio track. The final supplement, in and of itself, is priceless.

— RW

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