“We’re not savages. We’re English!” This line, spoken early in Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies (1963), when the boys left stranded on a tropical island are still keen to institute some version of democracy, gets at something about this film I really like. Devoid of sound, image and behaviour, William Golding’s source novel can be read as an allegory, about how any social order carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, about how warlike instincts persist in us, waiting for opportunity, or permission. But once Golding’s story is rendered as cinema its inherent Englishness seems essential. The uniforms, the classism, the faux-politesse, the naïve patriotism, the bragging over whose father does what for a living: these elements endow the universality of Lord of the Flies with vivid specificity. That balance is so often crucial to movies, which tend to become flat striving blindly to speak for all. Lord of the Flies is an exceptional film in numerous ways, and if you haven’t seen it, Criterion has released it in an excellent new package on DVD and Blu-ray.
It opens with some extremely economical exposition: images of boys at private school, in choir, at their dinner appear in a series of grainy stills made grainier still when the camera zooms in. Then come images of rockets, an evacuation notice, and planes. We’ve quickly been told all we need to know and the real drama can begin, with Ralph (James Aubrey) and Piggy (Hugh Edwards) traipsing through the jungles of the island on which they’ve been left to fend for themselves. They soon find other boys, including a choir, who memorably enter singing their way down the beach in their capes. Organization is deemed key, and Ralph instantly wins the confidence of the others, becoming their foreman, much to the chagrin of Jack (Tom Chapin), the choir leader, who with time will wrestle control from Ralph and lead the others into precisely the sort of savagery he disparaged in that remark quoted at the top of this column. Jack’s a malevolent force in Lord of the Flies, which builds to scenes of frenzied murder, but there is surely some other, subversive version of this story in which we could imagine Jack as the antihero, embracing the ancient call for ecstasy, blood-letting, dance and the annihilation of every last vestige of soul-deadening civilization.
Brook was introduced to producer Lewis Allen as “a con artist—but a con artist for art.” He managed to convince an entire crew, none of who had made a feature, to come to an actual island with a bunch of children, none of who were professional actors, and make a movie with minimal resources. Despite such a hubristic approach, the result exudes craft, precision and style: the incorporation of music that varies from a flute-driven theme to primal drumming to children singing ‘Kyrie eleison’; the omnipresent landscape swaying and looming over and gradually transforming the characters; the rays of light that break up on the water’s surface and the transfixing close-ups of boys’ faces, which so often go on longer than you expect, because Brook was always waiting for something real and unexpected to transpire. If the film still gives us the chills it’s partly because of this attention to the real, not improvisation per se—that’s too actorly a term—but rather flickers of genuine thinking, sweating, stumbling, singing, worrying. These characters never seem less than real kids, living it up while the adults are away—and ready to resume niceties the moment an adult shows up.