Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Lord of the Flies: Criterion Collection (1963)
Studio Line: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision

Schoolboys stranded on an island quickly become sadistic savages in this daring 1963 film, based on William Golding's famous novel. Produced on a shoestring budget of $250,000, this experimental production, a seminal work of independent filmmaking, used an inexperienced cast and crew to relive the frightening fable.

Director: Peter Brook
Cast: James Aubrey, Tom Chapin, Hugh Edwards, Roger Elwin, Tom Gaman, Roger Allen.
DVD: Standard 1.33:1; audio English Digital Mono; subtitles none; single sided - dual layered; 31 chapters; rated NR; 90 min.; $39.95; street date 3/14/2000.
Supplements: Audio Commentary by director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman & cameraman/editor Gerland Feil; A Deleted Scene with commentary; Excerpts from the novel, read by author William Golding; Production Scrapbook, Home Movies and Outtakes; Excerpts from Gerald Feil's 1972 documentary The Empty Space, showing Peter Brook's methods for creating theater; Theatrical Trailer with commentary.
Purchase: DVD | Novel - William Gerard Golding

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C-/B+

Lord of the Flies is one of those works with which I was quite familiar despite the fact I'd never read the book or seen the movie. The story has been spoofed/ripped off/paid homage repeatedly over the years. One great Simpsons episode presents a hilarious version of the plot, and an early Star Trek show ("Miri") used a very similar story (to not-very-good effect).

As such, I was looking forward to finally seeing the original film adaptation of Lord of the Flies from 1963. Hey, Criterion were set to release this DVD, and since they present "a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films", it must be good, right?

Unfortunately, not really. Maybe I'm simply overly familiar with the story from other media, but I found the film version of LOTF to be pretty dull and not terrible well-made. First off, the movie starts with a bit of a disadvantage in that virtually the entire cast consists of boys aged roughly six to thirteen. That's a situation ripe for some bad acting, and we see that in spades; most of these kids seem pretty rough and awkward in their roles. Particularly problematic is Hugh Edwards' unintentionally clumsy performance as Piggy; granted, Piggy's supposed to be a nerd, but Edwards always seem to be reading his lines as he speaks them, and reading them poorly at that.

The two leads, James Aubrey as Ralph and Tom Chapin as Jack, are pretty good, but neither possesses the appropriate level of charisma to pull off their respective characters. I believed their leadership to a degree, but never thought either boy showed much compelling force by which they could claim the reins.

The remaining cast seemed largely anonymous and blended together too well in that regard; it occasionally was confusing just trying to tell which character was which because some of these kids look so much alike and do so little to distinguish themselves.

As I noted, I never read the book, but nonetheless the film of LOTF feels like a Cliffs Notes version of the story. I can't quite explain why this is, but the plot moves in such a way that it simply feels like parts are missing; everything seems very basic. It felt like they just grabbed bits and pieces and loosely connected them together.

I can't say that I disliked LOTF; the story itself appears pretty compelling and it has some good moments. However, this movie left me cold. What should have been a very powerful tale seemed to get lost within this film and I felt it made very little impression on me.

The DVD:

Lord of the Flies appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, dual-layered DVD; because of those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it contains some notable fault flaws, I actually found the movie to look surprisingly good.

Sharpness consistently excels on this DVD. The picture virtually always looks crisp and nicely defined, with no evidence of moiré effects or jagged edges. Unfortunately, the print used for the transfer clearly displays its age. Although large portions of the movie seem defect-free, much of it appears otherwise. The film occasionally displays some serious grain, and periodic thin vertical lines also mar the presentation. Speckles, scratches and spots pop up fairly frequently.

To be honest, it's these defects that really affected my rating; without them, the picture grade jumps to at least a "B+" and possibly higher. For the most part, this is one of the best-replicated black and white transfers I've seen; it maintains a terrific gray quality and shows some deep blacks and solid contrast. Shadow detail occasionally seems a slight bit weak and overly opaque, but usually appears appropriate. All in all, I found it to be a very satisfying image.

Less effective is the thin and flat monaural soundtrack. Speech appears especially poor in this regard. Intelligibility would be something of a chore no matter what, due to the boys' English accents, but the bland and generally dull quality of the dialogue doesn't help. The film's rhythmic score lacks low end and much depth but otherwise seems adequate, while effects are passable at best. The track seems generally free of distortion, though sometimes the boys' yells and shouts crackle and seem harsh. The audio isn't bad for a movie from 1963, but I found it a mild disappointment.

Two notes about the speech: First, it sometimes seems slightly out of synch with the action. This isn't a fault of the transfer; as mentioned in the audio commentary, little usable dialogue could be recorded during the shoot because of environmental noise, and it was unrealistic to gather these youngsters for postproduction dubbing, so an odd form of dubbing on the fly (ha!) was apparently done during the evenings. It's not a terribly distracting problem, but it's there.

The other issue is more minor but not explained. At about 49:05, one boy speaks but we hear nothing. I don't know if they simply forgot to dub this kid and that problem's always been there or if somehow his line got lost over the years; the issue isn't mentioned during the commentary.

Speaking of which, Criterion's edition of Lord of the Flies features a pretty nice complement of supplements. First up is the interesting audio commentary. This features director Peter Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and cameraman/editor Gerald Feil. I feel this track offers less interpretation of the film and the characters than I'd like but it does provide a lot of good information about the creation of the movie. It's not one of Criterion's best tracks, but it's definitely an enjoyable listen.

Excerpts from the novel itself are read by its author, William Golding, during a session in 1976. This section starts with an introduction from Golding that discusses some of his motivations behind the book and other short anecdotes. His narration accompanies the entire film on a third audio track. It doesn't appear that Golding covers the entire book but he gets through substantial portions and he also tosses in interpretation and discussion of the story between many chapters. It's a very cool addition to the DVD.

One deleted scene appears on this DVD; it can be watched both with and without commentary; that track explains why the scene was omitted. It also features more reading from Golding, who narrates with the appropriate section from the book.

The "behind the scenes" section of the DVD offers three different areas. First is "home movies and tests" which offers some test footage of young actors as well as shots that were apparently among the first Feil had made with a movie camera; he had much still photography experience but had never used a film camera prior to LOTF. The "outtakes" section shows behind the scenes footage from the shoot, while the "production scrapbook" offers a variety of still photos from the film's production as well as many other events such as premieres and parties related to the movie. All of these offer commentary from appropriate participants and are quite interesting; the plethora of production shots are especially good, although the general lack of captions can be frustrating, since we see a lot of people but don't know who they are.

Parts of cameraman/editor Gerald Feil's 1972 documentary The Empty Space are included on the DVD. This snippet runs for about one minute and 45 seconds and shows a theater workshop conducted by director Brook. I found this program to be nearly useless. Perhaps in the context of the entire documentary I would have enjoyed it, but as it stands, it's not very useful.

Finally, the film's original theatrical trailer appears, and can be seen with or without commentary; Feil offers an anecdote about how close the film came to disaster during its New York premiere. We also get some interesting text production notes from Brook that appear in the DVD's booklet.

This DVD is a port of a mid-1990s laserdisc release from Criterion. How do the two differ? Not much, it seems. I could locate no reviews of the LD, but I found Criterion's listing from their website. It indicates that all of the original components appear on the DVD except for a trailer from the 1990 version of LOTF. It also mentions deleted scenes; it's unclear how many - if any - of these don't appear here. Anyway, it appears the two match up pretty closely.

Criterion have done a very nice job with their DVD release of Lord of the Flies; although the sound's not very good, it's probably the best we could expect, and the picture looks surprisingly nice. The DVD contains some very good supplements as well. Unfortunately, I didn't much care for the film itself. If you already know you like the movie, you should be exceedingly happy with the DVD; it's a fine piece of work. Otherwise, rent this disc or just read the book instead.

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