Everything that’s great about Peter Brook’s film version of Lord Of The Flies is distilled in the opening frames—and that’s just what they are, still frames, leading the audience from an all-boys English schoolhouse to a deserted island where the students are stranded. Shooting in black-and-white, Academy ratio, Brook accomplishes many things at once: He establishes the World War II setting and the call for evacuation; he swiftly moves the action to its primary location without staging superfluous action scenes to get there; and he gives a clear, uncluttered, resonant image of order before the escalating savagery that eventually consumes the film. Brook was more renowned in experimental theater than film—though his 1967 screen version of Marat/Sade is a corker—and his emphasis on starkness and simplicity serves the material perfectly. William Golding’s classic story is the type of allegory that would be ill-served by an overemphatic touch.
As it stands, Brook’s adaptation is an encroaching nightmare of innocence lost, following Golding’s thesis about what happens when civilization breaks down and man’s true nature is revealed. Raw and pitiless to the core, with occasional flashes of dark humor (“We’re not savages. We’re English!”), the film shows signs of relentless paring-down on all levels: the absence of distracting and sensual color, the svelte 92-minute running time, the purposeful forward movement of every scene. And that’s the trick of making Golding’s allegory work: making it feel not like an allegory at all, but the inevitable result of order dissipating, and violence sweeping in to fill the vacuum.
In the aftermath of a plane crash, two boys, Ralph (James Aubrey) and Piggy (Hugh Edwards), meet on a beach. Ralph is a mature, thoughtful kid; Piggy is a four-eyed outcast, hampered by his weight and asthmatic condition and teased by his classmates (who gave him that nickname). The two get along fine, but their dynamic shifts once they discover scores of other boys stranded in paradise along with them. The alpha personality in the bunch is Jack (Tom Chapin), a lean and powerful boy who immediately takes to bullying Piggy and challenges Ralph for leadership of the entire group. Ralph wins the popular vote for “chief”—the one and only time democracy prevails in this story—and Jack is relegated to leading a team of “hunters” to look for food and to keep a fire going in case a plane or a boat passes nearby. Basic order is imposed by a conch shell: Ralph blows the shell to call an assembly, and whoever holds the shell has the right to speak on the floor. But Jack and his clan start to get some separation from the collective, especially after they stoke people’s fears by telling of a terrible beast that lurks in the jungle.
As might be expected of a cast filled with young boys, the performances are unseasoned and highly variable. But Jack’s brute authority needs to be more persuasive than Ralph’s quiet pragmatism, and Chapin is the strongest of the three leads, exerting not only menace, but the power to make weaker, more impressionable boys fall in line. Brook doesn’t do enough to bring across an important irony of the situation: Though their rescue is uncertain, these boys are living on an isle of plenty, a beautiful, temperate setting full of fruit, fresh water, and game. So it isn’t entirely desperation that explains their descent, but their inability to function in a paradise for boys—the sea and sand, the lack of parental authority figures, the unfettered freedom. That’s a key point that the film underplays.
On the other hand, Brook doesn’t entirely stick to the theory that savagery and violence is humanity’s heart of darkness, either. There’s some implication that terrible things happen because they’re boys, not men, and have not developed into the fully formed, moral and civil human beings that might have acquiesced more readily to a conch-driven system of government. Boys are rambunctious by nature, and yet they’re still as malleable as all children are, which in this story makes many of them far more interested in Jack’s hunting and mischief-making than in Ralph’s rational plan to get them all off the island alive.
A wonderful supplemental package, ported over from an earlier two-disc DVD edition, includes a wealth of information about the production challenges (and joys) of shooting for three months on a Caribbean island, great insight into Golding’s novel, and plenty of material on Golding, whose voice is appropriately present in this faithful adaptation. The commentary track—with Brook, producer Lewis Allen, director of photography Tom Hollyman, and editor/cameraman Gerald Feil—underlines just how inexperienced Brook’s crew was in making movies. Feil admits to never having touched a movie camera in his life, and the principal behind-the-camera creatives all came from the theater world. Of the many technical hiccups, the biggest was the reality that no live sound recording was possible with the ocean roaring into the beach, so the solution was for cast and crew to walk deep into the jungle at the end of every day to run through the scenes again for recording purposes. The sound was then synced, word by word, in the editing room—an arduous process that took years to complete.
Among the other great extras is a 1977 recording of Golding reading his novel over corresponding scenes from the film, which emphasizes how committed Brook and his collaborators were to remaining faithful to the source material. Voiceover from Brook, Allen, Hollyman, and Fiel brings coherence and life to a 15-minute assortment of “Behind The Scenes” home movies, screen tests, outtakes, and stills, and a deleted scene from early in the film featuring Ralph and Jack portends the split between the two boys over control of their peers. Golding and Brook also get long, separate archived interviews in which to talk about Lord Of The Flies and other issues at length, and an excerpt from Fiel’s 1975 documentary, “The Empty Space,” gets into Brook’s methods as a stage director—and has musings from a young Helen Mirren. Last but not least is a charming few minutes called “Living Lord Of The Flies,” in which a grown-up cast member reflects on his experience over 8mm footage that Brook had the boys shoot on their own.