Criterion Review: Lord of the Flies


William Golding’s tale of public schoolboys stranded on a desert island is an iconic depiction of fundamental savagery. More than fifty years on, Peter Brook’s 1963 Lord of the Flies remains the definitive film, its hallucinogenic brutality as terrifying as ever.

The film opens with schoolboy Ralph (James Aubrey), moving through the forest of an island he and his classmates have apparently crash-landed on. Ralph soon meets another boy, whom he (un)affectionately nicknames Piggy (Hugh Edwards). The two soon discover that all the adults died in the crash; it’s up to them and the other boys on the island to work together to survive until they’re rescued. Establishing a set of rules for orderly behaviour works briefly, but the cracks in their fledgling society soon appear, as Ralph and Head Chorister Jack (Tom Chapin) compete for the leadership of the group.
Before long, the boys have divided into two factions, fighting in ever more violent confrontations. It’s often suggested that Lord of the Flies‘ singular moral is that people will inevitably slip into primitive chaos when left to their own devices, exposing an inherent savagery within. But the fable of shipwrecked children has a great deal more nuance than such a didactic nihilism. Though the boys’ savagery may well be inherent, the forms of their mischief – the chants and dancing, the proto-mythology of “The Beast” – all stem from systems of behaviour with which they are intimately familiar, learned from the ritualistic boarding-school arena of fagging, rugby union and imperialist superiority.
Though Ralph is clearly far more level-headed and intelligent than Jack, there is very little between them in terms of ambition; Ralph’s nicknaming of Piggy is banally childish, but indicative both of his capacity for cruelty, and his ignorance of the consequences of his behaviour. It is random circumstance, not inherent virtue, that distinguishes the heroes from the villains of this play. The put-upon, bullied Piggy is perhaps Lord of the Flies‘ best remembered victim, but it is Simon (Tom Gaman) who cuts the most tragic figure, his supremely vulnerabile sensitivity laid bare in Gaman’s heartbreaking, quiet performance.
Simon’s response to their predicament is arguably the most reasonable – retreating into himself as all around him lose their heads – Tom Hollyman’s cinematography reflecting Simon’s psychological collapse. As the boys turn against each other, the film’s visuals move from the bright, banal daylight to an expressionistic nightmare, culminating in a surreal, bonfire-lit dance that is at once hallucinatory, savage and visionary.

Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell

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