From LIFE magazine, October 25, 1963

Lord of the Flies is a strange and a dark novel and from it has been made a strange, dark and stunning film. Its story is bleakly pessimistic -- the disintegration into savagery of a group of English schoolboys marooned on a deserted island. Its actors are unknown -- youngsters selected not for their dramatic experience (they had none), but for their appearance. Nonetheless the film, like the novel, has become an astonishing success. It has particular appeal to college students--but leaves adults, as well, locked in though and awe.

When Lord of the Flies, the work of an English writer named William Golding, was first published in the U.S. in 1955 it was all but ignored. But when a paperback edition (Capricorn books, $1.25) hit the campus bookstores in 1959, it soon replaced J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye as THE book to read. Today more than 800,000 (10,000,000 by 2000) of these paper-backs have been sold, and the novel has been argued about by at least four or five million young people.

Novelist Golding is somewhat at a loss to explain the popularity of Lord of the Flies. "Perhaps," he says, "it is because I don't make any excuses for society. The youngsters like that." The film tells Golding's story with lightning speed, and therefore may seem to have been an easy picture to make. It was not. For an account of the filming, and selection and behavior of the young actors involved in it.

A Gamble on Novices Works Almost too Well


An ordinary film director might have been apprehensive about the scene, the pig-eating, but this man, a brilliant young Englishman named Peter Brook,appeared quite relaxed. It was true that during the past two months the boy actors had undergone obvious changes, but it was also true that most of them were of English parentage, the inheritors, according to one notion, of such traits as dignity, reserve and a sense of the fitness of things. Their whole lives had conditioned them to recoil from eating, perhaps even touching, something that was so explicitly the carcass of a dead animal. Neither its hooves nor its head had been removed. In life it had been a scrawny Caribbean pig but now, blackened and shriveled on its wooden spit, it more resembled a roast dog.

Because the boys were not professionals, they could not make a convincing pretense of eating the pig. They actually had to devour it. An observer would not have given Peter Brook one chance in a hundred of bringing off the scene, particularly with these boys. Still, there was something faintly disturbing in their appearance, something that had nothing to do with costumes or cosmetics.

There were 32 of them, the oldest 15, the youngest 7. Their long, sun-yellowed hair covered their ears and the backs of their necks; their tanned bodies were as thin and hard as the crude wooden spears some of them carried. They squatted in a pack on the rocky, dusty hilltop, the wind plucking at the rags that hung from them--rags that at one time had been white shirts, flannel shorts and school blazers. Their eyes had an extraordinary glitter, almost as bright as the sparks that flew up from the fire where the pig-dog sizzled.

Few of them, perhaps only one or two, understood the dark theme of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Director Brook had explained it to them in simplest terms, but the thing had escaped them. The adult members of the company had, of course, read the book several times each; its meaning and its incessant use of symbolism had lodged in their heads to an extent that verged on the humorous. After an encounter with Golding's writing one commences compulsively to look for gloomy, hidden meanings in ordinary objects, the natural world and the everyday conversation of those, around him. It is a temporary ailment, but at that moment a few of the adults had bad cases of it. (Al said "Good morning" to me. What did he mean by that?)

At length, Director Brook, a pudgy man who holds his forearms upraised, as though he had learned to deal poker at a table too high for him, called for action. The boys commenced to cut pieces off the pig-dog, at first handling the meat gingerly. But soon, without a word of instruction, they began to move faster. Their thin arms flailed above the pig; they tore at it with their bare hands. Faster and faster they moved, to the edge of control and beyond it, struggling over the meat, driven by something more than ordinary hunger. They became all teeth and glittering eyes.

The juices of the meat dribbled down their chins. Finally one of the boys, who had chewed all the flesh off the underside of a great blackened piece of skin, plastered the skin down over his fair Celtic hair and around his ears, so that he resembled a Viking in a leather helmet. "Cut!" Brook shouted. The cameras stopped, having recorded the perfect scene. But the boys continued to devour the flesh of the pig while the adult film makers silently eyed each other, no knowing what to say.

When the day's shooting was over and the boys had removed their rags, bathed and put on ordinary clothing, they seemed at first glance little different from any group of summer campers, save for their long hair and jewel eyes. But a closer look made it clear that they were by no means ordinary; each of them, even at rest, had a luminous vitality that shot out of him like lamplight. They were strong, graceful and quick; boys who had caused the islanders to exclaim, "Ay, que lindo!" as men might exclaim over the beauty of young hawks or colts.

In was midsummer, 1961, and they were on a small island called Vieques. Seldom visited by travelers, Vieques lies 9 miles east of Puerto Rico and is part of that commonwealth, although the U.S. military controls about two thirds of it. The view from the boys' hilltop was one of great beauty, and had it not been for Novelist Golding the adults might thoroughly have enjoyed it. On one side, beyond a fringe of coconut palms, the Caribbean shelved off in deepening shades of blue until, arching upward, it yielded to the glaring, downward-driving sky. On the other side, in a valley, dozens of royal poinciana trees made a canopy of orange-red 15 feet above the ground.

But because of Golding's story the beauty of the sea and of the valley seems only veneers. One could not regard the sea without assuming that its sharkish depths boiled with continual struggle and death. Beneath the canopies of the poincianas, ordinarily unnoticeable but now the very heart of the matter, the earth was vile, strewn with cow dung, thornbushes and spiny cactuses. There were foxholes, spent cartridges, empty ration-cans and worn-out storage batteries left by Marines on maneuver. A great mound of scabrous masonry, crawling with vines, marked the site of a sugar mill that someone long ago had had the foolishness to call Esperanza. In the spiky thickets were brown and black bulls which bellowed and fought, for no evident reason, in the dry heat.

It required about three months to shoot the film--Brook worked the boys hard, often 10 hours a day, and might have accomplished his task even sooner if it had not been for the boys' acting inexperience. Often he was obliged to make as many as a dozen takes of a single scene, and wound up with a Laocoon tangle of 415,000 feet of film, approximately four times the usual amount. But his great labor is not the most remarkable thing about Lord of the Flies; what is really extraordinary is that it has become a film at all.

Golding's story is bleakly pessimistic. There is no love interest--there are no girls or women. Indeed there are no men, either, save a single naval officer who appears on the screen for perhaps a minute and has nothing to say. The entire cast consists of small boys, and to most audiences, child actors are insufferable.

Lord of the Flies appears at first glance to be a simple adventure story. An airplane full of school-boys, being evacuated from England during some future nuclear war, crashes on a lush, uninhabited tropical island. The adults accompanying the boys are killed; their bodies and the wreckage of the plane are swept out to sea while the boys, unhurt, are scattered through the jungle. At first, under an elected leader named Ralph, they attempt to set up an organized society. But inexorably their society disintegrates, the boys become savages and murderers.

At length only Ralph remains as the embodiment of civilization, and the wolf pack sets out to hunt him down and kill him. He hides in the jungle, but they burn it to drive him out. In the final scene he lies cringing on the beach, waiting for death, but is saved by the arrival of a landing party from a passing British cruiser, attracted to the island by the pall of smoke overhanging it. An officer stares at the painted, bloodthirsty savages, appalled, while "in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair and unwiped nose, Ralph weeps for the end of innocence and the darkness of man's heart...."

One might suppose that Ralph's rescue is an optimistic note, but in a capsule summary of his meaning Novelist Golding demolishes even that. He is concerned with Original Sin: society fails, must fail, because its individual members are corrupt.
"The whole book," he writes, "is symbolic in nature except the rescue at the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children of the island.
The officer, having interrupted a manhunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?"

It required bold producers to tackle this work--particularly in 1960, when they made their decision to film it. The book was still a commercial failure at that time; the film-makers therefore were not trying to capitalize on a best-seller; they were dealing with a worst-seller. The book's present popularity is simply a stroke of good fortune, of the sort that all to seldom hits men of good intent.

The co-producers are Lewis Allen and Dana Hodgdon, both Americans. "We went into this," Allen says, "because the book on its own terms is a work of art, a valid statement of a position whether you agree with it or not. We hoped to make money, but we weren't going to make any compromises. First of all, we wanted to make a good film."

Director Brook, for his part, undertook the task "because it was an impossible thing to do." Brook, 36, was at one time the enfant extraordinaire of the British theater--at 22 he directed Alec Guinness in Sartre's No Exit. Thereafter, working at Stratford-on-Avon with actors of the caliber of John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier, he became one of the world's foremost Shakespearean directors. In New York he has staged such plays as The Fighting Cock with Rex Harrison, The Visit with the Lunts, and musical Lran la Douce. "Impossible" may not have been precisely the word Brook intended to use; he meant that the film would have seemed impossible to the Hollywood mind, which would have raised so many objections that the work might not have commenced until 1970.

For perhaps five seconds Brook considered the possibility of using professional actors in the film, and then with a grimace of distaste decided on amateurs. His headquarters, in the spring of 1961, were in New York, where English school-boys are not commonly to be found. However, the problem was solved by a 23-year-old Harvard man named Micheal Macdonald, son of the critic Dwight Macdonald, who was employed as a recruiter. "Get me some intelligent boys, "Brook said. "boys who have interesting personalities that show in their faces. No squares. They must be alive and responsive, and I would expect them to be slightly dotty. Any real human being is, of course."

Accordingly Macdonald looked in the telephone book under English, British and Anglo-, and soon found himself talking to polite but startled members of the English community whose worst apprehensions about America were obviously being confirmed. "Who? Who? Oh, yes Lord what? No, I'm afraid I'm not acquainted with him." Nevertheless a few, once they became convinced that Macdonald was sane and in earnest, offered their boys to the project--the film was to be shot during July and August, and had the prospect of an interesting paid summer vacation.

The English parents were furnished with copies of Golding's novel and most of them read it. They were predisposed in its favor because it was, after all, an English book about an adventure in the tropics--something like The Coral Island, on doubt. None of them noticed, or at any rate remarked about the fact, that several pages at the end of the book had been artfully razored out. These pages contain a commentary which makes Golding's meaning crystalline, and some explanations of the symbolism, as, "The entire incident is a horrid parody of an Oedipal wedding might..."

When he had exhausted the possibilities of the telephone book, and still had found painfully few candidates, Macdonald has a notably logical conference with himself, "Where does on find English schoolboys?" he asked, and answered, "Well, maybe at the circus, or down at the docks getting off the Queen Elizabeth." For some time he haunted the docks and actually saw several schoolboys, but never signed up any. If the resident members of the English community had been startled by his approach, the new arrivals were flabbergasted. "The cinema?" Had there been a battle between gangsters and G-men on the pier, it could not have been more closely in accord with the American image. Mcdonald had no better luck at the circus. "I went there every day for two weeks, afternoon and evening," he says with a tight-lipped, faraway look. "The parents were not receptive, and the police. . . "

Ultimately Macdonald was obliged to go far afield and to round up candidates who were not English but looked as though the might be. He roamed through dozens of private schools and followed leads supplied by friends of friends. In all, he saw approximately 2,000 boys in New York, Boston, Washington and elsewhere, and paraded the likeliest of them before Pete Brook, who selected the necessary 34. Only one, a highly talented 10-year-old named Hugh Edwards, who plays the role of the tormented fat boy, Piggy, lives in England. Many were born there, or in the U.S., South Africa, Germany, Jamaica, the Sudan or other corners of the earth where their parents happened to be stationed.

Peter Brook's selection of the boys was perhaps as excellent as his direction of the film. Because all were amateurs, he had no conception of their acting abilities. He was obliged to read their faces, searching for intelligence, savagery, compassion and ignorance; to cast them not from an agent's book of photographs and biographies but from life itself. Several critics have referred to the "superb" or "excellent" acting of the boys, but in the main they were not acting at all; they were merely being themselves. The New Yorker, for example, notes that "the flat, adenoidal monologue on which he [Piggy] tells his mates everything about his home town Camberley is an inspired episode." But in fact, young Hugh Edwards was simply photographed as Piggy, talking in a Piggyish manner to his friends on the set, and director Brook shrewdly included the footage. The point cannot be pushed very far; boys become men and men wear masks; but at least during the casting, Peter Brook has a most penetrating view.

When the boys were at last assembled on the island of Vieques, it might have been difficult for a compassionate observer to look at them without feelings of anxiety--so young, so sensitive and so impressionable, about ot be exposed to the ebony pessimism of Lord of the Flies and the anthracite intellect of Brook. Moreover the boys were housed not in a hotel, or even in private lodgings that might have given them a sense of home. They lived in an abandoned but refurbished pineapple cannery, where the wind and rain clattered on the tin roof and small green lizards patrolled the walls. But if an observer did feel any uneasiness for the boys, the feeling was of short duration.

Among the first to feel the impact of these sensitive, impressionable boys were some American collage men serving as counselors, who lived with them in the cannery. "Brilliant young fellows," said one, "but quite a handful." Next day he quit, returning home to take a job in a dynamite plant.

The boys soon commenced to make their own movie, using borrowed 8-mm equipment. Its plot was simple enough--robbery and murder. Its title was Something Queer in the Warehouse.

Perhaps dissatisfied with the quality of the available Spanish-language periodicals, the boys began to publish their own mimeographed magazine. A random selection from it begins, "It was a cold dark night when the monster struck. It was hairy with long nails and sharp teeth. It stalked through the alley until it saw a woman... The woman was mangled and torn to bits; there was blood all over the place."

To be sure, they were all enchanting youngsters and it would be libelous to suggest otherwise. Nonetheless there remains the experience of another of the counselors, who came into the pineapple cannery one day and found a fair-haired youth, his lap full of lizards, pitching them skillfully one at a time into the whirring blades of an electric fan.

"Why are you doing THAT?" asked the counselor. "It is interesting," replied the boy in clipped, British tones, "to see how many pieces the lizards will be cut into."

One could almost hear William Golding, 4,000 miles away in England, chuckling into his beard.


Purchase the DVD at AMAZON.COM Lord of the Flies - Criterion Collection


Top of Page

Site maintained by JD Fowler .
Material Copyright © 1963 Lord of the Flies Company
"Life" © 1963 Time-Life Inc.
Site Design Copyright © 2000 Company
All copyrights remain intact and held by their original owners