The novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding is about a group of school-aged children stranded on a desert island after a plane crash. The survivors elect a leader and agree to a democratic system, but soon civility gives way to chaos and violence as a savage nature lurking beneath a civilized exterior grows within the ranks. The 1963 film version of Lord of the Flies was shot almost entirely on Vieques in the summer of 1961.
Australia had been chosen as the original film location, but at the last moment the government denied the filmmakers a permit. At that point, Puerto Rico became the alternate location. A producer’s scouting notes described Vieques: “We found an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. A jungle paradise with miles of palm-fringed beaches. They have lent us the island in exchange for a screen credit.” In addition to Vieques, principal photography took place on the main island; in Aguadilla for the cave scenes and El Yunque to augment the need for tropical density. After nearly 3 months, miles of film stock were shot on Vieques resulting in over 60 hours of footage.
The film used 33 non-professional child actors, including 3 boys from Puerto Rico, to complement the improvisational techniques and documentary style of director Peter Brook. While the small film crew stayed at La Casa del Frances (a guesthouse that has since burned down), the young actors stayed at an abandoned pineapple cannery in Esperanza. Vieques native, Victor Simmons, currently an accountant in Isabel II, was 19 years old during the shoot and remembers when the film crew and cast came to the island. “I was going to the university and needed a summer job. My uncle told me he had one for me working to get the old cannery ready to house the young actors.” The remains of the building where the young actors were housed can still be seen driving south from The Green Store toward the Malecón.
Tom Gaman, who played Simon, a key character in the movie, has written extensively about his experiences here during the filming. In his essay Flies, he writes: “It was one of those extraordinary things that happen in life… I was cast in Lord of the Flies, a film produced on the Caribbean island of Vieques. Once there we stayed in a deserted pineapple cannery refurbished as a summer camp.” Gaman remembers that summer fondly: “Evenings and mornings were filled with a regimen of living in our warehouse, which was fitted with cots with mosquito netting. There was a kitchen, a wardrobe room and a makeup room where we all applied smelly makeup to our bodies.” When not filming, the kids snorkeled, explored the sugar cane plantations, published a paper called “The Vieques Variety”, played with a dog named Tramp, caught lizards, went fishing, played chess, “and lived the summer life of boys at camp.” Some of these everyday experiences were caught on film, like scenes where the kids are holding a hermit crab race or playing with lizards. A shot of a lizard jumping on the face of the young Mr. Gaman was immortalized in the film.
Mr. Gaman, who now lives in California, recently spoke to The Vieques Insider and shared some of his life-long memories of Vieques and the process of making the film: “The first week, we did not shoot. The adults took the week to tell us about the story. Some of the final casting decisions happened later that week. I did not know I would be playing Simon. I thought I was playing someone else when I was asked if I thought I could play Simon. I think my white hair was a deciding factor because there was not another kid with white hair.” Mr. Gaman remembers the sojourns to Aguadilla and El Yunque, but maintains that most of the principal photography took place on the Caribbean side of Vieques, in particular, Sunbay, Media Luna and Navio. Complex sequences were shot at the far end of Playa Grande near the large rock formation.
The original film has been digitally restored and made available in DVD/Blu-Ray. The film’s visuals are as powerful as the book’s words and are a credit to the beauty and magic of Vieques. The look of the film was achieved with black and white cinematography and the use of a hand held camera – innovative techniques for a non-documentary feature film at the time. After the plane crash, the establishing location sequence takes place inside the Sunbay preserve where all three of the beaches, Sunbay, Media Luna and Navio, are spliced together to create a sense of a remote and dangerous place. In black, white and gray hues, the untamed island becomes an omnipresent character much like the beast that lurks in the darkness.
In 1996, 35 years after the film was completed, the BBC shot a documentary called “Time Flies” in which the principal cast members returned to Vieques with Director Peter Brook. The documentary shows some of the locations used in the original film.
Mr. Brook is an important theatre figure. His book, The Empty Space, is considered the modern Bible of theatre. He termed the book Lord of the Flies “a beautiful fable.” Asked why he wanted to adapt the book into a film he said, “It was a good point in the world’s madness to show how easily people can slip back….” Dispensing of any script, Brook made the film on his own terms using the novel as the main source and improvising with his actors. He brought them to Vieques, gave them a broad outline of what they should be doing and then turned on the camera and observed their behavior.
William Golding was an English novelist, playwright, and poet. In 1983, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature (mostly) for having written Lord of the Flies. The dystopian novel is a seminal work believed to be among the best written and most controversial fiction in all of the English language. Golding was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008.