APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SAVAGES (1972)

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Weirdest!

DIRECTED BY: James Ivory

FEATURING: Lewis Stadlen, Anne Francine, Ultra Violet, Sam Waterston, and many more of approximately equal importance

PLOT: A tribe of “mud people” find a croquet ball, follow it to an abandoned mansion, put on the clothes they find, host a dinner party, then fall back into savagery.

Still from Savages (1972)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Carefully structured but thoroughly strange from start to finish, Savages is a unique experiment from an unlikely source. Part mock-anthropological study, part absurd satire, the movie is made in the spirit of and of American underground filmmakers, but with the high level of craftsmanship imposed by the Merchant/Ivory team. It’s an oddball outlier in an Oscar-bait canon.

COMMENTS: Savages is a movie that’s almost as strange for who made it as for what it is. When you think of Merchant/Ivory productions, you think of their run from 1985 to 1993 when they produced three massively praised historical costume dramas: A Room with a View, Howard’s End, and Remains of the Day. Watching these staid and starchy dramas aimed at audiences packed with little old ladies, you might never guess that the filmmakers were once young and willing to experiment with movies about stone age tribespeople who morph overnight into well-heeled gentlemen and ladies who throw lavish dinner parties and do the Charleston before spontaneously reverting back to savagery. Movies with nudity and lesbian sex and transvestites and a Superstar in the cast. And yet, strange as it seems, Merchant and Ivory were young and foolish once, and Savages exists.

It begins in the primeval forests (of upstate New York), where a tribe of “mud people” goes about their business of gathering narcotic leaves, kidnapping females from other tribes, and forced ritual lovemaking with the high priestess. These scenes are all silent, with explanatory intertitles and an eerie soundtrack of jungle drums, pan flutes, and bird calls, heavy on the reverb. Following the mysterious appearance of a croquet ball, the tribe makes its way to an abandoned manor house, explores, and after licking a few portraits on the walls, put on the clothes they find in the wardrobe (sometimes getting the genders wrong). Flash forward, and suddenly we’re in color and the cast is speaking English—although dialogue is often fancifully absurd and scarcely more illuminating than the grunts of the mud tribe. (The funniest bit in the whole movie is the ersatz-Broadway musical number”Steppin’ on a Spaniel,” with lyrics like “Close your eyes and give those guys a big smooch, right now/As you’re jumpin’ up and down and steppin’ on a pooch, bow wow!”) They throw a dinner party, complete with gossip and scheming and affairs. They drink too much after dinner, and take drugs, and have sex, and gradually their little society breaks down, until they all pour out onto the lawn at dawn, whacking drunkenly at croquet balls before shedding their clothes and meandering back into the forest to start anew.

Merchant/Ivory here mock the same species of bourgeois drawing room manners they will later romanticize in their Oscar-nominated features. Civilization is a farce; the tribespeople play the same social roles as they did in the jungle, but now with a veneer of sophistication. The enslaved woman serves as maid to the others, a young warrior becomes a bully, and the couple who were always shamelessly humping in the forest are now slipping away every chance they get for illicit assignations. Civilization is presented as a cyclical proposition, rising and then declining back into savagery (as things get turbulent near the end, we are tempted to place a pin in the timeline with a marker reading “you are here.”) It’s all very abstract, but there’s a recurring theme of imitation: the intellectual character is obsessed with an architectural model in the drawing room and how it recreates reality, only smaller, while the limping man tells a story but is unable to answer questions about it because he has merely memorized a book entry verbatim. The savages act out the manners of the civilized without understanding the purpose behind the traditions they carry out.

If there’s one big complaint with Savages, it’s that the scenario drags on far too long. The early reels, in the forest primeval, are the most interesting; a conscientious editor could have cut the rest down by fifteen minutes or even a half hour without doing any damage to the overall effect.

The film was made specifically to take advantage of an abandoned manor house location; Ivory thought up the savagery-to-civilization scenario and then hired a couple of writers (New Yorker essayist George W. S. Trow and National Lampoon‘s Michael O’Donoghue) to pen a script (which was still unfinished by the time the cameras started rolling). The Criterion Collection released Savages as part of their Merchant/Ivory collection. The disc includes an interview with the producer and director alongside the pair’s 1972 BBC documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“No wit, no thought, no surrealist flair, just vacuous decoration.”–Time Out London

(This movie was nominated for review by Brian, who explained “Don’t be put off by its Merchant/Ivory parentage; this was quite early in their career and one of the main brains behind it was the late weird Michael O’Donoghue, the famed Mr. Mike of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

6 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: SAVAGES (1972)”

  1. I love Savages! But, in your keenness to cast it as an outlier in the Merchant Ivory canon, you give a redacted, rather misleading, account of their costume hits of 1985–1993. You must surely know that Merchant Ivory released a run of *four*, not three, much-loved award-winning period literary adaptations during that time? You’ve redacted the gay one, Maurice – a wonderful film which itself features some full-frontal (male) nudity and plenty of intimate and emotional scenes between men, culminating in an astonishing same-sex real kiss which starts to look near-Warholian if you slow the playback down. As for ‘staid and starchy’ A Room with a View and its ‘audiences packed with little old ladies’ … have you actually seen it? It’s not only a lot of fun, but features even more male nudity than Maurice: ‘Come and have a bathe’. 🙂

    The thing with Merchant Ivory is that their films almost never do match the stereotype. I’d place Savages at an extreme end on the MI spectrum, but it’s not *quite* the outlier one might assume. Savages dates from around the time of Ivory’s sexual relationship with Bruce Chatwin (see Ivory’s 2020 memoir Solid Ivory), leading me to half-wonder if the film / its spoof anthropology were a kind of joke between them.

    1. Fair points, Claire. I didn’t intentionally redact “Maurice”: in fact, I never heard of it. It’s fair to say it wasn’t a hit on the level of the other three here in the U.S., although I now see it did get an Oscar nom for “Best Costuming.” My main point was that Savages is an outlier in the Merchant-Ivory canon because of its surreality and underground film style. Thanks for educating me that, in terms of nudity and sexuality, it may be less of an outlier.

    2. Hi Gregory – You main point is a fair one and I really enjoyed reading this piece. Beyond the real surprise that anyone who knows the 1985–93 films could literally never have heard of Maurice (I’ll return to that), my point was that Merchant Ivory have more affinities with the underground than might be assumed (particularly taking into account their whole way of working), making Savages not a total outlier. As a Weird Movies blog, I thought that might interest you.

      Even Ivory would probably agree that Savages is his weirdest movie. (His commentary on it in Long 2005, James Ivory in Conversation, is fascinating.) But his next movie The Wild Party (1975), starring Raquel Welch, is also pretty strange (scripted by Walter Marks entirely in verse, and butchered by Warners who tried to re-cut it as a porno: even in Ivory’s director’s cut there’s an orgy scene). Ivory compares the sealed-in atmosphere of Savages with his next US film after The Wild Party, Roseland (1977) which an unconventional (three-story) structure and a classic young Christopher Walken performance as a sort-of-gigolo paid to dance with old ladies.
      Offscreen, Merchant and Ivory had met Warhol many times (including Warhol turning up at a dinner party at Ivory’s NYC apartment). After Warhol’s death, they bought the screenplay/rights for Slaves of New York from Warhol’s estate – and Ivory directed Slaves of New York, in a pop-art, maximalist style, with Warholian split screens, that – coming from Ivory *in 1988* – confounded and enraged critics. I love Slaves of New York (and not only me).

      One reasons it’s really surprising if you’d never heard of Maurice is that this post dates from 2020, after Ivory’s 2018 adapted screenplay Oscar win for Call Me by Your Name. Generally, anyone who’s heard of CMBYN also knows about Maurice. There was endless US/online media in 2017–2018 that compared the two films, and Maurice was also restored and re-released for its 30th anniversary at that time – in the US – again with extensive US media coverage. e.g.:
      https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/james-ivory-and-the-making-of-a-historic-gay-love-story
      https://www.cineaste.com/summer2017/maurice-30th-anniversary

      The second reason is that Ivory’s Maurice, ARWAV and Howards End were all adapted from the same author, E.M. Forster; share some of the same lead cast; and have always been talked/written about as a unified wave of peak Merchant Ivory along with The Remains of the Day. Sure, certain audiences won’t have gone to see Maurice because it was ‘the gay film’ of the four. It was also, riskily, an affirmative gay film with a happy ending released during the 1980s HIV/AIDS crisis (which will have affected its ‘mainstream’ US cinema rollout). But many other audiences did see Maurice, in the US and worldwide, cinematically or on home media, and it made a lasting impression and even changed lives.

      And even on its release Maurice was, in fact, well-received in the US, and its US opening BO was higher than ARWAV’s. Internationally, it won 3 awards at the Venice Film Festival (Best Actor, shared by its leads James Wilby and Hugh Grant, Best Director for Ivory, and Best Soundtrack for Richard Robbins). It was released worldwide (except in places where it‘s a banned film) and has been constantly available on VHS/DVD since 1988 (and Blu-ray since 2017*). Of all Ivory‘s films, it’s also the one with a cult following (possibly alongside Slaves of New York), hence the surprise that a blog like this didn‘t know about it.

      *PS: Buyers of the 2017 US Blu-ray (Cohen Media Group) get Ivory’s commentary. Buyers of the 2019 UK Blu-ray (British Film Institute) get mine: https://theartsdesk.com/film/dvdblu-ray-maurice

    3. I really appreciate all the education you’ve added to this post, Claire. You appear to be one of the top Merchant/Ivory experts out there and you’ve definitely changed the way I’ll look at them from here on out.

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