With Merchant-Ivory having become synonymous with an overtly pretty form of the period drama, the opportunity to see them turn their hand to something even slightly alternative should prove an enticing prospect. 1972’s Savages offers such a prospect, taking as it principle influence the surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel, specifically his wry 1962 gem, The Exterminating Angel. Indeed, Heat and Dust or Jefferson in Paris, for example, could hardly claim such a source, yet whereas Bunuel produced a work with a scathing, angry wit, not to mention a particularly biting ending, director James Ivory manages only a pale imitation.
Savages’ principle idea - indeed only idea - is that all civilisations are essentially the same and, more specifically, are no different from savages. The film opens with an almost documentary approach, following a primitive race whose lives are changed by the arrival of a stray croquet ball. This event transforms them into 1930s socialites, where they maintain their individual statuses and essential characteristics. Sadly, little in the way of development occurs from this point onwards; the actors seem to merely lurch from one scene to the next with no particular impetus or motivation. Of course, the problem is that the point the film is trying to make is so obvious - and so immediately obvious - that there is simply nowhere to progress to, and as such Ivory is forced to dress up the entire affair with various stylistic and absurdist tics.
Unlike many another Merchant-Ivory film then, the period setting doesn’t become Savages’ only form of stylisation. Intertitles in the manner of silent movies are employed to intersperse the action, as are chapter headings and the occasional voice-over narration in the German language. The intention is, of course, to provide a distancing effect via an approximation of documentary techniques - the brief notes included amongst the extras suggest the film is akin to an anthropological study - yet becoming removed from the drama proves problematic. Firstly, it renders the characters into ciphers (even more so than they already are; the opening credits list a description next to each character: “a capitalist”, “a bully”, etc.), thereby preventing any form of emotional engagement, or interest. Secondly, and more importantly, it proves wholly unnecessary. With the intention behind the film being so clear, it can be conveyed easily with resorting to such techniques. Consider the various “wild child” films, especially Francois Truffaut’s L’Enfant sauvage and Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, both films which manage to touch on a whole multitude of themes and ideas without having to resort to an overly nuanced approach.
Of course, what this ultimately points towards is the fact that Ivory seems to have little faith in his own material (though he didn’t write the screenplay, Ivory is credited with the “original idea”). It’s bad enough that Savages has little to offer, but far more discouraging that it does so in such a misguided manner.
As with other titles in Odyssey’s range of Merchant-Ivory releases, Savages is released on disc in excellent condition, plus there is also one gem amongst the extras. The original 1.85:1 ratio is preserved and presented anamorphically with hardly a perceptible scratch, whilst the original stereo soundtrack likewise sounds superb throughout and suffers from little in the way of damage.
The extras are for the most part text based, including brief notes on the making of the film and cast and crew filmographies (some longer than others). Elsewhere, the 1972 theatrical trailer is present, as are those for three other titles in the Merchant-Ivory range. The major presence is the inclusion of the documentary James Ivory and Ismail Merchant made for the BBC just prior to Savages, Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilisation. Taking as its subject Nirad Chaudhuri, the 55-minute work succeeds in many of the ways that the main feature fails. For a start Chaudhuri, and elderly Indian gentlemen who experienced the British rule of his country and now gives talks around England, is a highly engaging presence, and more importantly, Ivory is content to simply sit back and observe. Narration by Barry Foster is sparingly used and for the most part the camera is simply pointed at this intriguing person doing the talking and lets the audience make up their own minds. Sadly, the sound and picture qualities also contrast with Savages insofar as they are pretty poor. As with the main feature, no hard of hearing subtitles are provided which would no doubt have aided enjoyment. Nonetheless, Adventures of a Brown Man... still stands out as one of the finer Merchant-Ivory collaborations and may in fact justify a purchase of this disc, no matter how awful its main attraction is.