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Home Video Reviews

Savages (1972), the film from the canon of producer Ismail Merchant and director James Ivory most recently released on DVD under the Criterion Collection imprint, might be the team's most atypical effort in a number of respects. Developed from an original script idea and utilizing a primarily New York-based cast whose members hadn't previously worked with the filmmakers (and would not do so again), this low-budgeted, improvisation-tinged production took an ironic view of the thin line between civilized man and his feral roots. While the film has difficulty sustaining the cleverness of its central conceit, it's still ingratiatingly audacious enough to keep the viewer's attention through the final frame.

Ivory drew his story inspiration from a gone-to-seed Colonial Revival mansion that he encountered in the Hudson Valley, and which he arranged to serve as his film's location. Brought in to shape the script were George S. Trow and Michael O'Donoghue, who were then among the key contributors to National Lampoon in its formative years. Their joint efforts made the film a huge favorite at the 1972 Cannes Festival and abroad, and while the project was, well, savaged by domestic critics during its very limited American run, Savages has maintained a cult following that should be greatly pleased by this presentation.

After the Art Deco-tinged opening titles (complete with a theme song sung by Bobby Short), Savages resembles nothing so much as a Robert Flaherty-era anthropological study. The conduct of a tribe of mud-caked, forest-dwelling primitives is captured via grainy black-and-white footage complete with both title cards and stentorian German-language voice-over. The rituals of these dozen-odd "mud people" are surreally interrupted when a wayward croquet ball flies into the scene without explanation. In trying to trace the bizarre object back to its source, the tribespeople happen upon Ivory's imposing abandoned manse.

The film stock switches to sepia as the mud people enter the premises and begin to experiment with the clothing and other trappings of civilization contained therein. The cinematography then shifts to color as they become acclimated to the surroundings, and their behavior and interaction turn childlike. By nightfall, their attitudes and appearances have completely transformed to that of glibly pretentious 1930s-era upper crust. Yet, each character's place in the tribal hierarchy remains constant; the high priestess (Anne Francine) becomes the hostess of the dinner gala, her expendable consort (Lewis J. Stadlen) becomes a young songwriter whose vogue is fading, a limping tribesman (Sam Waterston) is now a sensitive and ultimately doomed soul. As the weekend wears on, the characters' interrelations become subtly less genteel, and the sophisticated veneer slowly sloughs off as they begin to regress to their original state.

Merchant and Ivory populated the cast with Broadway performers, soap actors and other interesting types whose personas they felt fit their respective roles. In addition to the aforementioned, the performers include Warhol Factory regular Ultra Violet; then-model Susan Blakely, in her acting debut; and other since-familiar faces like Salome Jens, Thayer David, Martin Kove and Kathleen Widdoes.

Criterion's package for Savages is on a par with most of the entries in the company's Merchant Ivory Collection. The print is presented in an original 1.78:1 theatrical aspect ratio from a new high-definition digital transfer. The extras included nine and a half minutes of new interview footage with Merchant and Ivory where they reminisce about this most eccentric of their projects, from the source of the visual inspiration for the mud people to the birth of Merchant's tradition of cooking for his cast and crew. In keeping with the archival function of the series, the DVD includes Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972), the team's hour-long BBC documentary chronicling a London visit by noted Indian author Nirad Chaudhuri.

For more information about Savages, visit Home Vision Entertainment. To order Savages, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jay S. Steinberg