Cast & Crew
One morning, a primitive tribe, known as The Mud People, make their way through the woods in search leaves that when smoked, produce visions and temporary aphasia. Wearing only loincloths and strange masks, with their hair and bodies caked in mud, the group inhales the smoke of the burning leaves and then prepares Yool yun, a consort for their priestess Khar-Lah-Tah, for sacrifice. Suddenly a croquet ball bounds through the forest and stops at the priestess' feet, interrupting the ceremony. Intrigued by the mysterious object, Khar-Lah-Tah tracks it through the woods toward its source, while the others follow. In the commotion, an outcast tribeswoman frees Yool yun and they join the crowd. Along the path, a tribesman takes The Forest Girl, a member of another tribe, captive. As men briefly fornicate with women in abrupt, brutal movements, they are ignored by the others. When the croquet ball leads them to an abandoned mansion, the tribe wanders aimlessly in the unfamiliar structure, bewildered by the staircases, mirrors, doors, paintings and sculptures. One woman is so enamored by a portrait that she kisses and caresses it. Seeing a bronze life-size sculpture of a goddess, the priestess lays the croquet ball at its feet as an offering. Within minutes all the tribespeople are playing among piles of the mansion's remnants: clothes, furs, makeup, jewelry and scissors, with which they cut each others' hair. By the afternoon, the tribe has begun to adapt the mannerisms and dress of the last inhabitants of the house circa pre-World War II. While men in suits play with train sets and smoke cigars, women wearing sequined costumes and the elegant sportswear of the idle rich discuss beauty tips. Outside gentle Penelope is horrified to find others using a magnifying glass to burn bees to death with the sun's rays. Although the tribe's lovemaking is more genteel, they engage in sex publicly, on the surrounding grounds. While some have learned to read, their behavior is still child-like, as when several blatantly ignore the rules of croquet, hitting more timid members' balls out of the game. As evening falls, an evening dinner party begins and the tribespeople evolve into their civilized counterparts. The priestess, hostess of the party, is now referred to as Carlotta, a patron to young musician Julian and her once-consort, now referred to as James, is a well-traveled but disdained guest. A brutish tribesman has become Otto Nerder, ruthless capitalist. Also attending are the elderly Sir Harry and Lady Cora, who banter about table etiquette; debutante Emily Penning and young Cecily, and several others. They are all being served by a maid, who is The Forest Girl, now called Asha. During dinner, James tells a history of The Mudpeople, a matriarchal tribe he encountered briefly while visiting Africa. When the guests gasp at his descriptions of the Queen's yearly consort being crushed to death as a sacrifice, James reminds them that The Mudpeople's entire culture was later crushed by Westerners. As the guests flirt and talk about politics over dinner, a strange haunting sound fills the mansion, followed by a croquet ball bounding into the room. After the meal, the crowd retires to a sitting room where young Zia's recitation of a sweet poem is interrupted by radio announcements that a large passenger ship has sunk in the ocean. Although temporarily sobered by the news, the group is eager to watch Carlotta perform her psychic reading on the bruises on a piece of fruit a guest has touched and are entertained by her litany of seemingly innocuous and disconnected recitation of words, including "duplicity," "remorse," "a soiled kimono," and "rubber sheets," that she associates with the fruit and the guest. Then the cross-dressing Leslie, dressed in a man's top coat and hat, leads the group in a glamorous tap dance routine to the song "Steppin' on a Spaniel." After Julian's singing recital is met with little applause, he retires to his attic room to practice the cello. Meanwhile, two couples go the basement to have sex, while the other guests sip champagne poolside. As they become increasingly drunk, several men and women crudely insult each other, while the otherwise pompous Otto begs them for help for no apparent reason. Slowing reverting to their primitive habits, the group do not attempt to save James when he throws himself into the pool to drown. Instead, they swim over his dead body and dive down to fleece his pockets, while inside Asha leads a group in an Eastern chanting ceremony. When Penelope tells Julian of James's suicide, the musician refuses to respond or leave his attic room. Soon after, Emily, Carlotta, Otto, Cecily, Harry, Cora and Asha play games in the basement and degenerate into unintelligible mumbling while drawing mud circles on the concrete walls. Later, Asha is wooed by Ilona, who recites the benefits of different depilatory techniques while undressing her, oblivious that Penelope has hung herself from a nearby tree. Back in the basement, Asha brings the group a turkey carcass, which they ravenously feed on, while Otto gleans through the coal until he finds a piece of sparkling glass which the others fight over. At the dawn's light, everyone but Julian is on the front lawn viciously smacking the croquet mallets against the games posts. Soon they are all racing across the lawn, chasing croquet balls that bound through the woods. Finally even Julian comes down from his tower, hits a ball and then chases it into the forest.
James D. Bule
S. Ruth Gringras
Edward E. Robbins
Joseph J. M. Saleh
George Swift Trow
George Swift Trow
Charles White 3rd
Savages (1972) - Savages
In the early 1970s, Ivory and his collaborator (and longtime companion) Ismail Merchant had not yet established themselves as masters of restrained, profound parlor dramas like A Room with a View (1985). Their previous four features were English language films about India (Merchant was born in Bombay, and their German-born screenwriting partner Ruth Prawer Jhabvala had lived in India with her husband for decades). But Ivory was stalled on a stillborn project, and had departed feature films temporarily to shoot the television documentary The Adventures of a Brown Man in Search of Civilization (1972). It was during his sojourn in New York editing Brown Man that he stumbled upon Beechwood mansion, and the idea that became Savages (1972).
Their producer Joseph Saleh was on board, but the modest returns from their previous feature Bombay Talkie (1970) made him cautious. Merchant and Ivory swore that Savages' budget would be a bare-bones $10,000, since, they reasoned, the set and props were already provided by the abandoned mansion. (That absurdly low figure was quickly exceeded by, among other things, the rental of a 1930 Pierce Arrow for one significant scene.)
Merchant and Ivory stepped away from their usual screenwriting partner Prawer Jhabvala and instead recruited two Americans with a touch for satire: George W.S. Trow, a writer at The New Yorker, and Trow's National Lampoon crony Michael O'Donoghue. (O'Donoghue later achieved notoriety as the sickest, darkest comedy writer on staff at the original Saturday Night Live). Neither had written a screenplay before, but both helped shape the filmmakers' vision, with O'Donoghue contributing the idea of an invading croquet ball - a mystical perfect sphere unknown in the natural world - as the herald that invites the forest dwellers to evolve. They also tapped songwriter Joe Raposo (most famous for composing songs for Sesame Street) to create the novelty tune "Stepping on a Spaniel" for the party scene.
To avoid extra costs to their non-union crew, the filmmakers cast a hodgepodge mix of performers: Broadway and Off-Broadway actors like Sam Waterston and Kathleen Widdoes, Warhol superstar Ultra Violet, model Susan Blakely, and first time actors like Paulita Sedgwick, with each actor playing a dual role as a "mud person" in the prologue and a party-goer in later acts. Cinematographer Walter Lassally suggested dividing the story into three visual themes - black and white for the forest (so that North American foliage would look more jungle-like), sepia for the first discovery of the house, and a rich, glittery color for the mansion scenes. He rounded up some reels of the discontinued film stock Kodak Panatomic X for its "beautiful highlight details" to give the forest scenes a bright, sun dappled look.
The film's total cost ended up being $300,000, even despite cost-cutting measures like Merchant cooking large communal meals of Indian food for the cast and crew (he claimed the strong spices of Indian cuisine woke up ghosts lodged in the mansion kitchen). Still, Merchant and Ivory had high hopes for what, unbeknownst to them, would be the first of many cinematic explorations of the fallible nature of upper class life. Unfortunately, Savages was not picked up by the prestigious distributor Cinema 5, who'd found an audience for unconventional fare like WR: Mysteries of the Organism (1971). The film played for 6 weeks in New York, then spottily in Boston and California, and then disappeared. Its seven prints got lost, and the negative was almost lost in one of Saleh's apartment house basements. The film was well-received at Cannes, but never joined the ranks of midnight movie classics. Merchant and Ivory moved on to The Wild Party (1975), another exploration of upper class decadence. And screenwriter George Trow went on to pen his crowning manifesto "Within the Context of No Context", describing how media culture had destroyed tribalism, and then left The New Yorker to live a chaotic, nomadic existence until his death in 2006. Friends found him living on scotch and sardines in rural Nova Scotia, in the same crazed and naked state as the "mud people" he created for Savages.
Producer: Ismail Merchant
Director: James Ivory
Screenplay: George Swift Trow, Michael O'Donoghue; James Ivory (based on an idea by)
Cinematography: Walter Lassally
Music: Joe Raposo
Film Editing: Kent McKinney
Cast: Lewis Stadlen (Julian Branch, a Song Writer), Anne Francine (Carlotta, a Hostess), Thayer David (Otto Nurder, a Capitalist), Susan Blakely (Cecily, a Debutante), Russ Thacker (Andrew, an Eligible Young Man), Salome Jens (Emily Penning, a Woman in Disgrace), Margaret Brewster (Lady Cora), Neil Fitzgerald (Sir Harry), Eva Saleh (Zia, the Child), Ultra Violet (Iliona, a Decadent).
by Violet LeVoit
Making of Savages
interview with Lassally "civilization told in one day"
Pym, John. The Wandering Company: 24 Years of Merchant Ivory Films. 1984. Museum of Modern Art
Interview with James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, Savages DVD. Criterion.
Savages (1972) - Savages
Savages on DVD
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
Savages on DVD
In the opening credits, cast and character names appear under footage of each character. As noted in the May 11, 1972 Daily Variety review, the film is an "offbeat" satire of humanity and civility that shows a primitive tribe becoming civilized and then reverting to previous behavior. The forest scenes shown early in the film are black and white, but change to color when the tribe find and inhabit the mansion. Several times throughout the film, an untranslated German voice-over is spoken in a tone implying some authoritative explanation of The Mudpeople's transformative behavior. The poem that the character "Zia" recites after dinner is a children's verse entitled "My Shadow" by Robert Louis Stevenson.
A June 20, 1971 New York Times news item noted that director James Ivory and producer Ismail Merchant decided to produce a film at the Beechwood House in Scarborough, New York, after Ivory's visit to the stately home inspired the Savages script. Although a June 16, 1971 Variety stated that DIA Films was to produce the picture, the company was not listed onscreen and the extent of its involvement in the production remains undetermined. Savages marked the first time the filmmaking team of Ivory and Merchant, who had worked primarily in India, produced an American feature-length film. The film also marked the motion picture debut for actress and former model Susan Blakely, who was billed onscreen as Susie Blakely.
Released in United States June 21, 1990
Released in United States November 1972
Released in United States on Video February 9, 1994
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States Winter January 1, 1972
Released in United States on Video February 9, 1994
Released in United States June 21, 1990 (Shown as part of the series "The Films of Merchant Ivory" Los Angeles, June 21, 1990.)
Released in United States November 1972 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (Contemporary Cinema) November 9-19, 1972.)