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Submitted by Sarah Parnaby

Gone to Earth

Monthly Film Bulletin, November 1986, Volume 53, Number 634, pp.353-354

Great Britain,  1950
Directors: Michael Powell,
Emeric Pressburger

[Other film credits omitted]

Shropshire, 1897. Hazel Woodus, a young peasant girl, lives with her father Abel, coffin-maker, bee keeper and harpist. As well as a book of spells, Hazel had inherited from her dead gypsy mother a fierce independence and love of nature manifested in her attachment to Foxy, the fox who is her constant companion. One day, Hazel goes to Much Wenlock to buy a new dress, intending to stay the night with her Aunt Prowde. But the latter, jealous of the effect Hazel's beauty has on her son Albert, sends her home. Frightened by a storm, Hazel accepts a lift from the arrogant Squire Jack Reddin, who takes her to Undern Manor, inviting her to stay the night. When he tries to force her to make love, she takes refuge with Reddin's surly manservant, Vessons, who drives her home the next morning. Following a quarrel with Abel, Hazel defiantly swears to marry the first man who asks her. Meanwhile, Reddin unsuccessfully scours the countryside in search of her. Hazel's singing at a chapel social enchants the new minister Edward Marston, who invites her to tea, despite his mother's disapproval. When he hears of Hazel's vow, Edward is prompted to ask her to marry him. Hazel agrees, but at the county fair she is spotted by Reddin who, on learning of the impending wedding, insists that she meet him later that night. But he cannot persuade her to break her word to Edward, and the wedding goes ahead. On their wedding night, Edward chastely retires to his own room, keeping his promise to God that he will not make love to Hazel until she comes to him first. Determined to make Hazel his mistress, Reddin asks her to meet him secretly at Hunter's Spinney. Hazel, confused by Edward's attitude towards her, and attracted to Reddin in spite of herself, consults her book of spells. The omens appear positive; Hazel meets and makes love with Reddin, then goes to live with him at Undern Manor, much to Vessons' disgust. But she is found by Edward and, repelled by Reddin's cruelty, returns home with him, to find herself an outcast from the respectable community. Devastated, Edward loses his faith in God, and determines to give up the ministry and start afresh elsewhere with Hazel. Hearing the local hunt begin, Hazel goes in search of Foxy. Pursued by the hounds, and refusing to save herself by dropping the fox, she plunges to her death down a disused mineshaft.

Gavin Lambert, writing in 1950, described Gone to Earth as the worst piece of kitsch Powell and Pressburger had ever produced. Powell himself was deprecatory - "We never licked the script" - admitting that Mary Webb's writing was difficult to translate into cinema. David O. Selznick (a co-producer with Alexander Korda) was not much taken with it either. An admirer of Powell and Pressburger's work, but also wanting a star vehicle for his wife-to-be, Jennifer Jones, he bombarded the film-makers during the production with cabled instructions and demands for changes, even threatening lawsuits when Powell, who had control of the British version, refused to comply. Dissatisfied with the end result, partly on the grounds that it deviated too much from the novel, Selznick produced an American version in which major scenes were reshot by Rouben Mamoulian and substantial cuts made. The eighty-two-minute The Wild Heart, released in the U.S. in 1952 (and subsequently shown on TV and available on video here), has been far more widely seen than Gone to Earth.

Looking at the newly reconstructed Powell and Pressburger version in all its Technicolor splendour, it seem extraordinary now that the U.S. version should have taken precedence. Competent though it is (the new footage was carefully matched to the original), it is marred on a number of levels. The re-editing destroyed Gone to Earth's lyrical construction, its almost musical momentum, while the insertion of scenes intended to make the film more faithful to Mary Webb's novel (establishing the fact that Hazel is pregnant with Squire Reddin's child at the end of the story, for example) does nothing to elucidate what the novel is about. The addition of a doom-laden prologue (voice-over by Joseph Cotton) 'explaining' what in the Powell and Pressburger version is represented allusively, together with 'labels' presumably inserted for the benefit of American audiences and the deletion of several shots which have cinematic or symbolic rather than narrative significance, combine to 'literarise' the film, to reclaim its wild imagery in favour of the word. And Jennifer Jones' utterly convincing performance as the complex and divided heroine of Gone to Earth is transformed in the reshot sequences into a virtual reprise of Pearl's steaming sensuality in Duel in the Sun.

Apart from market considerations, Selznick obviously had very different notions about literary adaptations from Powell and Pressburger, whose version paid less attention to the letter of the narrative than to the novel's poetic spirit. Although written in 1917, the basis of Mary Webb's story is Victorian melodrama: the plot is pure cliché, reflecting a simplistic preoccupation with the battle between good and evil, and ending in a moral victory for good. Webb's significant achievement is to transform this basic dualism into a complex, multi-layered narrative in which the conventional polarities are reversed, the moralistic edges blurred, and and entire social and world order brought into question. A profound pessimism pervades the book, written towards the end of the First World War and suffused with violent, painful imagery as life and hope are trampled underfoot in a merciless drive towards death.

This momentum is not simply located in the more obviously evil characters. Squire Jack Reddin, though arrogant and cruel, the personification of masculine death wish, is not entirely responsible for Hazel's downfall. Aunt Prowde, masking her jealousy with moral rectitude as she turns Hazel out on to the road where she first meets Reddin, or the minister Edward Marston, whose apparent altruism rests on a complete misunderstanding of Hazel's character, and so drives her into Reddin's arms, are equally to blame. And Hazel herself is no innocent victim: divided between body and soul, sexual desire and chastity, life and death, she nevertheless makes independent choices which help to decide her fate. Her tragedy is that she loses her way, forgetting her dead mother's admonition that she eschew marriage and "keep herself to herself". When she enters the world of adult sexuality, the world of male desire, she loses her identity: "Both men saw her as they wanted her to be, not as she was".

The complexity with which Mary Webb interweaves her characters' motives and destinies seems almost impossible to reproduce in cinematic terms. But, in spite of Powell's reservations about the script, his and Pressburger's version comes very close. The book resounds with elemental imagery through which states of mind and impending events are reflected in natural phenomena - not so much pantheism as Darwinian materialism, seeing physical drives rather than spiritual ideals as determining human life. Low-angled shots of black trees swaying ominously are accompanied by a soundtrack of hunting music, thudding hooves and chanting voices whose reverberations have almost physical impact, both evoking the Black Meet in Hazel's mind and creating a more general sense of dark, hostile forces threatening humankind. When the same soundtrack is heard over Reddin's relentless pursuit on horseback of Hazel, this is no facile symbolism. Hazel is attracted to what she fears most, as her reaction - a mixture of terror and exitement - shows; she is implicated in her own fate. The association of Reddin with the Black Huntsman, with the forces of death - manifested in his need to dominate, possess and control - is a reflection of his class as much as his masculinity. The film, like the novel, sees evil not as an abstract entity but as materially present in social institutions, in people's minds and hearts.

The Technicolor process seems to have provided Powell and Pressburger with the means both to condense and bring to life the vibrant colour symbolism of the novel's long descriptive passages. When Hazel buys her new green dress, it is a hopeful sign of the quickening of life (the burgeoning of spring with which the novel opens). The moment she enters Reddin's world, he gives her a red dress, and from this point red begins to dominate the screen, from the flowers Reddin tramples underfoot when he seduces Hazel to the red which suffuses the sky whenever she is with him ("The red light from the west stained her torn old dress, her thin face, her eyes, till she seemed to be dipped in blood"). And these connotations of violence and death which prefigure Hazel's end are again related to institutions, in the red jackets of the upper-class huntsmen who finally ride her down.

But perhaps the most important aspect of Webb's novel to be faithfully captured by Powell and Pressburger is its deep ambivalence towards the masculine world which Hazel inhabits so uneasily, and in which she is ultimately powerless. As in many Victorian novels, love and marriage represent for the heroine both the possibility of freedom and independence, and a trap, since she must conform to rules not of her own making if she is to survive ("It seems all the world's a big spring trap, and us in it"). This theme is elaborated in the film through specifically cinematic strategies like framing and composition (the cramped interiors of Edward's house reinforced by shots of Hazel's birds and animals neatly caged after the wedding, for example), and through a network of male looks.

Hazel's spirited exchange with Aunt Prowde, who says, "It's a disgrace, the way you look. You quite draw men's eyes", is developed in a scene where Reddin persuades Hazel to change into the red dress, and then retires to watch, unbeknownst to her, through a window. During his pursuit of Hazel, Reddin watches her constantly, his dark looks a chilling evocation of his desire to possess her. Edward's look, though different, is no less pervasive. His 'spiritual' stare into the distance mirrors the paternalistic look with which he gazes at Hazel. But neither man really 'sees' her for what she is, and at the crucial moment, when Hazel is running for her life from the hounds, neither of them sees her until it is too late. She plunges headlong into the bottomless mineshaft, and in an instant (almost literally the blink of an eye as the screen fades rapidly to black) she is gone, her only epitaph the mournful, echoing cry, "Gone to earth...".

Pam Cook

(This film was originally reviewed in the M.F.B. No. 201, p.149.)

Copyright © The British Film Institute, 1986

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