A one-off movie for sure, but if you know how much Burton loved and memorized plays of Shakespeare, this recently released DVD movie from 1967 is not a total surprise.
A labor of classics-love, Doctor Faustus was co-produced and co-directed by himself, starring Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, and capable members of the Oxford University Dramatic Society. (The latter itself a different move instead of using professional movie actors.)
The play source by Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe is based on the once-well-known narrative of Faust/us, a learned, respected scholar who succumbs to sin and temptation in order to live out his secret desire for supreme knowledge and, above all else, power; which leads to a fatal contract with Mephistopheles, which Faust is destined to lose, despite his regrets, doubts, and attempts at resistance.
Burton expertly handles Marlowe’s lines and language and even the Latin passages which periodically pop up in the dialogue. The sets and special effects may look corny or cheesy by movie standards today, but they do give a sense of the scholar’s world, a sense of time and place travel (through superimpositions), as well as, memorably, hell with a touch of Roger Corman kitschiness.
Most memorable about this production are Burton’s performance, the language, the credibility of Faust’s final damnation, and the imaginative supporting musical score by Mario Nascimbene.
Much about Burton’s fascination with Faustus, also reflected in another Burton film project–Hammersmith, reveals his love of poetry in addition to an ironic narrative structure which reflected the various highs and lows of Burton’s own movie career–a fact reflected in my poem “Burton” reprinted below.
“Stars go out when actors die.”
More Henry than we ever knew,
your haunted blue eyes
from a father’s coalpit,
calling for forgiveness or fame
with an omnipotent voice.
Smile curled on cynic’s lips:
the failed cherubim.
Ever-hungry for spirits and song,
you took New York by storm
inverting mirrors to Hamlet’s soul
and made us weep to hear
your too too sullied flesh
melt and thaw unresolved
in a whorl of late night
carousing with buds and Liz.
Flushed with fever and wit,
you abdicated the playhouse throne
and found success
as hollow as Hollywood.
Pockmarked and stiff,
you sleep-walked through
a plethora of dire scripts,
mocking your right to rule
with a vigorous impotence.
Having at last to live
with your self–
a gaunt shadow of greatness
and unkind reflection.
Too late, you must have grieved,
like brother Dylan, the sun lost
in its dark inexorable flight.
And then there are bad choices, as reflected in the famous and great, to wit Richard Burton. Burton played Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days, one of the many dissolute parts that echoed his own decline. Born in Wales, he took up acting to avoid a future like his coal-miner father’s. Burton’s smile variously reflected his satisfaction with success initially and later a cynical smugness about film acting, which helped to pay for his and Elizabeth Taylor’s excessive lifestyle.
His New York stage performance as Hamlet was a significant achievement. I can remember being very moved by it when I listened to it on record in the late ’60s. To me, he seemed to peel layers off the character and role, he was that great an actor. At this time, though, he was starting to drink heavily which led to bad choices in roles and films. He knew he had been the greatest stage actor of his time and yet had sold out to Hollywood.
In the end, he was literally wasting away (e.g.,1984), though his voice remained memorable as always. Burton had a tremendous library, incidentally, and loved to read. He often quoted from Shakespeare and had a great love for his fellow countryman-poet Dylan Thomas, who similarly drank himself to death. (The last line of the poem alludes to “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”) Certainly, Burton knew too well he had squandered his talent and could not overcome the demons of his self-inflicted alcoholism.
I include this poem to demonstrate how we sometimes ‘do it to ourselves’ with our poor choices. This can sometimes result in tragedy and an unnecessary wasting of whatever talents we have.
ps/ My favorite Burton films remain: Anne of the Thousand Days, Becket, The Comedians, The Desert Rats, Equus, Look Back in Anger, 1984, The Night of the Iguana, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, The Taming of the Shrew, The V.I.P.s, Where Eagles Dare, and Who`s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, He is the only actor I have ever been moved by to write about.