‘The Magus’ (1968): A high-profile failure, but with much to enjoy

Back in college, a buddy gave me John Fowles’ novel, The Magus, as a birthday gift, with the express purpose of seeing if I saw what he saw in it.

By Paul Mavis

That’s the kind of book The Magus is (…or was: it can’t still be something people read now, is it?). It was one of those works of fiction that instilled in its readers an intense, emotional, personal connection, and compelled them to share that experience with someone else. To test them, if you will. To test them to see if the other person “got” the book, if they understood it the way the giver received the novel.

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It’s unfortunate…but no one will ever feel this compulsion to share the movie version of The Magus. It’s certainly not for a lack of trying on the part of the movie’s producers. No less than Fowles himself wrote the screenplay, and good, compelling actors like Anthony Quinn, Michael Caine, Julian Glover, and Anna Karina star. The well-respected director, Guy Green, appeared (at least on the surface) to be sensitive to the material—mature, adult material that finally, in 1968, could be brought to the screen—and the expensive production was first-rate, with impeccable, spectacular Greek and Spanish location work and lush lensing. All the ingredients were there for a successful movie.

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Well…that didn’t happen, at least for the two groups that matter the most: audiences and critics, both of whom utterly rejected The Magus when it was released by 20th Century-Fox at the end of 1968. It’s certainly not the disaster its reputation would suggest.

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There are major conceptual problems with the film, to be sure. Seen as a whole, The Magus is one of those “interesting failures” that often prove quite fun to watch, despite—as well as because of—their drawbacks. So why the level of critical vitriol aimed at it? For snooty critics and enamored fans of the best-selling novel, The Magus‘ major crime most certainly was that it “just didn’t measure up to the book.”

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Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine), an over-educated, angry Oxford-educated Englishman, has just escaped from a messy relationship with a beautiful, loving flight attendant, Anne (Anna Karina). Coming to the Greek island of Phraxos to teach English to Greek boys, Urfe meets Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn), an enigmatic, mysterious Greek millionaire who may or may not be a former Nazi collaborator, a Greek partisan, a clinical psychiatrist, a movie producer…or God himself.

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While in Conchis’ company, Urfe meets Lily (Candice Bergen), a stunningly beautiful, deeply troubled girl whom Conchis claims is his long-dead girlfriend from his youth. Is she? Or is she a schizophrenic that Conchis/”Dr. Lambros” is helping? Or is she just an actress hired by Conchis to help enact his “godgames” that play with the mind of Urfe? Urfe is immediately attracted to Lily, but this attraction will lead to psychologically devastating revelations about Urfe’s character, while Urfe struggles to understand exactly what is real and what is a lie, concerning Conchis’ “godgames,” and his own life.

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Whenever I hear a “film critic” (blech!) or moviegoer who was disappointed in a big-screen adaption of a book they’ve read state, “Well, the book was probably unfilmable,” what they’re really saying is, “The moviemakers didn’t make the movie the way I experienced the book.” Of course they’re forgetting the fact that everybody experiences books in different ways, in particular a kaleidoscopic, post-modernist novel like Fowles’ The Magus.

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It’s a pointless argument to discuss a particular movie adaptation of a novel from the starting point of, “Was it faithful to the novel?” because that’s a meaningless framework for the discussion. Books and movies are two entirely different aesthetic experiences: apples and oranges. Readers’ connections with influential novels are a powerful force that blinds many from seeing a movie adaptation as an artistically fresh starting point. Fowles’ himself evidently had trouble with this notion, since he resented seeing his first novel, The Collector, suddenly become “William Wyler’s The Collector” on movie posters and ads. He failed to see that despite the fact that he had written the source material (as well as part of the screenplay), director William Wyler was the overall artistic force behind that 1965 movie. When you go to the library and check out the novel, it doesn’t say, “William Wyler’s The Collector.” It’s still Fowles’ name on the jacket.

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Evidently, Fowles was so upset by his experience with The Collector that he stipulated that if any film adaptation was to take place with The Magus, he alone would write the screenplay (interestingly enough, Fowles stated that he enjoyed the collaborative effort of working on the The Collector…he just didn’t like it when others got credit for the film’s final success: perhaps a more telling comment on Fowles than on director William Wyler). What Fowles may not have realized was that by demanding such high profile “artistic responsibility” for the movie version of The Magus, he alone could very well bear the responsibility if the movie tanked.

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If I could sum up in one word what is missing from The Magus, the one essential ingredient that is absolutely necessary for the movie to work but which is nowhere to be found, it would be “passion.” The Magus has a cool, detached, stylized integration that makes for a good-looking movie, to be sure…but which also makes for a movie vastly removed from the central idea of the screenplay: the utter destruction of a selfish, self-centered young man’s psyche, in order for him to face the horrible facts about his own life, and to see and feel the truth and lies and profound pain with which we all live.

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Where is that visceral, palpable passion in The Magus that we need to feel to believe the story? Perhaps it’s a matter of casting. Michael Caine, at least at this juncture in his career, came off as a bit of a cool customer; after all, in 1968 he was most associated with the character of Alfie, the cold-blooded Cockney womanizer, and spy Harry Palmer, the laconic, dead-pan alternative to James Bond.

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In The Magus, Caine dispatches his girlfriend Anne with icy resolve, but where is the wild heat when he sees Bergen? Granted, it may have been difficult for him to work up that kind of emotional involvement with an actress like Bergen (I beat her up enough in The Adventurers: let her critical reputation rest in peace). For the story to be believable, however, we have to feel Caine’s overwhelming, emotional/sexual attraction to her, and we simply don’t. For that matter, we don’t get anything from Caine that might explain why he continues on with Quinn’s “godgames.” I never believed that Caine was psychologically “broken down” in the end by Quinn’s manipulations; Caine’s natural reserve masks any possible expressions of paranoia, fear, lust or mental collapse—and if I don’t believe that, whether it’s the director’s or actor’s fault—there’s not much point to the movie.

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Part of The Magus‘ problem also stems from conceptual and directorial problems, as well. There is one moment in The Magus that approximates the visual impact of Fowles’ dizzying prose style in the novel. Caine is visiting with Conchis, and suddenly, as if called up by magic (after all, Conchis is “The Magus”: the magician), a satyr appears, running after a girl who looks like Lily. Lily then appears as Diana the Huntress, on top of the roof of the mansion, and shoots the satyr dead with an arrow. Caine looks away in shock, only to see Lily standing next to him, dressed in her WWI period clothes.

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It’s a marvelously effective scene that comes close to the theatrical, reality-shifting prose of Fowles’ novel. So why didn’t director Guy Green continue to shoot the movie in this manner? One can assume that because Fowles wrote the screenplay, and was present during the production (he even makes a cameo as the sailor in the film’s first shot), that he crafted how the scenes would be laid out and filmed: that’s what a screenwriter does. So why does Green shoot almost all of the film in a literal, presentational manner? Was the movie re-edited? Was Fowles’ screenplay altered during shooting? Or did you really write it this way?

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Highly problematic is the all-important finale, the final “godgame” that is meant to break down Caine’s psyche once and for all. SPOILER ALERT In the novel, Urfe couldn’t determine if this godgame was real or illusion, but Greene gives us the definitive answer—effectively eliminating the entire meaning of the sequence—by shooting it as a drug-induced dream sequence. We, the audience, are let off the hook. We can safely say, “Well, it’s just the drugs that make him see what he’s seeing. He’s okay; he’ll be fine once it wears off.”

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That’s the exact opposite effect of what The Magus should be trying to convey to the viewer. One can only guess why the scene was shot this way (or why they included that ridiculous talking computer idea, as well). Perhaps Fox felt the audience wouldn’t understand an “is it reality or illusion” representation of the final “godgame.” Perhaps the cliched, gauzy, foggy dream sequence method of shooting the finale was an ill-conceived guesswork sop to the audience’s patience with the demanding script. Whatever the reason, this manner of shooting, specifically this vital last sequence, betrays the inherent nature of the material, and makes The Magus—however entertaining it might be as simply a movie—an artistic failure.

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There are good, interesting elements in The Magus. Standing out in the cast is Quinn, who is quite effective as Conchis. His scary, penetrating eyes speak volumes from Fowles’ novel, but what exactly those eyes are saying you may have to guess at, considering the movie doesn’t adequately elucidate them. Quinn almost became a cliche by inserting numerous “Zorba”-like mannerisms and references into his many subsequent movie roles, but here, he admirably resists the temptation to overact the “Greek peasant” role in which he excelled. His Conchis is mysterious and sinister, yet totally likeable and attractive, too – the perfect “truth/illusion” model that keeps the audience guessing as to his real intentions.

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Quinn’s particularly good in the third act, where we get an extended flashback (or is it all a tall tale?) about Conchis’ activities with Greek partisans and Nazi occupiers. It’s a strong sequence, and Quinn has a weight to his playing that’s quite astounding…but it shouldn’t be in this movie, at this time in the movie. While that particular subplot works well in the 600-page novel, it takes up an inordinate amount of time in this two hour movie, and distracts us from the central story of Caine’s mental breakup. The director further fails to validate the inclusion of this Nazi atrocity sequence when he can’t successfully link it with Caine’s actions in the finale.

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Another big plus is The Magus‘ cinematography, provided by British veteran Billy Williams. It’s nothing short of stunning. There are several scenes where Caine is walking along mountainous Greek paths, where Williams achieves a depth of focus that creates an almost 3D illusion—it’s an amazing effect. The Magus is a beautiful, rich film to look at, with a shimmering gloss indicative of the typical big-budget movies of the 1960s. Unfortunately, as the old saying goes (and here applied to any deeper intellectual appreciation of the movie): you can’t eat the scenery.

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Unfortunately, much of that scenic splendor—as well as most of the drama, too, while we’re at it—is nullified by some truly atrocious music cues by John Dankworth. In particular, there’s an extended scene where Caine and Karina (quite good here as the rejected lover Anne) reunite, that becomes utterly laughable when Dankworth’s Disney-esque music comes tinkling down. It’s a shockingly bad choice for the scene’s purported intent, and it happens again and again throughout the movie. Caine’s love scene with an apparently inert, comatose Bergen (I know, I know: how can you tell?) is ruined by truly bad music, as well as the movie’s final shot, where Caine is supposedly clued into the true nature of his character. The Magus‘ worthless score is certainly the movie’s worst element.

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In his autobiography, Michael Caine said The Magus was the worst movie he was ever in because no one ever understood what it meant (high praise indeed from the star of The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and Jaws 4: The Revenge). Candy Bergen lamented that “no one told her what to do” (try acting, dear). And John Fowles stated that it was a “disaster, right down the line.”

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The Magus is not a disaster. It’s a failure, to be certain, but there’s an attempt to make a good movie here which doesn’t come off. Certainly most of the fault of this must lie with Fowles himself; he, after all, wrote the screenplay and was on-set every day. After the utter critical and commercial failure of the movie, Fowles vowed never to write another screenplay of his own work. One can see why after viewing The Magus. The concrete storylines and literal visual representations of Guy Green’s lush, mainstream 1960s Hollywood studio mode moviemaking, is the exact opposite artistic aim of Fowles’ elliptical prose work. Fowles wasn’t immune to the temptations of success. Famously, he shunned all forms of “fame” and the superficial attractions that went with being a best-selling author.

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However, he did avidly seek recognition for his work, and valued the reputation he had for being one of the 20th century’s best prose stylists. Perhaps that’s why he hated The Magus adaptation so much: his name was on it; he wrote it; he had an active voice in how it was shaped…and it was a high-profile, spectacular failure. No one will ever talk about The Magus the way they talk about John Fowles’ The Magus. The Magus is certainly worth a look, though, if you’re a fan of the novel, or of Quinn and Caine, or of interesting movie failures. It’s certainly not an artistic success, but it’s also not one the worst movies ever made, as its reputation suggests. As the Magus would say, “God doesn’t have to choose—you and I do.”


3 thoughts on “‘The Magus’ (1968): A high-profile failure, but with much to enjoy

  1. Thank you. You make a good point that novels and cinema are two different arts, one literary, one performing. I just watched the 1968 “The Magus” and found it absorbing, but, rather than a mystifying “mind-screw,” it was far too over-explanatory. Your comments on the film’s drawbacks and virtues are very well said. And, no, I will not be rushing out any time soon to track down an old LP of John Dankworth’s easy-listening score!

    Liked by 1 person

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