Doctor Faustus (1967) | Richard Burton’s mesmerising adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s tragic play
First up, a bit of history about how this 1967 film came about. Back in 1944, while completing a six-month course in Oxford, a 19-year-old Richard Burton got his first standing ovation – in the Oxford Dramatic Society (OUDS) performance of Measure for Measure. His then English tutor, Neville Coghill, made Burton promise that he would one day return to Oxford to act in another OUDS production.
In 1966, Burton kept that promise when he and his wife Elizabeth Taylor (who had now become the darlings of the cinema following the success of Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew) appeared in Coghill’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Elizabethan tragedy Doctor Faustus at the Oxford Playhouse. The money raised from the sold-out shows ended up going towards the building of a 50-seater extension, now known as the Burton Taylor Studio.
A year later, Burton reunited with Coghill to record the performance on film for prosperity – the result being this very film. Again using OUDS undergraduates, it was shot at the Dino de Laurentiis studios in Rome over three weeks, with Burton making his directorial debut and using a team that included Vittorio De Sica’s favourite cinematographer Gábor Pogány (who would go on to photograph Burton’s Bluebeard in 1972).
In an abridged version of Marlowe’s 1588 play (which also manages to slip in elements from The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine), Burton takes on the title role of the Wittenberg University scholar whose craving for arcane knowledge leads him into using necromancy to conjure up the demon, Mephistopheles (wonderfully played by Andreas Teuber, who later ditch acting to become a professor of philosophy).
Faustus then makes a pact with Lucifer (David McIntosh): his soul in exchange for 24 years with the demon as his servant. But when Mephistopheles starts to become untrustworthy, Faustus decides to renounce magic and repent. In a bid to keep his to his pact, Lucifer arranges for the personification of the seven deadly sins to visit the scholar. But failing to see them as warnings, Faustus spends his remaining years in constant conflict with himself before he is summarily dragged to Hell at the appointed hour…
Elizabeth Taylor (in her sixth of 11 films with Burton) makes a silent cameo as Helen of Troy, and her mute turn was not treated kindly by critics of the day – nor was the film, which was called ‘a sad example of university drama at its worst’ and dismissed as a vanity project for the couple.
Regardless of those negative reviews, Doctor Faustus is the nearest you’ll ever come to seeing Burton delivering an as-live stage performance. And here he is is, in full flight, with that fantastic booming voice bringing Marlowe’s blank verse and prose to dramatic life.
Also impressive are the nightmarish visuals (especially Faustus’ descent into Hell and the faceless monks) and the moody sets littered with skulls and bathed in primary hues of red, blue and green that evoke the 1960s Gothic horrors of Mario Bava and Roger Corman.
Providing the electronic Wagnerian theme music is Mario Nascimbene, best known for scoring genre films like The Vikings (1958) and One Million Years, BC (1966). Keen ears will recognise Helen of Troy’s theme as it was also used as main title theme for 1968’s The Vengence of She. Doctor Who fans should look out for Ian Marter (aka Harry Sullivan in the Tom Baker years) in the roles of Pride and the Emperor.
As for Elizabeth Taylor, well, she may appear to be solely decorative and a cunning ploy to sell the film as another Burton-Taylor film, but like her hubby, she’s mesmerising every time she appears on screen in yet another fantastical wig and costume.
Doctor Faustus is out on DVD (region 2) in the UK from Fabulous Films
Posted on February 26, 2018, in Drama and tagged Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus, Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabethean play, Fabulous Films, Oxford University, Richard Burton. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.