The Pain Under The Volcano: John Huston’s Almost Great Vision

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“The Consul felt a pang. Ah, to have a horse, and gallop away, singing, to someone you loved perhaps, into the heart of all the simplicity and peace in the world; was that not like the opportunity afforded man by life itself? Of course not. Still, just for a moment, it had seemed that it was.”
― Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Malcolm Lowry’s monumentally complicated novel, Under The Volcano (published in 1947) is arguably one of 20th Century’s greatest written works.  The story revolves around Geoffrey Firmin, a British Counsul living in Mexico, suffering from alcoholism and tormented memories during the Day Of The Dead festival on November 2, 1938.  Note the date for it is on the cusp of the impending second world war and the sunset of British control over what is left of their colonial rule.  The novel weaves in and out of unreliable narrators as the story tragically recalls the last day in Firmin’s life.  The novel is endlessly fascinating and conjures up an alcoholic haze of unforgettable images and words.  Lowry first started this novel while frequently drunk in Mexico and undergoing a nasty breakup with his first marriage.  Many revisions later, he fine tuned his paean to lost love which encompasses all the political and socioeconomics of his time.

Many directors have tried and failed to bring this “unfilmable” novel to the screen.  It took the legendary John Huston  in 1980 to option the book and hammer out a vision of the story.  Huston’s vision may not be a literal translation of Lowry’s masterpiece, but that was not his intention.  The essence of a man totally lost within his memories and unwilling to escape the demons which grasp his very soul, is a mighty huge undertaking to bring to the screen.  Huston was a man of passions and risk taking.  Under The Volcano was close to his heart and a project he felt he needed to accomplish before he was no longer able.  His failing health made this undertaking all the more urgent and a necessity.

Huston cast Albert Finney in the title role of the British Consul and he is staggeringly brilliant.  It is too easy to play a drunkard and slide into caricature.  Finney, never in a caricature, is astounding with the many nuances he brings to his sad character.  Pay close attention to his eyes and you can see the running gamut of emotions Finney brings to his portrayal.  Surrounded by Jacqueline Bisset (never better in the role of the Consul’s long suffering wife/muse) and Anthony Andrews (underrated as Hugh, the Consul’s half-brother and caretaker), the film imbues such a wide range of tones from the absurd to the tragic.  The script, by Guy Gallo and John Huston, captures the novel’s undertone, but can never really encompass all what Lowry achieved with his words.

This is an almost great vision.  It is a fascinating near miss at a classic film, with all its faults and mistakes.  However, one can return to it over and over (much like the novel) to catch subtle meanings and cast aside metaphors which abound in the film.  Whether Huston knew he was never going to do complete justice to Lowry’s novel, it really does not matter.  The mere fact that he tried is amazing in itself.  Mexico has always been a second home to Huston and one can feel it in his treatment with the heat, smells, and textures on the screen.  It all sounds so depressing and not a story to run to, but Huston gives it a light and love that is entirely worth watching; much like sipping a fine aged wine.

(a tribute to the novel written over a year ago in relation to Lowry’s quote above)

Horses, you say?
The freedom to feel
To say
All that is in your heart
Galloping madly to your lips
Expelling that curse
Kept locked away
That which keeps us
Wild horses could not drag
What truly lies within
Buried beneath tall grasses
The meadow plains sings
With hooves of love
Dragging the corpse of the past
Horses, you say?
Snorting, sweat filled pain
The muscular tinged rage
Racing across green hills
Glancing back into the distance
Running from that sun
That refuses to set

(Misha 2015)

“Under The Volcano” (1984) directed by John Huston, written by Guy Gallo & John Huston

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