Under the Volcano is a novel written by critically acclaimed Malcolm Lowry. The book eventually became a film starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset, directed by critically acclaimed John Huston. Both the film and the book failed to reach a wider public despite the brash, braying praise of critics.
Like Lowry, I lived in Mexico for a time, from fall 1980 till late 1981. During that time we traveled to a number of places including two trips to Cuernavaca. I loved Cuernavaca, the city where this story primarily occurs, the Land of Eternal Springtime where Cortez established his winter palace. Like Lowry and the tragic hero of his novel I, too, was present in Tepotzlan on a holy day when the dark-faced peasants in loose white clothes and wide hats brought out Christ and the Virgin from the shadows of monasteries, parading, holding high large displays and brightly colored pillars, burned incense, celebrating intently the blended religion of the peoples.
This story covers 24 hours in the life of an alcoholic, his last 24 hours, with his singular preoccupation on where he will get his next drink, simultaneously immersing the reader into his internal despondency, hopeless self-wreckage, introspection and hallucination. It is a tragic life culminating in a tragic end, perhaps intended to be the mirror of a forlorn culture shrouded in apparitions of death.
I originally took an interest in the book because I’d read that it was supposedly structured like the Cabala, the chapters being a series of steps toward enlightenment. My first effort to read it in the late 80’s left me flat, however, and I placed it back on the shelf for a couple years. The second attempt ended about a fourth of the way through with the same frustration. A couple more years past, and upon beginning the story I was transported inward to the heart of the characters, the culture, and the bleak futility of the hero’s quest.
John Huston took this very complicated ball of knots and attempted to straighten it out into its essential story. The film, inadequate to the task, did capture facets of the book’s essence. There is no way it could capture the spinning surrealistic writing, compelling inner monologues, and painfulness of Lowry’s heartfelt bloodletting.
Malcolm Lowry wrote the first draft in Mexico while living in Cuernavaca in 1938. Director Huston does an outstanding job of giving the feel of Mexico during this time frame. And the film brings to life many vivid memories of our time there…
Despite its shortcomings, I found myself still moved by the film. This is the second time I’ve watched it and this time I did enjoy the performances of Finney and Bisset, whom some have been especially critical of. Finney is nearly perfect throughout in his portrayal of a wrecked man. Bisset is equal to the task she must perform, confused, frightened, compassionate, pained.
The weakness of the film is perhaps the feeling that it was put together by a nostalgic older director who could have done more with the music, the camera work, the edits. Great films often grab you from the opening images, credits and soundtrack. I found myself having to overlook what I considered a weak appetizer that insufficiently lured me into the depths of our hero’s heart, mind, soul, struggle.
Huston could have done more with the film, but did not. Perhaps it is because of the era. He did not feel it necessary? I can’t say. The grandeur of his foreign setting is hinted at, but hollow. I cannot blame the actors for this. Finney was remarkable throughout, almost over the top. Bisset’s broken heart shone through with clarity.
It’s a good film and a rich, but difficult, book. If it is too depressing or too convoluted and enigmatic, you’re under no obligation to finish. But if you can’t put it down, then don’t.
“Time is a fake healer anyhow. How can anyone presume to tell me about you? You cannot know the sadness of my life…. Alas, what has happened to the love and understanding we once had?” ~ Geoffrey Firmin, Under the Volcano
All photos on this page are original, shot in Kodak Ektachrome, property of Ed Newman
Copyright 1981, Ed Newman
Permission to use is granted when attribution is cited.