To be quite frank I really tracked down Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (UK, 1950) because it is credited as being the film that inspired Kate Bush’s 1985 song and album “Hounds of Love,” so please indulge me as a make a brief musical interlude on the way to some thoughts on the film itself. The densely intertextual nature of Bush’s music is well-known, and many of her songs are replete with literary and cinematic references (a good topic for a future posting, come to think of it). Savvy Bush fans will likely be aware that the “Hounds of Love” also slyly references another British classic film, with a line from the 1957 Jacques Tourneur baroque horror oddity Night of the Demon sampled at the beginning of the track (“in the trees–it’s coming!”).
Invoking a horror film at the beginning of the track is apt, because for all its immediate visual beauty, Gone to Earth also begins on a terrifying note, with the several idyllic moments of Hazel Woodus (Jennifer Jones) cradling a fox in her arms amidst a serene mountain setting immediately interrupted by some menace heard from somewhere in the surrounding forest. Turns out it is a foxhunt, and well aware of the implications, barefooted Hazel begins to sprint across the gorgeous Shropshire countryside with her pet fox clutched in her arms and a pack of snarling dogs in hot pursuit, their frenzied barks, the horns of the hunt, and Brian Easdale’s tempestuous score building into an an ominous aural crescendo that seems to draw closer and closer… it’s a frightening, nightmarish sequence, and certainly among the most indelible sequences the fabled P&P ever came up with, which, when considered within the context of their entire careers, is really saying something.
With its throbbing violins and pounding percussion, the “Alternative Hounds of Love” track more immediately evokes the nightmarish quality of the film’s opening a bit more directly than the familiar track released on the album. At this time Bush not only had a passing resemblance to the young Jones, but also seemed to style herself to some degree after the character Jones plays in Gone to Earth as well:
Of course, it should be emphasized that “Hounds of Love” is far from some kind of simple musical transcription of Gone to Earth‘s plot; as is quite characteristic with Bush’s songwriting style she begins with a deceptively straightforward allusion and subtly deconstructs it to suit her own purposes. In “Hounds of Love,” Bush transforms the image of fleeing from a foxhunt into a complex, multi-layered metaphor for love, desire, sexual maturity, and romantic pursuit.
As for the film itself, though it has its champions–the Self Styled Siren, for instance, considers it a masterpiece and I highly recommend her persuasive and detailed notes on the film–I’d say there’s a reason why this film hasn’t experienced the same kind of devoted resurrection other P&P entries from the same era have. And aside from an astonishing POV shot that demonstrates the depths of an abandoned local well (seen right), the twin foxhunts that bookend the narrative are the film’s indisputable highlights, and the quality of what occurs between opening and conclusion probably varies drastically according to one’s tolerance for folksy British regionalism and romantic melodrama.
Jones, a most polarizing actress that I remain generally indifferent to, is quite excellent, managing to pull off an extremely difficult role, negotiating not only a tricky accent but also making somewhat believable the multiple plot mechanisms that require every male she crosses paths with to fall instantly and madly in love with her (its a common literary conceit that always turns problematic when rendered onscreen). Part unrealistic dreamer, part plucky and pragmatic firebrand, Hazel propels the film, which is why it’s curious that David O. Selznick, who was Jones’s husband and was producing the film, disliked the film so much that he promptly bought the American rights to the film, had Rouben Mamoulian rework it in Hollywood, and after cutting some twenty minutes released it in America as The Wild Heart. Both versions of the film, it should be noted, ended up flopping at the box office.
The cinematography by Christopher Challis is just as vivid and luscious as the celebrated visual delights of the much more famous Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffman (1951), alternating between sweeping sunlit views of the mountainous British countryside and more expressionistic color and lighting effects filmed on a soundstage to highlight the hint at the mystery of the landscape–I particularly loved the eerie and unnaturally blue sequence meant to invoke the mystical mountaintop Hazel has a strange connection to. In many ways, the film reminded me a lot of Desert Fury (1947), another film made around the same time that also juxtaposes beautiful natural settings with highly artificial staging, an effect that is at once both oddly disorienting and entrancing in a hallucinatory way.
Visually the film is so accomplished that I kept wishing that the film would simply abandon altogether the turgid and terribly dull triangular romantic complications that comprises most of the film’s running time (note the image at left, which could easily function as the cover image of a historical romance novel) and explore instead some of the more intriguing elements hinted at in the corners of the narrative, most particularly Hazel’s “gypsy” heritage and the mystical, pagan connection to the craggy Shropshire mountains that she apparently inherited from her deceased mother. Perhaps this intriguing narrative element is more extensively considered in Mary Webb’s 1917 bestselling novel of the same name, though I’ve heard from several sources that it’s a practically unreadable text.
Neither an undiscovered masterpiece nor the disaster David O. Selnick claimed it was, Gone to Earth is a uneven film with several unforgettable elements. And besides, how many films can claim to be the inspiration for one of the best songs of the 1980’s?
Memories of a Movie: