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    Romantic Rebels

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Across nearly a century, each new film or TV adaptation of Emily Brontë’s romantic gothic classic Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847 (a year before its author died at age 30) and initially brought to the screen in a now-lost 1920 silent, builds upon the ones before it, with successive generations of creative artists commenting with greater focus on various aspects like the unbridled passion of its central lovers, Heathcliff’s gypsy background, Cathy’s haunted madness, the Earnshaw family dynamics; resetting the English Yorkshire Country tale in settings as varied as India, Japan and Mexico; and including more latter-day later-generational material from the book that depicted the fates of Cathy and Heathcliff’s descendants. Its most famous iteration in 1939, starring 27-year-old Merle Oberon and 31-year-old Laurence Olivier, conjured up the brooding Yorkshire landscape on Hollywood soundstages and casting Mountclef Ridge in Thousand Oaks, CA, as Peniston Crag. At its heart were two driven convention-defying rebels inextricably bound by their overwhelming attraction; in the late 1960s, convention-defying rebels were the stock-in-trade of feisty, independent American International Pictures, which studied the box-office take of Franco Zeffirelli’s swooning Romeo and Juliet (1968) and decided to step up and take a swing at the bigger-budget leagues with its own flower-powered, more youthful age-appropriate vision of Wuthering Heights (1970). 

    This time, Cathy was personified by 23-year-old stage actress and movie neophyte Anna Calder-Marshall and Heathcliff was embodied by 26-year-old stage actor and new screen discovery (courtesy of 1968’s The Lion in Winter and 1970’s Cromwell) Timothy Dalton. The production was helmed by screenwriter-turned-director Robert Fuest from an adaptation by Patrick Tilley, both of whom would later specialize in thrillers and/or science-fiction tales, but both determined here to honor and expand on the tempest-tossed spirit of Brontë’s prose while this time staking out authentic, beautifully bleak and eternally wind-swept Brontë Country filming locations that would challenge and stimulate actors and crew. Dalton viscerally responded to the opportunity, as he stressed in a 1970 interview during production: “Being here on the moors is a whole physical experience. You can't tell what it's actually like until you get here. It makes you realize just how hardy the people that Emily Brontë wrote about must have been. We’ve filmed under weather conditions that were absolutely ghastly, yet whenever it rained, and we all got soaked through, everyone laughed. That’s the sort of extraordinary effect the place has on you. The physical presence of the Brontë Country strikes you with tremendous force and the weather is quite unbelievable. It changes about every 10 minutes. On any one day you can almost guarantee you'll get the complete four seasons!” In addition to extremes of weather, the film accrued a fabulous complement of choice British acting talent in featured roles: Harry Andrews (Mr. Earnshaw), Pamela Browne (Mrs. Linton), Judy Cornwell (Nellie), James Cossins (Mr. Linton), Rosalie Crutchley (Mrs Earnshaw), Hilary Dwyer (Isabella), Julian Glover (Hindley), Hugh Griffith (Dr. Kenneth), Morag Hood (Frances), Ian Ogilvy (Edgar), Peter Sallis (Mr. Shielders) and Aubrey Woods (Joseph). And rebellion was on Dalton’s mind as well: “‘Why does everyone want to compare me with Sir Laurence? But I suppose this is inevitable. Sure he played Heathcliff in the Hollywood film, and now I’m playing him. He has the same name Heathcliff, but the way we're playing him is like as if the character was two different people. Neither Anna nor I have seen the previous film. I believe this is a great advantage, because it allows us to approach our roles without being biased in any way. Heathcliff as portrayed by Sir Laurence was totally romantic. Now I am playing him as a rebellious, brooding character. There's really no resemblance between the two. His performance suited the mood of the 1930s. It was right for what audiences wanted at that time. I am hoping that my Heathcliff will be more in keeping with the character as he is described in Emily Brontë’s book. She called him ‘a man's shape dominated by demon life.’ And that's how I'm aiming to play him on the screen. They are two different roles, even if they have the same name.” 

    Calder-Marshall also spoke during an on-set conversation with Iain F. McAsh about her take on Cathy: “Wuthering Heights is only my second film. But I think it is one of the most powerful roles an actress could wish for. “Emily Brontë fascinates me. I have read her book eight times since I got the part. I find the character of Catherine absorbing, doubly so being out here on the moors. Yet I doubt if we would get on together if we were to meet in real life. There is something bitchy and selfish about her. We're so different really. There are so many sides to her character. Cathy is a tough girl. She's not sweet; she's dangerous. If I met her at a party I don't think I'd get on with her at all.” Following the Romeo and Juliet playbook of recruiting of a top-flight cinematographer (Academy Award® winner Pasqualino De Santis) and composer (Nino Rota), Wuthering Heights enlisted the gifted John Coquillon behind the camera (soon thereafter to productively collaborate with Sam Peckinpah on Straw Dogs and three subsequent films) and the virtuosic Michel Legrand to provide a score of shattering beauty and romantic longing. Attempts to adapt Wuthering Heights will long continue and this 47-year-old version has its champions and detractors for what it omits and to a certain extent invents. But, as it is outstandingly cast and skillfully captures the unforgiving landscape, romantic intensity and cruelty of class divides at the core of the source novel, it’s well worth a rediscovery. Featuring a smart and detailed Audio Commentary with film historian and George Pal Estate curator Justin Humphreys (who knew and interviewed both Fuest and Tilley), Wuthering Heights arrives December 19 (the 169th anniversary of Brontë’s death) on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray. Preorders open December 6.