The Magus is a film that could only have been made in the 60s. Based on the first book that author John Fowles wrote (but third published), which he later rewrote in 1977. Fowles also wrote the script for the film, because he was upset with William Wilder’s adaptation of another of his novels, The Collective. However, he still ended up being unhappy about the final result. It’s semi-autobiographical, taking inspiration from his experiences of teaching English in Greece in the 1950s.
Michael Caine plays teacher Nicholas Urfe, who takes a position on the Greek island of Phraxos. He chooses the job mostly because he wants a change of scene, but also to escape his relationship with Anne, played by Anna Karina in perhaps her first English-language film. The previous teacher committed suicide.
His life begins without much drama, but soon he gets entangled with a strange older man called Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn). Conchis has an estate on the other side of the island and lives with a beautiful young woman called Lily (Candace Bergen). He claims to be a psychiatrist and film producer, he may in fact be a Nazi sympathiser or a magician. He seems to have some sort of power over the lives and destinies of everyone around him. Everything becomes increasingly bizarre, including events happening that are strange re-enactments of Conchis’s earlier life. The film climaxes with a surreal trial sequence.
It’s a very odd movie—and one that doesn’t quite add up. Despite being this big critical and commercial success, Fowles was never able to get the ending quite right in either the film version or the later rewrite. He also refused to answer the questions left by the ending. With the novel nearly 700 pages long, it would not have easy to adapt, and I suspect that a great deal was edited away.
Caine says it’s one of the three worst films he ever did, although to be honest, he has done some far worse things. It’s probably down to the fact that no one knew what was going on, including the audience. Bergen has said similarly that “I didn’t know what to do and nobody told me. I couldn’t put together the semblance of a performance.” Quinn is quite good in his part, but he has always been an under-rated actor. At the time he was on Variety’s “top 10 overpriced stars of 1968,” indicating that his star was beginning to fade after his last big hit, Lawrence of Arabia. Anna Karina probably put more effort into her performance than the others—Bergen refused to do a nude scene but as a French actress this was nothing new for Karina.
John Fowles laid the blame on director Guy Green, who to be honest was not a very interesting filmmaker. His best-known film was Patch of Blue with Sidney Poitier and Shelley Winters. He was a much better cinematographer, working with David Lean and Carol Reed on other projects. On The Magus, this skill doesn’t seem to transfer over to directing. Green, who also replaced Nicholas Ray on 55 Days at Peking, ended his career making TV movies in the 1980s.
The Magus is a bit of an oddity. While Woody Allen once said, when asked what he would change about his life, it would be having seen The Magus, it’s worth a watch. The disc includes an interview with Michael Green, the director’s son, about the film plus outtakes from that interview, the featurette Guy Green: A Life Behind the Camera, a featurette on Fowles, and interviews with the cinematographer and various crew members.