The Magus
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55 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2006
---I first saw this movie at the theater my second year of college (1968-69) in Texas. At that time, it being the late 1960's, it seemed perfectly normal to me that it was complex and confusing. It was psychedelic. How can anyone who enjoyed the Beatles "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Magical Mystery Tour," and the "White Album," not to mention The Doors' "Strange Days," or Iron Butterfly's "Inagodadavida" (sp?), complain about a movie that is confusing?

---Nicholas Urfe (Michael Caine) accepts a job as an English teacher at a private boys school on the idyllic Greek island of Phraxos. As he settles into his room, he finds a cryptic note left in a drawer by his predecessor who had committed suicide. The note reads "beware the waiting room." On the weekends Urfe explores the far side of the island and discovers the villa of the mysterious Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn) who invites him for weekend visits where Conchis entertains Urfe with his life story. In these stories of his past, Conchis presents to Urfe major dilemmas where the choices are life-changing. Subsequently, in a series of "Twilight Zonesque" time shifts, Urfe finds himself trapped into reliving these same stories and being forced to make the same life-changing choices. The effect is, well, "mind-blowing," both for the character Urfe, and for the viewer. Is Urfe hallucinating or dreaming, or is this a well-planned masque, directed by the "master-manipulator" Conchis, where Urfe is unwillingly cast as the central character?

---I guess my take on it is that the mind-blowing nature of the film fit very well with the zeitgeist of the late 1960's. The film itself may be lacking, but the greater story, only partly told in an abbreviated version in this movie, is much, much better than could ever be captured on film. Instinctively, I knew this and sought out the book in the Fall of 1969. I found it at Doubleday Bookstore in New York City while visiting for the Texas A&M vs. Westpoint football game. The book helped me survive the long, cold, rainy winter of 1969-70, as I was manipulated into making life-changing decisions -- school vs. Vietnam, girls vs. grades, polyester vs. cotton, Santana vs. Led Zeppelin, etc. etc. etc. As Nicholas Urfe rode the roller coaster of his life, so did we.

---I'm glad to see that the movie is in video.
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28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on May 28, 2007
One of the reviewers mentioned David Lynch. I recall waiting with anticipation for the film adaptation of _Dune_, hoping that the movie in my mind would be realized, and discovering through the film flaws in the book that my adolescent mind had not noticed when I fell in love with it. Something like that is true of _The Magus_ as well. It *is* fairly faithful to the book, and many of the more embarrassing scenes of dialogue are taken directly from it. So my first reaction to seeing this film is a troubled sense that I was wrong to love this book.

What's missing? Three things: time, the narrator, and a realist texture. For a sense of what I mean by the third, see Minghella's _Talented Mr. Ripley_ to see how this film should look, should feel (indeed, how, if it were remade today, it could even be cast--all that's missing is Ben Kingsley as Conchis). But what makes the book work is that the fascinating and bizarre events are made plausible by their embedding in a realistic frame: Nicholas' life away from Conchis' universe is utterly real by being largely veiled autobiography. He is the typical callow young man as would-be writer, struggling fitfully to overcome his narcissism and join the human race, while desperately clinging to that same narcissism in the knowledge that only this will allow him to become the artist he would betray himself by not becoming. The Conchis Masque is but the externalization of Nicholas' "therapy" as he sorts through this paradox, grows up and becomes a Real Writer. For every Real Writer is perilously close to a merely Failed Human Being.

In the book, Nicholas experiences Bourani (the site of Conchis' manipulations) the way people experience affairs: as what seems for a time an endlessly fascinating distraction from the intolerable experience of being who they are. On this level, the book is essentially the story of an affair, and Nicholas' guilt is an essential part of him finding his way to resolution. But the film so compresses the events that we get only Conchis, only the affair, and almost none of the narcissism, tedium, failure and self-doubt of Nicholas, or the process by which he comes to terms with them through his guilt over how his self-importance and thirst for experience harm the women in his life. And yet it is this which makes the book seem real (especially to the many young Nicholases who read it) and thus confers reality on the otherwise incredible, and incredibly silly things that transpire on the island.

I remain convinced that this film could've been done, but there must be much much more of the ordinariness of Nicholas, so that the fantastic stands out that much more. _French Lieutenant's Woman_ gives us some inkling of how a very free but literate adaptation can be penned, and _Talented Mr. Ripley_ gives us some notion of how it could be shot. But it must be *much* longer, and that length should be devoted to showing what the novel shows: how we grow through love.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 31, 2008
Reflecting on the movie while on the mid-watch on a naval ship in the South China Sea in 1969 was an experience that has never left me. The constant turning inside out of what Nicholas Urfe believed was going on, through the leap from stories told by Conchis at the dinner table becoming either reality or staged reinactments that tested Urfe's belief and sense of morality fed my hunger for thought provoking dialog. I had to buy the book and read it. I went on to "The French Leutenant's Woman", and "The Aristos", soaking up Fowle's philosophy.

Later, attending an interview with John Fowles in San Francisco with my Daughter, he said, "I didn't think 'The Magus' was very good". I wanted to stand up and say, "But I named my Son Nicholas!" I think he got tired of answering the questions about what it meant, when it really wasn't intended to give answers. Like someone else said in a review here, one of his favorite themes was "An answer is a form of death".

Candice Bergen said one time that as her third movie appearance she thought is might be her worst. She might be right. I loved the movie for where it lead me at the time, not as something that would entertain me again and again. Skip the movie, or see it for the novelty, but read the book if you want the experience that Fowles meant you to have.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2007
Michael Caine plays Nicholas Urfe, a shallow, vain English teacher who leaves England to assume a teaching post on the Greek island of Phraxos. Here he encounters the mysterious Maurice Conchis (Anthony Quinn), who initiates him into a series of bizarre experiences which test his capacity for truth, love, and integrity.

Also in the mix are Ann (Anna Karina), an air hostess (this was the 60s, before we ever heard of "flight attendants") whom Urfe has used for his own sexual gratification and callously cast aside, and Lily/Julie (Candice Bergen), a mysterious companion of Conchis who is alternately presented as a mental patient and an actress. Which is the reality?

And who, or what, is Conchis - psychic, magician, psychiatrist, film producer, madman, charlatan, war criminal, God? We are kept guessing.

Conchis relates life-changing events in his own past to a skeptical Urfe, who then finds these events inexplicably recreated in his own life. What is real, what is dream, what is hoax?

The answer, says Conchis, is in the smile, the mystery of life. The movie is bracketed between a quote from T.S. Eliot's "Four Quartets": "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time." I am not convinced that the shallow Mr. Urfe actually learns this lesson, but it is quite entertaining to see Conchis trying to teach it.

Yes, it is a movie for thinkers and philosophers, but much more accessible than the mysteries of David Lynch. And - I must disagree with some reviewers - although this is in many ways a movie about ideas, in no way are the characters stick figures for those ideas. Anthony Quinn has way too much charisma for that.
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21 of 27 people found the following review helpful
on October 17, 2006
This film is intriguing at first, and it's beautiful to look at, but it's a bit of a mess. The problem is simple: John Fowles, the author of the famous novel, decided to write his own screen adaptation. He apparently hated the screen version of his other novel, THE COLLECTOR, three years earlier, and he didn't want Hollywood to botch THE MAGUS. Well, they did botch it--and it's entirely his own fault.

THE MAGUS is a novel of ideas, not action. The flimsy story and symbolic characters (Urfe rhymes with "earth," Conchis is pronounced "conscious" which means "alive," the lily in Anne's lucky paperweight becomes "Lily," the girl on the island, etc.) are only there to serve up a large dose of Fowles's philosophy--basically, that life is a dream and love is the only reality. But it isn't exactly photogenic, and Fowles the screenwriter has taken Fowles the novelist entirely too literally. What we get is a page-by-page adaptation of a talky, elliptical, difficult book. If Michael Caine (Urfe/earth), Anthony Quinn (Conchis/life), and Candice Bergen (Lily/love) look uncomfortable, or even downright confused, who can blame them? They were asked to play symbols, not characters, and to say and do things that couldn't possibly make sense to anyone unfamiliar with the novel. A film is not a novel, and vice versa.

Bottom line: read the wonderful novel, then tackle the film. Or skip the film entirely. The screenwriter doesn't seem to understand the novelist, despite the fact that they're the same person. And that is why we have professional screenwriters. I'm glad Fowles allowed Harold Pinter to do the screenplay for the film of his next novel, THE FRENCH LIEUTENANT'S WOMAN. Now, there's a movie that does justice to the source material. But as for THE MAGUS, well....
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 29, 2007
Although this film came out in 1968, it has only recently become available on DVD. Until then, you had to wait for the rare occasions it was shown on TV to see it. I would mainly recommend this film to people who have read the novel and are very fond of it. The Magus is one of my favorite books and the fact that the author, John Fowles, wrote the screenplay for the film, not to mention the interviews that are included in the DVD with people who knew him, make the movie well worth seeing. I have to admit that the film, taken by itself, is not great and might not even make much sense to anyone who hasn't read the book (or has read it but wasn't crazy about it). Still, I'm not sure why some critics seemed quite so harsh towards it. To me, it falls into the vast category of movies that are neither terrible or great. I was mainly disappointed with it relative to the merits of the novel.

Out of all the performances in The Magus, the only one I really liked was Anthony Quinn, who perfectly captured the enigmatic Conchis. Michael Caine and Candace Bergen are both good actors (and seem improbably young in this 1968 film!), but neither really stood out in this film. Caine as Nicholas, the young man who gets ensnared in Conchis' deceitful web on a remote Greek island, never seems to be experiencing any real confusion or torment. While the novel evokes a profound sense of existentialist dread, the film seems more like a bizarre theme park.

The premise of The Magus is a fascinating one. On the surface, it's about a rather aimless and self-centered young man, Nicholas, who is teaching on a Greek island and meets a mysterious older man, Maurice Conchis. As Conchis relates events of his life, people and scenes appear to Nicholas, making the island a kind of stage setting. Nicholas falls in love with a young woman who may or may not be a co-conspirator in Conchis' plot (in the novel, there are twins, which makes the whole situation even more complex). It soon becomes apparent that nothing Conchis says can be taken at face value. He may be a doctor, a film producer or simply a sadistic madman who likes to torment victims. Nicholas becomes completely trapped in a world where nothing is what it seems and reality is unknowable. I think the latter sums up what The Magus is really about --the basic mystery and ambiguity of identity, experience and life.

The basic theme of The Magus can be seen in much later films such as The Matrix and Dark City, though these rely much more on special effects to get their messages across. Probably the film that best captures this theme (actually a much better film than either The Magus or The Matrix) is The Stunt Man, which uses a movie set as a brilliant metaphor for the ambiguity of life. So, once again, the film will mainly be of interest for those who can't get enough of the book.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
"We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started... and know the place for the first time." - T.S. Eliot

An aloof person Nicholas Urfe who could not commit to a relationship has a relationship with a stewardess Anne (Anna Karina) that is looking for something more permanent. Nicholas seizes an opportunity to escape. However he finds himself embroiled in a mystery that may help him find himself. In the process we may come to understand our selves better.

As with any film, one can not hope to portray the book exactly. Some movies give the feel or outline. And some movies actually improve on the book. In this case the movie squeaks by with the basic story and feel.

Michael Caine did a pretty good Nicholas Urfe as I think the person and the character are quite similar. Candice Bergen did a great Lily and could have been the one in the book. The only person that looked physically out of place and tried but did not quite pull it off was Anthony Quinn as Maurice Conchis.

It took years to make it to DVD and if it had not been for the DVD proliferation would never have been made available.

The Magus
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
This is one film, based on the excellent existentialist novel by one of the greatest British authors since Thomas Hardy and D.H. Lawrence, that should have been a success. After all, author John Fowles wrote the screenplay himself. Fowles admitted that he greatly admired Lawrence, and it is, therefore, a pity that this film version of his novel didn't turn out as well as film versions of Lawrence's SONS AND LOVERS and WOMEN IN LOVE.

I read the novel before I even went to college and discussed it with some of my newspaper colleagues. I didn't know anything about existentialism or the meta-theatre at the time, but I was still able to enjoy it as a compelling mystery-adventure in which the author took us through a labyrinth of twists and turns that seemed to come to life on the page because of his mastery with visual images. This novel, the first version printed a decade before his revised version, was, I thought, the best literary effort I had read since the American novelist Thomas Wolfe's LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL. Let's face it. Some novels -- as well as some films -- just hit us that way. Sometimes we don't even know why. When the film was released, I saw it with a friend who managed a small movie theatre in St. Charles, Missouri. He was totally lost by it, and like many others whose reviews appear on this page, slammed it mercilessly. I did enjoy the wide-screen vistas and the stunning DeLuxe Color cinematography of the Greek setting. I was impressed with how the scenes with the fake Nazi soldiers were contrasted with the scenes, from Conchis' memory, of the real Nazi soldiers, and of how the mystical figures from arcane mythology were brought to life for Urfe, played by Michael Caine in his salad days. I didn't hate the film as many others have, including Woody Allen. I just saw it as something different from the novel.

The extent to which readers are invited, or even required, to participate in a novel may actually be detrimental to a film adaptation. A novel such as THE MAGUS, which emphasizes participation in the narrative more than explanations and literal interpretations -- which involves readers experientially as well as intellectually -- creates its own deep impressions. Where these impressions are caused by the novel's imagery, conflicts may arise when the reader contrasts his/her mental image with the actual image produced on the theatre screen. If, for example, we agree with critics who feel that director Guy Green's straightforward point of view provides an objective, documentary realism, then we might find his filming of Fowles' script to be an odd mix when combined with the subjective flashbacks. One flashback, in fact, combines Conchis' reminiscences of his meeting and courting Lily (played in typical stiff fashion by Candice Bergen) -- told in silent images with Anthony Quinn's voice-over narration -- with images of authentic-looking enlistment posters superimposed over black-and-white drawings and newsreel-type footage of the First World War.

Other reviewers have compared this to a David Lynch film, and it does create an entertaining moment or two for us to speculate on what Lynch might have done with the material. At the time, the late sixties, someone even wondered what the film might have been like if Byron Forbes had directed this film, instead of Guy Green, in the style that he had directed DEADFALL about the same time -- with its flourishes of quick cutting and inter-cutting, beautiful images of Spain, and its soundtrack lushly filled with John Barry's haunting music. Maybe Forbes and Barry would have improved this film, and maybe Lynch could, today, give it the quirkiness that Fowles blueprints for us, but this isn't want happened. Critic John Russell Taylor even wonders what a Federico Fellini would have done with the complex story.

Green may resist throwing a circus of special effects at us, spicing up the complex tale with surrealistic wide-angle shots and zoom shots, but his point of view is hardly objective. Those critics who fault his point of view should not forget that Urfe's narrative in the novel is chronological, particularly as it details aspects of his early life. Only Conchis' installments of his early life, which exist as descriptively delineated stories within the larger story of Urfe's experience, disrupt the narrative structure. Green's film, in fact, dispenses with the book's lengthy beginning in London and uses flashbacks to deal with the necessary exposition. Immediately in the film we are shown a few 1960-ish quick cuts to show Urfe's thoughts, and though this technique does not occupy the majority of the film, it is effective as a tantalizing beginning.

Perhaps I defend this film THE MAGUS because I waited a long time for it, as well as Forbes' DEADFALL, to appear on DVD. Finally, long after I needed it for my dissertation on John Fowles, which later became the book POINT OF VIEW IN FICTION AND FILM: FOCUS ON JOHN FOWLES (sorry for the shameless plug for a work that is no longer in print), the DVD appeared. Seeing it on a sharp-imaged, wide-screen DVD after many years -- even after Fowles revised his own novel in the last 1970s long after the film version that was based on his first version -- was thrilling. It was fun to see Urfe (Caine) again read the quote from T.S. Eliot from a book conveniently left on the beach with a ribbon indicating a significant passage for him; it was fun because I had studied Eliot in the intervening years and now had a new appreciation for why this one quote was significant to Urfe's (Caine's) character.

Maybe someday the BBC will film a longer version and add the necessary scenes that were omitted from this version, but this is outside speculation. We must, in a true existential sense, deal with what we have. After all, we have seen countless other films that received higher praise that probably did not deserve it. We have seen garbage movies thrown onto a DVD for no visible reason other to make a buck or two. THE MAGUS, at least, whatever its perceived faults, is a classy production with a young Michael Caine, the always superb Anthony Quinn, and the lovely Anna Karina (Mrs. Jean-Luc Godard) who plays Urfe's original love interest as French instead of the Australian air hostess that she is in the book.

But if the BBC doesn't make a satisfying version of this modern classic, call David Lynch.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
There are certain works of art that are enormously flawed, because their creators take ridiculous risks that don't always succeed, glorious leaps that sometimes end with inglorious splats on a very hard floor. Yet at the same time, that willingness to fail on such a large scale also leads to something dazzling & compelling.

And so it is with "The Magus."

Let's agree that the film is so much less than the book -- how could it be otherwise? So let's simply look as the film as a film. It's a sun-drenched puzzle with a few crucial pieces missing, and others that never quite fit together. Granted, that's not entirely a bad thing, as the god-game of the trickster Conchis is to constantly unmoor Nicholas Urfe's sense of mundane reality & then expand it. Urfe is left confused, bewildered, angry, but eager to learn more -- and so are we, although we also want more when the film ends. Again, not entirely a bad thing.

The film has to walk a narrow line, and it stumbles on occasion. If it gives too much information, lays out things too explicitly, it succumbs to rigidity & mere didacticism. But if it lets things get too loose & fluid, then it can't do any better than disconnected glimpses that don't cohere on a deeper level. The film never quite reaches the perfect balance between the two. To be honest, I don't know that it ever could.

So is it worth watching?

I think so ... with a couple of caveats. It's definitely a film of the 1960s, which may be the deciding factor for some prospective viewers in itself. For those who want to understand how the 1960s felt, how some people viewed & experienced the world, it's a kaleidoscopic window on a disorienting landscape. For those who enjoy Big Questions & surreal situations, you'll certainly get your fill ... if not complete satisfaction. For those who want specific answers, though, or a stronger narrative hand at the wheel, it's likely to be disappointing -- and with just cause for complaint. And those who loved the novel will need to lower their expectations considerably!

Michael Caine has said that nobody on the set understood what the film was about, which is why it failed. Even so, he gives a wonderfully befuddled performance as a very smart (but emotionally shallow) man, one who learns that he isn't quite as smart as he thought. Anthony Quinn is bursting with energy, laughter, menace, and hidden wells of sorrow -- he's a presence that overflows from the screen. And Candice Bergen, while in an underwritten role, is the right choice for an impossibly beautiful figure of desire & mystery.

Not for everyone, obviously -- and even those who like it will have some reservations. But if you're in the mood to try something different, this is a great place to take a chance!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2007
The revised edition of John Fowles novel,The Magus, is one of the best works of fiction I have ever read and contend it as one of my all-time favorites. Have it in my library. Seeing the movie without reading the book is meaningless. But the DVD is worthwhile because of the young performers namely Michael Caine and Candice Bergen. A two hour movie does not do justice to the novel itself. Buy the book or get a copy from the library. The revised edition preferably.
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