Under the Volcano: Hell is a Place on Earth

A lot can happen in thirty-six years. When director John Huston set out for Mexico in 1948 to film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, he was still considered a risky bet by Warner Bros studios, with a growing reputation as a “wild man” of Hollywood. Filming on location in the country was virtually unheard of at the time, but the gamble proved well worth it. The film established Huston as one of his generation’s leading filmmakers, and he won his first Best Director Oscar for it. By the time he returned to the region in 1984, he’d gone through three (more) wives, briefly fled to Ireland to avoid the HUAC trials, and was weathering the latest downward trajectory in a career full of highs and lows. Tackling an adaptation of Malcolm Lowry’s notoriously unfilmable 1947 novel was no guarantee of success either, but Under the Volcano would initiate a final string of triumphs for the legendary director before he passed away three years later. 

It’s fitting then that the film takes place entirely on the Day of the Dead. The Mexican holiday is a festive period of remembrance that usually starts on November 1st, when friends and family gather together to honor those who have passed on with the creation of altars, sharing of stories, and donning of colorful costumes and face paint. It’s also a time when the boundaries between the earthly and divine realms become porous; as Dr. Vigil tells disgraced British consul and late-stage alcoholic Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney) at the beginning of the film: “When the spirits are with us, the road to heaven must be easy.” Firmin has few illusions about where he’s headed, but he’s past due for a visit with the ghosts of his past. Much of Under the Volcano could thus be considered a final judgment. 

Though the screenplay was written by Guy Gallo, it’s easy to see why Huston was drawn to the material; he was no stranger to battles with the bottle himself. Lowry’s source novel, which took him over ten years to complete and publish, is a fecund text, rich in symbolism and allusions and unfolding in a twelve chapter structure that functions as a sort of countdown clock, not merely for Firmin but possibly all of humanity. Set in 1938, the creep of fascism and imminent war loom large in the minds of its characters. It would be an impossible task to stuff all of the book’s digressions and imagery into a coherent film, so Gallo and Huston don’t even bother trying, shearing it all down to its true essence: a Danteaen tour of one man’s personal hell (so one literary reference remains, at least.) 

It’s unclear how long Firmin has been in his small Mexican outpost beneath the Popocatepetl  volcano, but we do know that he’s recently resigned from his diplomatic position. We also don’t know how long he’s been drinking like he has, but he now exists in the constant state of maintenance between “the shakes of too little and the abyss of too much,” as he puts it. He longs for his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) who has divorced him. At his friend Dr. Vigil’s urging, he prays to the Madonna for her return in a drunken stupor. The next morning, she appears in the bar where he’s holed himself up. Dressed in a mussed tuxedo and missing his socks, he doesn’t seem to have slept. 

Albert Finney is canny casting for this immensely challenging role. It’s not simply that he’s an actor of titanic talent; coming up in the British film scene around the same time as prolific drinkers like Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, and Peter O’Toole, there’s a spectral quality to his performance here. It’s as though he’s playing a man he could have become if things had gone differently for him. When Firmin is in the giddy throes of a manic mood swing, it’s easy to see why people like Yvonne and his half-brother Hugh (Anthony Andrews) are drawn to him and hold onto a futile hope that he can be saved. When he turns cruel, twisting the knife of Yvonne and Hugh’s infidelity into their chests, we too despair at his recalcitrant refusal to help himself. 

Finney is well-supported by Huston’s camerawork, which embodies Firmin’s unstable state of mind in subtle but effective ways. Rather than attempt to recreate his intoxication via visual trickery or topsy-turvy effects, Huston opts instead for a woozy equilibrium, giving the frame a seasick sway that, like the omnipresent volcano that hovers over the proceedings, threatens but never quite tips over into catastrophe. And while the calavera costumes and marigold ofrendas probably read as exotic in 1984, now that knowledge of the Day of the Dead is more widespread in America, the celebratory backdrop is simply one more aspect of life that Firmin is alienated from. 

Under the Volcano is undoubtedly the work of a filmmaker at the end of his career, just as The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was made with the vigor of someone just getting started. As the film closes with a downward pan from the peak of Popocatepetl into darkness, we sense a certain exhalation of breath, as if Huston is laying some of his own monsters to rest. He had two more films in him – 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor and 1987’s The Dead, released the same year he passed – but there’s a definitiveness to this conclusion that feels pointed. If heaven can be a place on earth, so can hell, and Huston knew both during his lifetime. Better choose wisely while you can.

“Under the Volcano” is streaming on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.

Sara Batkie is the author of the story collection 'Better Times,' which won the 2017 Prairie Schooner Prize and is available from University of Nebraska Press. She received her MFA in Fiction from New York University. Born in Bellevue, Washington and raised mostly in Iowa, Sara currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

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