Richard Burton’s Doctor Faustus (1967)

In 1967 Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were at the height of their shared fame following the success of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967). Both films had been well received by critics and audiences loved seeing the two actors on screen together in fictional marriages that many assumed resembled their real-life marriage. There’s no doubt that the two actors brought some of their real-world experience to their roles but it became increasingly hard for the public to separate fact from fiction. Elizabeth Taylor had also become a target for critics and gossip columnists who insisted on labeling her a wanton woman who had destroyed Richard Burton’s previous marriage and was damning the acclaimed stage actor to a decadent Hollywood life spent making movies and drinking too much.

Of course this was only half the story, but unfortunately many people still think of Elizabeth Taylor as the woman who brought about Richard Burton’s downfall and it’s not uncommon for critics and biographers to blame her for the couple’s many problems. The truth is that Richard Burton was a notorious drinker and womanizer long before he ever met Taylor on the set of Cleopatra (1963) and even if he hadn’t fallen in love with her, there’s a high probability that his previous marriage wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Burton had also been making movies long before he met Taylor and the talented actor had expressed his desire to move away from stage acting and focus more on film acting. His high profile relationship with an award-winning star like Taylor gave Burton the opportunity to appear in better films and be more selective about the roles he took. And far from being the wretched shrew that so many critics and gossip columnists saw her as, Taylor was actually supportive of Burton’s stage work and used her Hollywood clout to help Burton gain more creative control over his acting career. Burton also encouraged Taylor’s stage acting because he thought she had the makings of a great actress who was capable of handling the classic plays that Burton had appeared in.

One of Richard Burton’s favorite classic plays was Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which tells the cautionary tale of a magician who sells his soul to the devil for more knowledge and power. For years Burton had longed to play Doctor Faustus and in 1966 he got the opportunity to in a Nevill Coghill directed production of the play that took place at the Oxford Playhouse in England. The play also featured Elizabeth Taylor in the role of Helen of Troy. Taylor had previously appeared on stage with Burton in 1964 during a poetry reading where both actor’s read the work of various poets including Robert Frost and Elizabeth Barrett Browning but Taylor’s non-speaking role in The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus would mark the first time that the actress would actually be acting on stage in front of a live audience.


Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton in the Oxford stage production of
The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus(1966)

Taylor was one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood at the time and she averaged one million dollars a picture. Burton was making about $500,000 per film himself but both actors didn’t take any money for starring in the stage production of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus. Instead, the couple gave up their high salaries and all the money earned from ticket sales went to Oxford University for a studio-theatre extension, now known as the Burton-Taylor Rooms.

After the success of the Oxford production which played to a crammed full-house every night, Burton expressed interest in starring in a film version of Marlowe’s play and together with Taylor, the couple decided to finance a movie based on The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus simply tited Doctor Faustus (1967). Burton would make his directorial debut with Doctor Faustus in association with Nevill Coghill, who had directed Burton and Taylor on the Oxford stage and Burton and Taylor would once again play the roles of Faustus and Helen. Co-director Coghill also wrote the film’s script.

The film was shot in three months in Rome and besides Taylor and Burton; the entire cast consisted of undergraduates from the Oxford University Dramatic Society. The couple also employed many of the talented people who they had met and worked with on the set of Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew to make Doctor Faustus, such as producer Richard McWhorter, art director Boris Juraga, set director Dario Simoni, set designer Italo Tomassi, special effects artist Augie Lohman and stylist Alexandre de Paris who had helped create Taylor’s dramatic look for Cleopatra.

Together with a skilled international crew that included cinematographer Gábor Pogány, this group of creative people helped give Doctor Faustus an impressive look and stunning visual style even though most of the film was seemingly shot on rather small sets. Horror fans who enjoy Roger Corman’s Poe films, Hammer studio’s Gothic productions and Mario Bava’s Italian thrillers might be surprised by how much Burton’s Doctor Faustus seems to resemble horror films from the same period.

Although the script differs from the original play it still manages to follow Christopher Marlowe’s story somewhat faithfully. Nevill Coghill also smartly worked passages from some of Marlowe’s other plays such as The Jew of Malta and Tamburlaine into his script, which spices up the proceedings and gives the film more creative depth and pathos.

Doctor Faustus (1967)

Doctor Faustus (1967)

Doctor Faustus (1967)

Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Helen of Troy is wordless but she still manages to make a big impact on screen. Burton’s love and affection for his wife comes through in every scene she appears in. Taylor floats through the film like a beautiful siren luring Faustus to his final doom. Throughout countless costume and makeup changes that would make Cleopatra envious, Taylor manages to give her silent role a quiet resonance that allows Burton’s Faustus to truly shine and take center stage.

Elizabeth Taylor has expressed many times how in awe she was of Burton’s acting talents and she’s still deeply hurt that Hollywood never fully embraced or rewarded Burton during his lifetime. While watching Doctor Faustus again I was impressed with the way Taylor acted as a sort of lovely ornament in the film infusing it with color, vitality and warmth. The picture was clearly made in an effort to let her much admired husband showcase his impressive acting abilities and creative skills as a co-director and producer, which Burton does to great effect but it’s also his love letter to the English language and the dramatic arts.

Critics have naturally referred to Doctor Faustus as a “vanity project” for both Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. And there’s no getting around the fact that Burton’s dream of bringing Marlowe’s play to the screen was motivated by his personal desires and hopes, which Taylor completely supported. But I also think that a lot of care, creativity and thought went into the production and it’s plainly obvious that Burton had a sincere appreciation and deep understanding of Christopher Marlowe’s work, which should be obvious to anyone who’s seen the film.

Burton clearly enjoyed playing Faustus and his magnificent booming voice gives a lot of weight to Marlowe’s classic play. In the book Constructing Christopher Marlowe author, performance critic and Professor Lois Potter mentions that Richard Burton’s stage and film adaptation’s of The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus did more for Marlowe’s fame than any other event during the last century which is a remarkable feat.

Unfortunately film critics (who undoubtedly had very little experience with Marlowe’s original work) were not kind to the film. As a matter of fact, they were rather brutal in their harsh dismissal of Doctor Faustus. New York Times critic Renata Adler said of the film in 1968 after it debuted in America that it, “is of an awfulness that bends the mind . . . one has the feeling that ‘Faustus’ was shot mainly as a home movie for them (Burton and Taylor) to enjoy at home.”

In the New Yorker Pauline Kael claimed that “By the time Richard Burton was in a position to star in a movie of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, further dealing with the Devil probably had become anticlimactic” and claimed the film was “The dullest episode in the Burton and Taylor great-lovers-of-history series that started with Cleopatra . . . Burton gives a dead, muffled reading.” And last but not least, Judith Crist added “It turns out to be the story of a man who sold his soul for Elizabeth Taylor.”

Doctor Faustus (1967)

Doctor Faustus (1967)

Doctor Faustus (1967)

It’s easy to dismiss some of the negative criticism of the film as pure opinion without much basis in fact once you’ve seen the film, but it’s impossible to overlook some of the more pointed personal attacks that were aimed directly at Elizabeth Taylor. Both Kael and Crist were clearly comparing Taylor to the Devil and their cruelty is utterly tasteless, catty and unprofessional, as well as weightless when one considers the facts behind the film’s production. Instead of making Doctor Faustus with Burton, Taylor could have spent her time earning a million dollar paycheck in Hollywood. But Taylor clearly supported her husband’s creative desire to make the film and lent her ample financial clout and fame to help him realize his dream. Unfortunately the criticism that followed the rest of the film’s Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together would often take a similar ugly direction.

Doctor Faustus is not a perfect film and I personally find it a bit too stagy and slow-moving at times for my own liking, which can be blamed on Marlowe’s original play as well as the script. But there’s also a lot to enjoy in the film and it’s a shame that the critical reception was so negative on its release. The special effects are very imaginative for the time and the production employees stylish touches such as a split-screen to convey Faustus’ thoughts and highlight simultaneous actions by various characters.

I would have loved to have seen Richard Burton go on to direct other films or at the very least co-direct. Doctor Faustus proves that he had many other talents besides acting and I think he could have successfully adapted other classic Elizabethan plays for film if he had been given the opportunity. In fact, I feel confident in saying that the negative criticism and lack of respect from Hollywood, which resulted in Burton never receiving an Oscar even though he was nominated seven times, deeply troubled him and did more harm to Richard Burton’s personal life and career than Elizabeth Taylor ever did.

The personal attacks on Elizabeth Taylor found in the criticisms of Doctor Faustus have continued to haunt the film, even though the 2004 DVD release of the movie seemed to generate mostly positive reviews.

In the following clip I came across on Youtube you can witness Elizabeth Taylor take on a group of journalists as they question Richard Burton about his career choices in relation to Doctor Faustus. Taylor had grown-up in the public eye and she had clearly grown weary of thoughtless critics. Burton on the other hand is rather new to this kind of extreme critical attention and he remains calm and collected in the clip. He also seems to get a mild kick out of seeing his wife lash back at the reporters.

Also worth a look is this brief hard-to-see clip shot in 1966 featuring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton leaving the Oxford Playhouse after the first stage production of Doctor Faustus while they’re being questioned by journalists about their performances.

If you enjoy classic Elizabethan drama or classic gothic horror from the sixties, I recommend giving the 1967 film version of Doctor Faustus a look. The film should also hold a lot of interest for fans of Cleopatra and The Taming of the Shrew since both films could be considered siblings to Doctor Faustus due to the fact that so many crew members worked with Taylor and Burton on all three productions.

If you would like to see more images from the film please see my Doctor Faustus Flickr Gallery.

11 thoughts on “Richard Burton’s Doctor Faustus (1967)

  1. Keith says:

    Great review. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen this film. I did enjoy it. It’s definitely not a perfect film. It does have its share of flaws. I still liked it. It is a beautiful film to look at. I love the pictures you posted. It does remind me of those great Hammer and Corman Poe films that were out back in the 60’s. I love those type of horror films. It’s got a wonderful look to this film. I do think that critics have been too brutal on this film. If you are going to judge a film on its merits then that’s fine to do. These critics were basing their opinions on the personal lives of Taylor and Burton. They were criticizing them personally and not making a critique of the film. It’s a shame that this often happens even in our modern world. I would love to see this film again. I always enjoyed this story. Fantastic videos as well. I’m definitely in a mood to watch some Liz and Richard.

  2. Bob Turnbull says:

    Faustus wasn’t even on my radar, but both the review and comparisons to Corman’s Poe films and Hammer have made me curious to see it now.

    That press conference in the first clip is classic…That squinty look Taylor gives the reporter at 5:30 is so filled with contempt, I thought she was about to spit. Though I don’t have a great deal of knowledge about their career paths, I think she had a right to be angry with those questions that simply assumed film was a less artistic medium than the stage. Damn snooty British reporters…

  3. cinebeats says:

    Keith – Thanks a lot! I’m glad you enjoyed the review and video I posted. It’s an interesting film and I think it shows that Burton had promise as a director, even if he’s only co-directing with Nevill Coghill. The original play is actually rather dry, but this film version has a wonderful look and style in my opinion and Burton is very good in it, especially when you consider how many hats he was wearing during the making of the film.

    Bob – I think you might find the film interesting just due to the look and mood it has at times.

    That interview is classic! If looks could kill, Taylor would have wiped out all those reporters in a minute. It seems strange now to think that film acting was thought of as such a lowly craft back then and unworthy of serious critical consideration. In many ways Burton and Taylor helped bridge the gap between the stage and film with many of their own movies.

  4. robertmonell says:

    You have written a most perceptive and intelligent of this movie. Thanks for going into the background of the play. You are just SO right on about how critics are attacking them through these films. They could have been making fluff, but instead they took artistic risks, which is admirable. It’s a very interesting and underrated film. And dealing with a metaphysics in a classic drama is not going to be big boxoffice. I think the critics were jealous of this couple with all the fame and fortune. But they used it intelligently. Your thoughtful, well taken comments and choice of screenshots give these films a new life and discerning viewers a new way of looking at them. That’s what good film criticism is all about. Keep up the great work, Kimberly!

  5. Mick says:

    Great review.
    Being a UK citizen I thought I may have come across this film before, but no. Now I really want to view it, as the stills look fantastic.

    Just a thought on Taylor-Burton from a UK perspective. I am a mere youngster of 41, but cannot remember a single time in my TV viewing history that Ms Taylor has been accused of destroying Richard Burton’s marriage. I could just be mistaken, but I have always kept an ear open for celeb gossip for as long a I can remember. Perhaps I am just too young or just too easy-going?

    Mick

  6. Vanwall says:

    An interesting and difficult choice for the start of your journey, you have my admiration for tackling it. Ambitious and flawed, a metaphor for much more than this film, for a certain two people. As much as I enjoy Burton and Taylor, I found this film kind of flat, altho Burton’s readings have that air of authenticity he brought to any role, no matter how banal – in this film Burton isn’t himself flat, Marlowe’s words are, but he seemed to struggle at times getting any emotion out of them.

    I also always thought he was the best of the British Isles actors at intuitive stagecraft – he moved well on-screen, and on-stage also, I’ve heard – and he usually had an eye for the transference of emotion through words and body, regardless of sobriety, something I find lacking in this particular film. Most husband and wife teamings have unhappy consequences, and this was not even close to their other work, altho it had immense potential. I wonder if a different supporting cast could’ve made a difference, as well. A wordless Liz loses much of the fire she could project, and as a statue as intended, she doesn’t bring off the desirable aspect for me, altho she looks great in this movie. An interesting comparison to “Under Milk Wood”, where the disembodied voice of Burton is his on-screen offering with a wonderful Taylor performance full of life and color.

    Which brings up the look of this film, which should be full of energy at times and dread at others – for me, it just looks colorfully bland most of the time. An experiment that failed, but a noble one, is my take – I still watch the darned (certainly not damned) thing if I catch it. As for the critics of the time, they were only echoing their readerships, many of whom always seemed to expect some sort of unbelievable high or an excruciating low from the Taylor/Burton output – they had bull’s-eyes on all their costuming, that’s for sure.

    Most reviewers of this film seem to project a personal view of their relationship into it, all of us no less, I would surmise. Liz certainly had the evil eye there, too – the odious Miz Smith should’ve burst into blue flames, screaming. I certainly can’t blame either Liz or Dick for negative effects on each others careers – they knew the job was dangerous when they took it. At least you’ve made a good case here for second or third looks at possibly the least of their pairings. I eagerly await the next installment!

  7. cinebeats says:

    Robert – Glad you enjoyed the review! I couldn’t agree with you more. There is a strange sense of cattiness and total lack of perspective in the negative reviews I’ve read of the film, which isn’t helped by the fact that all the reviews I’ve managed to come across were written by female critics (of course Kael and I are almost exact opposites when it comes to what kinds of films we admire or why we admire them). A lot of time has passed since 1968, but there was a perception then by many of Taylor being some kind of she-demon. They couldn’t grasp that she was tired of the studio system – after spending her life in it – and desperate to make interesting films. Of course, what’s interesting to us now was obviously not interesting to the critics at the time.

    Mick – Thanks! I think opinion about Taylor & Burton’s relationship has changed a lot since 1968, but strangely there are some people who still think of her as the “slut” that ruined Burton. Back then (before countless books were written about Taylor and Burton) perspectives were even more skewered. Obviously it takes two to tango and neither Taylor or Burton was a saint. It’s a shame that booze and pills became such a problem for them both.

    Vanwall – Thank you! I’m a slow/wordy writer so it’s taking me longer than expected to write about the Taylor films I want to cover. Of course I’ve also got real life to contend with as well since the blog is only a hobby and not a job. A lot of your own criticisms echo my own above, but I love the look of the film (of course I also love the look of Corman and Bava’s films as well, even if Doctor Faustus doesn’t always match the best work by those directors). I only wish the film wasn’t so stagy and slow-moving (but anyone who’s actually seen Faustus performed live will know it reads as a rather stuffy morality play at times), but I think some of the sets are really impressive. I especially love the Ossuary design and can’t help thinking that Svankmajer may have been a fan of the film even though his own version of Faustus (made some 25 years after) is far superior in my opinion. What I find so strange about all the negative reviews I’ve read from 1968 is the utter lack of perspective in them and the personal pointed attacks at Taylor. None of them mention that this was Burton’s directorial debut or that Taylor & Burton had financed the film themselves. I rarely see eye-to-eye with Kael on anything and the handful of Renata Adler reviews I’ve read haven’t impressed me much either so it’s no surprise that I don’t agree with their reviews of Doctor Faustus. Thankfully we have the luxury of DVD home viewing now and we can all make up our own minds about many older and neglected films. It’s interesting to compare all the positive reviews of the film after the DVD release to the negative reviews written during the film’s initial release in 68.

  8. ratzkywatzky says:

    I vividly remember seeing a few minutes of Doctor Faustus on a television in the run-down shack in Branson CO (40 miles to the nearest gas station) of an elderly relative. I wasn’t allowed to see anything with the Devil in it, so naturally I really wanted to see it. I remember the colors, and Liz. I’d already read Judith Crist’s TV Guide review of the movie, in which she continued to slam Taylor. In fact, since most of my early ideas about movies came from Crist’s reviews, it took me years to be able to appreciate her.
    Because of that viewing experience, though, Doctor Faustus is inextricably linked to hogs snuffling outside the window, and southeastern Colorado summer heat. And when I visited that shack again a few years ago (now just ruins) the first thing I thought was–I saw Doctor Faustus there.

  9. Vanwall says:

    Kimberly –
    I appreciate a well-written entry, hell, I’ve been accused of being wordy myself, and it never ceases to amaze me how you manage to fill up such a cool blog as just a ‘hobby’ – I can’t watch enough of certain kinds of films fast enough to catch up here, altho my past viewings help a great deal. 😉 I guess those Hammer, Bava and Corman films have spoiled me a little for a certain kind of look. You’ve certainly caught some kind of connection with Svankmajer’s version – I hadn’t thought that, but I can see it now.

    I think that most reviewers at that time were less interested in writing about the process – i.e. who was a newbie director; whether the financing was a vanity project or a real attempt at something different; or anything nuts-and-bolts – when they were writing what were often vanity projects themselves, with us the hoi-polloi supping on whatever was at the table. I doubt we will ever see that era again, thank God, because of the Web. Pauline was a dose of salts sometimes, yup, altho she generally used a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, and I certainly find her often amusing, but she had a real jones for slamming H’wood royalty without objectivity – they all did. I certainly agree with Ms J. regarding a lifetime overcoming the influence of the Crists and Kaels of the world, altho without the squealing shoats, at least in my case – it gets so I read ’em for a reverse-viewing list, especially with stars like Taylor, who was sure a magnet for bitchiness from not just women reviewers.

  10. Tom Cox says:

    This is slightly off the thread but thought you might be interested.

    I am doing a heritage project about a hospital in Oxford and uncovered the fact that the Royal World Premiere of Dr Faustus was held in Oxford with the proceeds going to the hospital. I have even managed to unearth a copy of original program.

    The hospital spent the money on a swimming pool and tennis court for the staff and patients, both of which are now long gone. The program has some facts about the film as well as full credits. It also contains an insert that states that Burton and Taylor had a personal interest in the hospital, they have a connection with Oxford as Burton attended one of the colleges for a short time but I’m trying to find out why they would be so generous to a single hospital.

    I’ve not seen the film yet but would like to show it in the hospital out of interest and am trying to get hold of a copy on DVD. If you are interested in seeing the program I have scanned it in and can send as a PDF.

  11. cinebeats says:

    Thanks for the note Tom!

    I’d be interested in seeing the program as a PDF. Please feel free to send me an email when you have the time and I hope you get the opportunity to see the film soon. Used copies of the DVD are available in the US at Amazon for about $12 but I don’t now how easy the film is to get in the UK. I hope you have the opportunity to show it at the hospital soon!

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