By the late 1960’s American International Pictures (AIP) had built a strong cult following among horror fans thanks to its series of films based on the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, many of which starred Vincent Price. Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and Louis M. Heyward didn’t want to rest on their laurels, however, and as a new decade began AIP started to aim at more ‘quality’ productions with - it was hoped - a wider public appeal.
Wuthering Heights was one of the first films in this ambitious expansion and its critical and financial failure led to the cancellation of other literary adaptations announced by AIP, including Camille and A Tale of Two Cities, and they returned to the horror/exploitation genres that served them best (including the Dr Phibes films and the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptations The Land That Time Forgot and At The Earth’s Core), with an occasional foray into the big leagues (Force 10 from Navarone). Time often lends perspective, and the AIP version of Emily Brontë’s only novel is now regarded as a pretty good effort. Like all film versions this loses the ‘second generation’ half of the book and ends with the deaths of Cathy and Heathcliff.
Sometime in the late 18th Century, Mr Earnshaw (Harry Andrews) returns to his remote farm on the Yorkshire moors, Wuthering Heights, with a young child he ‘found’ while on business in Liverpool. The film implies he is Earnshaw’s illegitimate son, and Earnshaw names him Heathcliff after a son who died in infancy. As time goes by Heathcliff becomes a favourite of Earnshaw, causing resentment in his elder son Hindley.
Growing into their teens Heathcliff (Timothy Dalton) and Cathy (Anna Calder-Marshall) love running wild over the open moors, revelling in freedom and each other’s company. When old Earnshaw dies, Hindley (Julian Glover) returns with a wife, Frances (Morag Hood) and reduces Heathcliff to the status of a farm-hand, while Cathy remains close to him.
Prowling the garden of the local manor house Thrushcross Grange at night, Heathcliff and Cathy are set on by guard dogs. Heathcliff escapes while Cathy is cared for by the Linton family. During her convalescence Mrs Linton (Pamela Brown) teaches Cathy the manners of a lady, while she comes to care for Edgar Linton (Ian Ogilvy) and agrees to marry him. Returning to the Heights with her new airs and graces, Cathy sees Heathcliff as just a dirty labourer. Enraged by her rejection Heathcliff leaves, but not before threatening revenge for his betrayal.
When Hindley’s wife dies after giving birth, he sinks into a life of alcoholism and chronic gambling, while Cathy marries Edgar Linton. Then, three years after his departure, Heathcliff returns, wealthy and dressed as a gentleman. He seems reconciled to Hindley and begins playing cards with him, secretly intending to ruin him financially and become owner of the Heights. He also begins visiting Cathy and Edgar, and making himself agreeable to Edgar’s sister Isabella (Hilary Dwyer), eventually marrying Isabella just to make her miserable.
Heathcliff is set on revenge but has forgotten his deep love for Cathy. She also remains deeply in love with him. His revenge plot rebounds when Cathy sickens and dies in childbirth. Filled with grief and guilt Heathcliff tries to exhume her body, then wanders the moors seeking her spirit. He believes he sees her and she leads him back to Wuthering Heights where Hindley and Isabella plan to murder him. Shot and fatally wounded by Hindley, Heathcliff returns to the moors and dies. His spirit is reunited with Cathy’s and they are free to be on the moors forever.
In order to include as much of the book’s plot as possible, and with a running time under two hours, the film takes the story at quite a clip. Some character development is lost but the intensity of their relationships (particularly the Cathy-Heathcliff-Hindley triangle) is well portrayed, and the three main actors fill their roles very well indeed (Julian Glover must be one of the most taken-for-granted actors of our time; he is never less than truthful and can hint at hidden depths and emotions with great subtlety). Only Ian Ogilvy seems miscast as Edgar, who should be a snivelling weakling. Ogilvy looks as if he could take on Dalton’s Heathcliff quite handily without needing to call for help.
The supporting cast is made up of solid British character actors, although some of the names which appear in the credits fall into the 'blink-and-you'll-miss-them' category. Aubrey Woods makes a good, dour Joseph, and Judy Cornwell a loyal but sad Nelly Dean.
The film looks very good. Shot on location near Otley in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire by John Coquillon, who became Sam Peckinpah’s cinematographer of choice (Straw Dogs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Cross of Iron, and The Osterman Weekend), the moors look as bleak and romantic as Emily Brontë could have wanted, lush greens contrasted with harsh black rock.
It also sounds good, with an excellent score by Michel Legrand that can stand as a work of art in its own right. Using a combination of strings for romance, and woodwind to suggest the natural background of the moors, it is reminiscent of the pastoral works of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In the director’s chair was Robert Fuest, making a strange change of pace from directing episodes of TV’s ‘The Avengers’ but getting his feet under the AIP table where he would soon – presumably – be much happier with the spoof horror of the Dr Phibes films. Some of the interior filming can look a little flat but the exteriors are more inspired with the sweeping landscapes of the moors and their weird rock formations as a backdrop for the untamed romance of Heathcliff and Cathy.
[The DVD released by MGM is very basic with no extras. While it is available at a budget price, the print is quite scratched and grainy. A good restoration would be worthwhile and appreciated by the film’s fans.]