by Mitch Hemann
“Out in the Dutch East Indies, just south of the equator, lies Bali – isle of perpetual summer. In this peopled paradise, untouched by civilization, lives a contented race who joyously worship their gods – to them life is a continuous feast – to them death holds no fear. Here we relate a romance of Balinese life, based on facts and authentic customs – enacted with an all-native cast, and produced in its entirety upon the Isle of Bali.”
– From Legong: Dance of the Virgins
When directors Henri de La Falaise and Gaston Glass and renowned cinematographer William Howard Greene boarded a freighter bound for Bali in 1933, they each had very different ideas of what they hoped to accomplish. Luckily, they had a 32 day voyage ahead of them to hash things out. La Falaise fully expected to make a cultural documentary and wasn’t necessarily concerned with adding anything else to what he called a “short entertaining piece of anthropology”. Glass, on the other hand, was an accomplished actor and producer. Knowing very little about travel documentaries, he hoped to develop an interesting storyline to build a movie around.
As fate would have it, the story would come to them while they were still on the ship by way of a cabin boy and a certain tune he sang incessantly. The song was infectious and, before long, all of the passengers were humming it. The captain explained that it was a native love song. The words were as follows:
“It was written, oh virgin of Bali
When love fills your heart
If he, who you chose,
Does not respond to your love
The disdain and wrath of the Gods
Will be yours.”
Inspired, they began to write a screenplay based on the song and had a solid story in place before they even set foot on the island’s shore.
Once there, they immediately got to work absorbing as much of the local customs and rituals as they could, and then set out to cast their film. This proved to be more difficult than they had anticipated. The most surprising challenge was finding a girl “whose teeth had not yet been filed to sharp points”, a rite of passage for Balinese girls. Happily, once the female leads were finally cast, they had no trouble finding someone to play Poutou’s father. One of the girl’s own fathers volunteered. Casting the male lead, however, was not as easy. Traditionally, men on Bali do not engage in any sort of manual labor, or even exercise, so it proved very difficult to find a young man with an athletic build. They eventually found their “Nyong”, though, and were ready to start filming.
But there was another problem they hadn’t considered; the caste system! Higher caste actors did not want to interact with lower caste actors. There were differences in social status and even language. This was an obstacle throughout the shooting of the film but, remarkably, they all ended up on friendly terms by the time the film wrapped.
It’s also worth noting that the village had a much greater say in the making of Legong than one would think. The father of one of the actresses wouldn’t even agree to her participation until he knew the entire storyline. Meetings were held with the villagers and they were able to make corrections and suggestions regarding their customs and rituals for historical accuracy. Another barrier throughout the project would be language. Working with an interpreter had failed, so the crew would act out the scenes beforehand and then have the native cast mimic their actions while the camera rolled.
One of the more interesting stories La Falaise recalled was that of the weather conditions while on location. Because of their use of Technicolor, they desperately needed beautiful sunny days for optimal shooting. What they got instead were rainy days and generally overcast conditions. It was discouraging, to say the least. One day, they received a message from a village priestess who informed them that for a small fee of one guilder a day, she would guarantee perfect weather. They indulged her and, miraculously, the rest of their days on Bali were perfect, allowing them to stay on schedule and providing them excellent shooting.
When all was said and done, they had enough footage to make a full length feature. The result is a beautiful film of anthropological significance that will also leave your heart pounding. It’s safe to say that La Falaise and Glass both got their way.
Shot in two-color Technicolor by the highly respected William Howard Greene, the film lends a magnificent glimpse of everyday island life on interwar Bali. Interwoven throughout is a love story centered on three young villagers. Poutou is one of the village’s Legong dancers. She must remain “the chaste maiden and sacred dancer of the Temple” until she falls in love. She is then obligated to dance one final dance in celebration of her impending marriage. Poutou falls for Nyong, a newcomer in the gamelan orchestra. Poutou’s father approves her choice, and invites Nyong to their home. Poutou excitedly prepares for Nyong’s visit, which will officially mark their engagement. But before he arrives, Nyong falls in love with Poutou’s younger half-sister Saplak, and the two begin meeting around the village in secret. When Poutou discovers this, she is heartbroken. Unable to face the shame that will befall her, she commits suicide.
The movie opened to favorable reviews and ran for a record ten weeks at the World Theatre in New York City. Its popularity was likely due in part to the nudity featured in the film. The majority of the Balinese women were topless throughout the picture, which was overlooked by the censors because it was deemed culturally significant. Over the years, this would be played up at re-releases. In fact, there were a number of “goona goona” exploitation films produced on the island at that time that seemed to promise Westerners a tropical paradise complete with bare-breasted native girls that would do their bidding. Being the first film to be shot in color on Bali, Legong likely perpetuated that allure. However, it stands apart and is highly regarded even today for its storytelling and its cultural significance. On both counts, Legong is a triumph!