Rarely do financial and artistic success coincide at the movies, but one can probably attribute the box-office failure of The Innocents, a thriller that has acquired over time the status of a near classic, to the triumphant live television production just two years earlier based on the same source material, Henry James’s 1898 novella The Turn of the Screw. The TV version, which won Ingrid Bergman an Emmy for her tremendous acting as the impassioned governess battling demonic forces to reclaim the imperiled souls of her two young charges, was directed by John Frankenheimer. It used the original title. It also duplicated the ambiguity that many ascribe to James’s text, where the governess may be engaged in the crusade that she believes she is engaged in or is imagining things, projecting her own terror of evil, not to mention of sexuality, onto the children. The change of title for Jack Clayton’s meticulously crafted film may have been an attempt to fool audiences into thinking that the film wasn’t a remake of something they had seen for free, and just recently. But, of course, the broad outline of the James story became attached to the promotion of The Innocents, and that pretty much doomed the film’s financial prospects. Still, Clayton’s film is the better of the two versions; if nothing else, it decides on a point of view. Totally ambiguous things become mere academic exercises, such as My Cousin Rachel (Henry Koster, 1952), starring the deplorable but ever so technically adept Olivia de Havilland, whose character may or may not be evil. Who can possibly care if we do not know at least that? The Innocents isn’t a trick film. It’s a suggestive study of morbid religious and sexual obsession whose elegant black-and-white surface ambiguity is ironically correlative to the governess’s own self-certainty by dint of her obliviousness to this ambiguity. Today, this parson’s daughter, away from home for the first time and in her first job, is apt to remind us of George W. Bush, the self-righteous, confident Crusader hell-bent on destroying Iraq (and, with it, to a substantial degree, his own country) by “liberating” it.
The story that the film presents is in fact James’s story-within-the-story. The one-sided narrative frame—at the end of the interior story, James doesn’t return to it—involves someone’s telling the story to others; Douglas is recounting events that he knows secondhand, or believes, to have occurred. His source is a manuscript by the woman herself, who had been his sister’s governess. This frame is principally important for two reasons. One is this: by making the story an account of presumably actual events, it presents this story as truth—a point that becomes sorely ironical as the unfolding account is increasingly riddled by ambiguity. What is the truth here? The other purpose that the narrative frame fills is a point that is almost always overlooked. This frame provides testimony of the kind of person that the governess, now deceased, turned into following the events that the interior story recounts: “a most charming person,” “the most agreeable” governess. Since she appears close to hysterical in much of the interior story, we may infer that the events that this interior story recounts, and their outcome, had helped to stabilize her personality. The brilliant script for The Innocents, by William Archibald, Truman Capote and John Mortimer, dispenses with the narrative frame and suggests the possibility of a different ending for the unnamed governess than the one that James devised for his (as he called it) “perfectly . . . irresponsible little fiction.”
A springboard for our understanding of the governess is the fact that she is Christian. It is her faith in Jesus that sustains and fuels this parson’s daughter. The example of Jesus informs the way she believes that people ought to behave. Unlike the old Adam, the New Adam exemplifies obedience to God’s will. By fulfilling God the Father’s plan for humankind’s redemption, Christ reminds us that a child’s duty to mind authority (whether parent, church, elder or cop) derives from the ultimate point of hierarchic obligation, the obedience that Christians owe God through Christ. Read carefully, Christian myth doesn’t teach that a merciful, much less a loving God sent us his son to die for our sins, but, instead, that Christ made his will wholly subservient to his father’s and was therefore rewarded with a heavenly throne—for all of us, but for children especially, an inspiring lesson whose hidden threat insinuates the assurance of William Blake’s Chimney Sweeper: “So if all do their duty they need not fear harm.”
In James’s Victorian interior story, the governess feels that her orphaned charges owe to her, their surrogate parent, this same obedience. (Their guardian, who has employed the governess, doesn’t live with his nephew and niece and has as little to do with them as he can manage.) We may say that her puritanism equates child with Child of Adam. Her response to Flora’s private hour by the lake or to Miles’s wish to return to school—she condemns this as a “revolution”—suggests the real nature of the children’s “crime”: an unwillingness to submit themselves wholly to her authoritarian domination and control. The ghosts that she sees are not the cause but the result of her charges’ rebellion against her chosen role vis-à-vis them. By her own admission she becomes a “gaolor” who tries to monitor the children’s every move, her pretext always her suspicion of evil influence. Her cold, suspicious surveillance of the children matches her grasping affection. The need to mold children, today a signature aspect of fundamentalist Christian churches and child-rearing, betrays her puritan desire to work the devil out of them, the “devil” being, in reality, the children’s high spirits, which seek normal expression despite her strictures.
As their potential savior, the governess more overtly identifies herself, not her charges, with Christ in order to justify better her authority over them. However, as critic John Lydenberg has pointed out, “the Christian myth becomes twisted” here, for, “[i]n theological terms, [the governess] embodies the sin of pride in daring to take upon herself, unaided, the task of saving the children.” Besides lacking the selfless purity that might validate the savior role to which she aspires, moreover, the governess can be seen as having committed the very crime that she projects onto her charges, turning her tyranny over them into a form of self-punishment. For has she not herself gone the independent route which entails, at least allegorically, experience and corruption, having left behind her family and their rural home for London (where she is employed by the children’s uncle), an Adam’s curse away from Eden? In particular, she has left her educator, her father, a poor country preacher; and now, enriching her guilt over this abandonment, she receives “disturbing letters” from home, for “things” are “not going well” there.
Finding herself in a spacious country mansion so different from the cramped country cottage that she left behind, is it any wonder that guilt appears to darken her good fortune, or that, having abandoned her father, a devout man of God, she feels that she is some kind of witch? She very nearly brands herself a witch—in the later account by which we know the story—when she recalls how she had ached to tell the housekeeper of a (not really) suspicious escapade involving the children the night before:
[Miles and Flora] moved slowly, in unison, below us, over the lawn, the boy, as they went, reading aloud from a storybook and passing his arm round his sister to keep her quite in touch. Mrs. Grose [the housekeeper] watched them in positive placidity; then I caught the suppressed intellectual creak with which she conscientiously turned to take from me a view of the back of the tapestry. I had made her a receptacle of lurid things, but there was an odd recognition of my superiority—my accomplishments and my function—in her patience under my pain. She offered her mind to my disclosures as, had I wished to mix a witch’s broth and proposed it with assurance, she would have held out a large clean saucepan.
By definition, one is not conscious of one’s unconscious wishes; so, in effect, the governess may be making a confession here from the regions of her most suppressed/repressed thoughts.
In any case, the governess has brought her troubles with her into her fine new surroundings, where they abide like a shadow or a ghost. Those “disturbing letters” will not allow her perfect escape from where they come: home. Also, the governess attempts to forge a connection between her two “homes,” making one the extension of the other. Her route for doing this is to make her charges in a way an extension of herself—as she used to be at the rectory. As if to transfer her own past onto them (at one point she says, “I remember feeling with Miles in especial as if he has had, as it were, no history”), she regales the children with accounts of her own homelife. She is homesick; but her independence from home and family assumes even more the taint of desertion, at least as it must have appeared to her guilty mind’s eye, because by leaving him, an apparent widower, she has deprived her father of a woman’s help around the parsonage. (She was, at twenty, as Douglas mentions when introducing her manuscript, the youngest and probably the last to leave.) Small wonder, then, even after she decides that they have come for the children (a notion in no way deducible from the incidents she herself has recorded), the ghosts seem to haunt only her.
One of these, the ghost of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, a suicide, seems in fact to reflect feelings of the current governess to which she refuses to submit. When from an upper landing the governess espies the ghost below, Miss Jessel’s body is “half-bowed and her head, in an attitude of woe, [is] in her hands.” Later, in the schoolroom,
Dark as midnight in her black dress, her haggard body and her unutterable woe, she had looked at me [the governess recalls] long enough to appear to say that her right to sit at my table was as good as mine to sit at hers. . . . I had the extraordinary chill of a feeling that it was I who was the intruder.
The ghost and she, past and present governess, are interchangeable because she herself is the governess who seeks to possess the children. In Miss Jessel’s ghost we find Jessel’s successor haunting herself, a dispossessed creature terribly sorry for what she has done (leaving home and father) and terribly lonely where she is.
Moreover, the unspeakable nature of Jessel’s and fellow servant Peter Quint’s sexual intimacy hints incest, once we exchange one governess for the other. Quint’s ghost indeed looms as an unshakable infernal image of the governess’s own father, the Christian name giving him away (from the Latin pater, meaning father, recalling Saint Peter, father of the Church). That the governess unconsciously interprets the carnally connected ghosts as herself and her father suggests, besides the traumatic cause of her having left home in the first place, what the governess absolutely and ultimately fears regarding her charges, one’s “arm round [the other].” Thus she projects onto the children her own sexual obsession, imagining all the while that they are being encouraged and corrupted by the ghosts of those who had been, as it were, their demonstrative private tutors in forbidden love. The affection of these siblings for each other becomes a horror for her, much as her father, visiting her as Quint, looks like the very devil, hair and beard the flaming hue of carnality, because Quint now embodies, for her, incestuous love, whatever the origin of this outcome may be: her own longings, her father’s sexual advances, or both. Shocked disillusionment over the contamination of someone who had been, for her, the holiest of humans impels her to find the most awful corruption in the sweetest places, such as in a boy about whom she had said, before deciding he was possessed by evil, “What I then and there took him to my heart for was something divine that I have never found to the same degree in any child—his indescribable little air of knowing nothing in the world but love.” Having strenuously reaffirmed the idealization of her father by imagining that Miles, the new “man” at the center of her life, is (as no one can be) purely loving, the governess finds her shattered view of the parent-idol forcefully repeating itself in the boy’s case as well. Love and incest have now become dangerously confused for her. Reinventing her world in terms of a clear, unambiguous mission amidst circumstances too complex and ambiguous to accommodate her compulsion for order, the governess exercises a jailor’s “rigid control” over her charges “to protect and defend the little creatures in the world [that are] the most bereaved and the most lovable”—like her (now that she has abandoned her one parent), children both motherless and fatherless. They strike her as her former, innocent self. She will “save” them in order to “save” herself.
So disturbing is the shadow of her father that darkens her path that this parson’s daughter is thrice unable even to go to church! The first time, heavy rain keeps her from fulfilling her Sunday commitment. No matter; she plans on joining Mrs. Grose in attending the late service. The rain does stop; but on entering the dining room for her gloves (to keep her hands clean?) the governess now sees, on the other side of the window looking in, Peter Quint’s ghost. Upon its disappearance, she does the oddest thing: she assumes the ghost’s own position (“I applied my face to the pane and looked, as he had looked into the room”), frightening the poor housekeeper, who has come looking for her, nearly out of her wits. Identifying herself, the governess is thus informed that she is “white as a sheet,” making her, in effect, the “ghost” that makes her decide again that she cannot go to church. “Oh, I’m not fit for church!” she in fact tells Mrs. Grose—and her words carry particular weight when one considers that her becoming one with Quint’s ghost through her queer pantomime at the outside window may be fulfilling an incestuous dream. Rather than go to service, the governess feels she must remain home with the children. Another Sunday, she, Miles, Flora and Mrs. Grose are walking to church when Miles reveals his desire to return to school so that he can be with his “own sort” (simply, other boys) and “see more life.” This fiendishness so upsets the governess that, instead of entering church with the others, she walks around it, “hesitating, hovering”—like a ghost.
In a sense, the children are the ones—especially Miles, with whom the governess is finally left alone—who must save her. If only she can pry these children loose from the evil ones’ grip, she will free herself from guilt for having abandoned her father; by saving the children’s souls, she symbolically will have become her father—or at least her father’s daughter again. Alas, she fails miserably with Flora, who, damning her further, cries out against her after being browbeaten into “acknowledging” Jessel’s ghost, “Take me away, take me away—oh, take me away from her.” Later, Mrs. Grose reports, the child wails out a host of “horrors” against the governess, who, however unintentionally, has so brutally taught her that loved and trusted adults can sharply turn against those they are supposed to protect. We might say that the governess has justified her claim of Flora’s “experience” by jolting the innocent child into it. “Oh, thank God!” the governess exults when the housekeeper refers to Flora’s verbal obscenities; “It so justifies me!”
Because Flora has been taken away to her uncle’s by Mrs. Grose, the governess is left alone with Miles, her last hope. Whether anyone saves anyone is ambiguous. (How could it be otherwise?) Miles finally gives up the name that the governess wants to hear, but, browbeaten, he likely only guesses at it to put an end to the pressure to confess that the governess, like a cop giving a suspect the third degree or a U.S. military psychological torturer/interrogator, is exerting on him. Indeed, although he says the name, Miles adds to it a damning judgment against the governess: “Peter Quint—you devil!” The child (apparently) dies; yet this may purge the governess of the very obsessions that Miles had embodied for her, especially if she believes she has been the agency for the salvation of his soul. Plainly, until she turns into the pleasant person whom Douglas remembers, the governess is someone whose mind flashes between extremes. While his “air of knowing nothing . . . but love” reflects the spiritual perfection of Christ, Miles is simply a victimized little boy whose grotesque function, without his knowing or possibly fathoming it, becomes this: to save a religious fanatic from the evil in her own mind that makes him seem evil to her. In this parody of Christian myth that exposes the nonsensical nature of straight Christian myth, Miles, unconscious of his redemptive mission, must confirm his innocence by confessing to an esoteric sin. Children are not pure and innocent, as Christ is supposed to be; at best, they are, as the governess at one point says about her charges, but “blameless and foredoomed”—a description exposing her morbid obsession with Original Sin.
Still, this obsession of hers unloads a store of poignancy into the most celebrated “ghost story” ever written. Do we not desire the children’s evil for the same reason that we desire their innocence? The demonic child, especially the incestuous demonic child, offers the spectacle of the greatest innocence that we can imagine blighted by the greatest corruption that we fear. Such damaged beauty! (To think that the governess sees the devil in Miles and Flora despite their beauty is to miss the point.) We deduce our innocence, Kierkegaard tells us, from its compelling loss—in modern parlance, the deconstruction of nothingness leading to a discovery of cherished somethingness. What other proof of innocence is possible in a corrupt world? The demonic child that James’s governess sees in both her charges constitutes a sentimental insistence on the innocence from which these children have fallen away. In other words, once the evil is “proven,” the good that the evil has replaced is likewise “proven.” For James’s governess, proof of the corruption of her charges is the hell that must be harrowed before the break of grace. When they confess, she believes with all her heart, they will be saved and she will be saved, and the goodness of all will be reinstated in the eye of God.
Incest, incestuous dread, father-substitution as an evasion/sublimation of or for desired incest: none of these remotely touch The Innocents, a largely sanitized version of The Turn of the Screw. This, then, is one less turn of the screw to the governess’s torment in the 1961 film—one of eight movie/TV versions of the most celebrated ghost story in the English language. (I assume that James’s title refers to torture—specifically, practices of the Spanish Inquisition to get “the truth” out.) The governess’s sexual repression, here, is still in play, but it in no way involves her father, who is mentioned only in passing, first, to say that he is a country parson and, second, for the governess to note that her employer’s country estate is vastly different from the cramped quarters of her father’s simple, humble parsonage. Father and daughter were too close in the latter? I don’t glean such an implication, at least in sexual terms. In the film, Miss Giddens—the governess has a name here, following Archibald’s stage play—is bowled over by the luxury of her place of employment. The Innocents casts a less backward look than James’s more complex (and altogether more entertaining) achievement, and the extraction of the narrative frame, which emphasizes this “backward look,” underscores the difference.
But not entirely. Clayton’s film also has a narrative frame, in a manner of speaking, although in fact it may be part of the story that has been wrenched out of chronology and turned into a preface to introduce and launch the film, and to suggest (quite beautifully) that the governess is in the grip of trauma pertaining to her two charges, whom she believes are possessed by evil influences—at a faint remove, by the Devil. Indeed, the opening is one of the places where Clayton’s good film is positively brilliant.
The credits have not yet begun. The image is sheer blackness. Out of the darkness and silence, a haunting tune is whisperingly sung, an echo from long ago—an old English folksong, arranged here by musical conductor W. Lambert Williamson (not Georges Auric, who composed the film’s original score), and given new, appropriate lyrics by Paul Dehn:
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie and weep beside the tree.
Singing “Oh willow waly” by the tree that weeps with me.
Singing “Oh willow waly” till my lover returns to me.
We lay my love and I beneath the weeping willow.
But now alone I lie. Oh willow I die, oh willow I die.
As the song comes to an end, the blackness is silently interrupted by the 20th Century-Fox logo—the silence, rather than the usual rousing Fox intro, an indication of how artistic a production the studio felt (possibly to its dismay) it had on its hands. Birds chirping break the silence, suggesting a country landscape invisible to our eye, which is once again enrobed in complete darkness. We feel that we are dreaming—or that somebody is dreaming. On the right side of the wide screen, the opening credits—white letterings on voluminous blackness—start appearing; on the left side, the same is true for a pair of seemingly disembodied hands, pressed together like flowers in an enormous family bible. The hands part palms up, opening up like a blossoming flower—the hands of a supplicant. Throughout both positions of the hands, we hear the low sobbing of the woman to whom the hands belong—another seemingly long-ago echo. Suddenly the hands are tightly clenched, accompanied by absolute silence. The woman’s face appears in rightward (left) profile; the woman is in silent prayer. The camera turns, revealing her full face; but, because of the pitch background, this face seems to turn to face us dreamily, inexplicably, of its own accord. We finally hear the woman speak, as voiceover: “All I want to do is save the children, not destroy them.” Is she defending herself to us, God, her preacher-father, her employer, Mrs. Grose or herself? All six, probably. But the present tense startles; it is at war with all the backward-in-time suggestions that the film has thus far given us. Yet perhaps not. Perhaps it signals that this woman—the young governess—cannot face up to the fact that she has already destroyed the children. Is she perpetually haunted by this fact which she cannot face up to?
In place of this image, in any event, a scene from the past comes into focus, introducing the flashback that makes up the rest of the film. It is as if Miss Giddens were revisiting this past in order to face up to what has occurred—to discover for herself, as it were, just where she took the wrong turn that resulted in the destruction of her two charges. She has flashed back to her employment interview in London with the children’s uncle, their guardian at whose country estate, Blye, Flora lives with Mrs. Grose and the cook while Miles is away at school. The fade-in of this scene occurs upon the uncle’s asking Miss Giddens whether she possesses imagination. “Oh, yes,” she promptly, convincingly responds. In retrospect, she might worry that she possessed too much imagination with the children—imagination of the darkest, most twisted kind. As governess, she will oversee, perhaps cause, the mental breakdown of one child and the death of the other.
We see that Miss Giddens is not entirely sure of herself as the Londoner’s prospective employee, whom she reminds that this position would be her first. A libertine eager to get on with his sexually profligate life unfettered by two orphans, their uncle tells Miss Giddens, whom he is only too happy to hire as a replacement for the unexpectedly dead Miss Jessel: “You are in supreme authority. Whatever you are to do [at Blye], you must do alone.” In effect, he is washing his hands of the children—or, if you prefer, in U.S. presidential political parlance, “delegating authority” to this young, untested soul seated in front of him. He has also told her, “[The children] need someone to belong to, and who will belong to them.” In the opening, we heard Miss Giddens herself use the same words; now learning that they were unoriginal on her part, that they were her employer’s words to begin with, we sense how impressionable, and what a blank slate, Miss Giddens is. Or perhaps she is this especially where the children’s uncle in concerned, because plainly she is swept off her feet by the tall, handsome man who takes her hand to seal the deal of her employment, as though he were courting a mistress. At Blye she later tells Mrs. Grose, after her charges, especially Miles, who is home from school, also have swept her off her feet, “And to think what qualms I had. . . . I wasn’t sure whether I should accept this post or not.” She confesses that it was the children’s “most persuasive” uncle who was decisive in her acceptance of the job. All in all, there is a gathering sense that the self-certainty that the governess demonstrates as she wages her holy war against the ghosts that apparently she alone sees covers up a lack of self-assurance, which is deepened by her lack of familiarity with the posh world that she has entered in her employer’s London office and at Blye.
Clayton, the 37-year-old director of Room at the Top (1958), brought a refreshing concern for class issues to the James material. Class is primed to be a sore issue with Miss Giddens, whose background is one of poverty, however genteel, and whose social standing by dint of her father’s parsonage is somewhat complex. On the one hand, she is of the lower class; on the other, her background has provided her with a level of education that otherwise doesn’t normally attach itself to the lower class and a keen sense of her father’s importance in the community. Really, in Britain at the time, people such as her father occupied a station all their own: humble, though entitled to some respect. In her dealings with the housekeeper, the governess, despite being much younger, takes the upper hand by dint of both her more exalted position at Blye—taking care of children trumps dusting and mopping—and the sense of superiority that her particular background has given her. We learn, for instance, that Miss Giddens, of course, can read while Mrs. Grose cannot. The occasion is the letter from Miles’s school explaining his expulsion, which the governess hands over to the housekeeper to read. True enough, Miss Giddens promptly and agreeably apologizes for her insensitivity in this matter; but the apology can hardly resolve the matter for us. There is no way that a country parson’s daughter, used to her father’s interactions with members of the parsonage, would not know in advance that the possibility exists that the housekeeper is illiterate. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Miss Giddens is making a point of her “superiority” to Mrs. Grose as she begins her efforts to impress upon the housekeeper her anxious views regarding the state of the children’s moral health.
Miss Giddens at least thinks she can overmatch Mrs. Grose—although we likely observe that the housekeeping bests her when she laughingly says, “I hope you’re not worrying that Master Miles will corrupt you.” Well, maybe Miss Giddens can have her way with Mrs. Grose. However, she hasn’t any more of a prayer with 11-year-old Miles than she had with his uncle. People rightly make a good deal about the governess’s sexual inexperience, from which they reasonably deduce her degree of sexual repression. (On the grounds at Blye, the broken statue of a cherub out of whose mouth an opulent beetle drops mesmerizes the governess, making the point. Clayton’s application of slow motion to this unmistakably sexual image clarifies Miss Giddens’s sexual obsessiveness.) However, it is no less relevant to Clayton’s take on the James material that Miss Giddens utterly lacks experience in dealing with the wealth and arrogant conduct—and charm—of people such as Miles and his uncle. In a nighttime scene, Miss Giddens’s candle goes out. Miles tells her: “Don’t be frightened, my dear. It’s only the wind that’s blown the candle out.” Some viewers of the film, along with Miss Giddens, hear this as an indication of Miles’s unnaturally (and terrifyingly) advanced sexuality; I hear the perfect pitch of class condescension—the sense of superiority and entitlement in which boys of Miles’s training and “breeding” come well practiced. In a sense, through all her nonsense about ghosts Miss Giddens may be unconsciously trying to take down the children in order to redress the class and social imbalance between them and her.
The governess’s unfamiliarity with the world of country leisure that Blye represents is indeed a central issue in the film. We tend to negotiate the unfamiliar with what is already familiar to us. Blye is full of a kind of grace; Miss Giddens is much more familiar with another kind of grace. Her father’s domain, at home and in church, constantly alluded to God’s grace; it also constantly alluded to evil, corruption, Original Sin, damnation. All this resides in the head that Miss Giddens carries into Blye, and it is ripe for tumbling out, given how strange a world for her she has now entered. “Above all else,” she wrote in her letter to Miles and Flora’s uncle in applying for the post of governess, “I love children”—a disturbingly Oprahatic remark when you think about it, because it suggests an infatuation with an ideal of children that is likely to disintegrate upon the actuality of children. Miss Giddens is poorly equipped to cope with real, headstrong children, and the difference in social standing between her and her charges only makes matters worse. Miss Giddens needs all her sense of superiority to cope with the children and the unfamiliarity of the world they inhabit, and Miles in particular keeps undermining this sense of hers. Unconsciously, this is surely part of why she comes to see him as being “possessed.” She wants to enter, and he keeps her locked out. The “secrets” that Miles and Flora whisperingly share, which Miss Giddens comes to see as proof of their possession by evil spirits, also keep her locked out of the world that Blye represents, even as materially being and working there taunts her with the possibility of belonging there. I cannot help but note that Clayton also would direct a film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1974), an American tragedy about a man who gains no admittance to the upper class to which he aspires despite amassing material wealth.
Two persons in particular merit praise for their sterling contributions to The Innocents: Deborah Kerr as the governess, who perhaps gives her finest performance here, and Freddie Francis, whose spooky cinematography encompasses both Vampyr-ish soft grays (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1931) and sharp black and white reminiscent of Aubrey Beardsley’s (often erotic) Victorian ink illustrations.
The Innocents is a good movie—and an opportunity for primer Freudian fun.
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