Salome’s Last Dance

Movie Information

Salome's Last Dance, part of a series of Classic Cinema From Around the World, will be presented at 8 p.m. Friday, March 21, at Courtyard Gallery, 9 Walnut St. in downtown Asheville. Info: 273-3332.
Genre: Semi-Biographical Comedy-Drama
Director: Ken Russell
Starring: Glenda Jackson, Stratford Johns, Imogen Millais-Scott, Nickolas Grace, Douglas Hodge
Rated: R

At an early point in Ken Russell’s Salome’s Last Dance (1988), Oscar Wilde (Nickolas Grace) is surprised to see an amateur production of his banned play Salome interrupted by a photographer taking a flash picture of the proceedings. The photographer is none other than Russell himself, who is playing a visiting dignitary in the show, prompting Wilde to remark, “If your acting is as grossly indecent as your photographic studies, Kenneth, we should be in for an outrageous evening.” And indeed, this no-holds-barred filming of Wilde’s play—opened up to include Wilde as the audience for the production, which takes place in a brothel—is nothing if not outrageous.

The outrageousness is especially apt considering the film’s history. The idea started around 1974 when Russell and his then-agent Robert Littman—fortified with a few drinks—called various studios with the idea that Russell could film Lindsay Kemp’s production of Salome for 120,000 pounds. Everyone wanted it—till they learned Lindsay was a man in drag. Alan Ladd Jr., however, didn’t care. He saw it as a chance to balance out some expensive productions and said yes, but then Russell backed out after seeing the play a second time and going cold on the idea.

Flash-forward to Russell’s Vestron Pictures deal in the late ‘80s and a revival of the project—still at a bargain rate and with a female Salome (Imogen Millais-Scott), in addition to a biographical framing story that parallels Wilde’s betrayal by Lord Alfred Douglas (Douglas Hodge) with Salome’s betrayal of John the Baptist (also Hodge) in the play. Largely confined to one set (but what a set!), the film amazingly never feels stage-bound, and for my money is the best of Russell’s late 1980s work. It’s outlandish, oversized, campy, profane and, finally, strangely moving—in a way that only a Ken Russell film can be. Don’t miss the chance to see it—the DVD is long out of print (though you can find it for $200-$400 from private sellers on Amazon).

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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17 thoughts on “Salome’s Last Dance

  1. Brian

    Is it possible to find this film ANYWHERE? This is the one Ken Russell feature film I can’t seem to find, and from what I hear it’s one of his best late films. The other hardest one to find is Valentino, which I finally saw recently (and it definately wasn’t worth the wait). What’s the deal with Russell’s films not being on DVD? Especially the classic early 70’s ones? If they won’t release The Devils, surely they could compensate by releasing The Music Lovers and The Boy Friend. Are they tied up in copyright issues?

  2. Ken Hanke

    Well, as noted in the review, yes, you can find the film used from private sellers on Amazon — assuming you’re willing to pay at least a couple hundred bucks for it. You can probably find the VHS or even the laserdisc for considerably less. The problem with these late period Russell films — GOTHIC, SALOME, LAIR OF THE WHITE WORM, THE RAINBOW — is that they were made for small companies and released (in the US at least) by Vestron Pictures, which was Vestron Video’s ill-fated attempt to become a theatrical distributor. Ownership of the titles has shifted several times over the years. When the original DVDs were made, I believe Artisan owned them. Now, Artisan doesn’t exist. When we tried to get a 35mm copy of LAIR for the Asheville Film Festival in 2005, ownership of that title had gone to Lion’s Gate, who did have a 35mm print, which they deemed unusable when they checked it. (Actually, they used a shorter word than unusable.)

    Like it or not, VALENTINO is actually from Russell’s major period in the 1970s — the last such in fact. It not being generally available (I’m not sure about the legitimacy of the Region 0 DVD that’s sold) is hard to understand, since it was released on laserdisc and is held by a major studio. The same is true of THE MUSIC LOVERS, THE BOY FRIEND and LISZTOMANIA. All of these were put out in nice fully letterboxed editions on laser. It wouldn’t be that hard for the owners to put then out again in DVD. THE MUSIC LOVERS and VALENTINO were originally United Artists, meaning they should now be owned by MGM. LISZTOMANIA was Warner Bros. WB also controls THE DEVILS — and that’s a whole other can of worms. That has never been released in the US in any home video form other than a badly panned and scanned VHS copy that ran 101 minutes — that’s 8 minutes shy of the original US running time and 10 minutes shy of the British print. (That last is a little deceptive, because part of the reason the GB print runs longer is due to using different takes of some scenes, though there are some censorship differences as well.) Now, add into the mix the always censored “Rape of Christ” sequence, which was unearthed a few years ago and shown on the BBC (after much haggling with WB, who simply wanted it not to be shown at all) as part of a documentary on the film called HELL ON EARTH. That sequence should be put back into the film for a DVD release. But will it? Not unless WB has a change of heart. For that matter, they’re disinclined to release any version of the film. And, of course, if they don’t release it in a proper director’s cut, they’re going to get bashed by fans everywhere. (Yet they said that the cut scene would never see light of day again after the one time showing on the BBC.) A recent rumor — that turned out to be bogus — of a DVD release with a 111 minute running time would have merely been the GB release print.

    There’s a central foolishness in this, because the grey market is flooded with copies of THE DEVILS that are cobbled together from a BBC transmission of the 111 minute print from the 1990s and the “Rape” taken from HELL ON EARTH. (This will not run 114 minutes, by the way, owing to the change from PAL to NTSC, which speeds up the film.) It’s imperfect in a lot of ways. The BBC transmission is pre-DVD-R, so the source is VHS and it’s rather watery. Plus, for some unknown reason, the BBC only ran the credits of the film fully letterboxed at 2.35:1, showing the bulk of the film in a compromised matting of about 2.0:1, losing information on the sides of the image. The “Rape” on the other hand was shown at 2.35:1, so these pieced together copies shift format when it’s dropped into them. Of course, they’re also illegal — not that that usually stops collectors. Of course, these same collectors would chuck their grey market copies in a heartbeat for the real deal from WB, so the studio isn’t really losing anything by the existence of the bootlegs when all is said and done.

    As to why they won’t bring it out, who really knows? The studio seems to have always hated the film — and this hatred has somehow survived regime changes. (You don’t honestly think the same suits that ran WB in 1971 are the ones in charge 37 years later?) They took great delight a few years ago in announcing that the archival print that had been being used for film festivals had worn out — and they had no plans for replacing it. It’s been suggested that they license THE DEVILS to Criterion, which seems a perfectly rational solution, right? Well, it would be if WB didn’t have a policy against licensing out anything. So THE DEVILS sits and waits.

    As it stands at the moment, the only completely legitimate Russell DVDs are BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN, WOMEN IN LOVE, MAHLER, TOMMY, ALTERED STATES and CRIMES OF PASSION. There’s a German DVD of WHORE (not sure if it has an English soundtrack or not). There are region free DVDs of the TV films ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER put out by the BBC. (The latter is slightly cut because the BBC has broadcast rights to the footage from Laurel and Hardy’s WAY OUT WEST that’s in the opening scene, but they haven’t got ancillary rights. This also plagues the soundtrack of Russell’s TV film of LADY CHATTERLEY.) A new box set of KR’s BBC films for the Monitor program is due out soon, but I’ve no idea what all it will include.

  3. Ken Hanke

    Small update — I left GOTHIC off the legitimately available discs, and a look at Amazon turned up the fact that ELGAR and SONG OF SUMMER are seemingly out of print. There’s one copy of the latter available…for $399.99.

  4. Recently, there was a great hoax saying that THE DEVILS was going to be released in May. Along with this was an incredible cover of Oliver Reed wearing a crown of thorns, a gash in his side, and Vanessa Redgrave hugging him around the crotch area. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.

    It’s 2008 and the studios has released pretty much everything by now… except for Russell’s catalog. Put his films out now!

  5. Ken Hanke

    If you can but make it happen, I will personally donate a Ken Russell section to both your stores.

  6. Brian

    The Region 1 DVD of Gothic is pretty shoddy. I own the Region 2 DVD and it is correctly letterboxed and the color is not washed out like the US release. I bought Elgar and Song of Summer only about a year ago for $30 each. I’m surprised they went out of print so fast. The print they used for the Mahler DVD is in pretty bad shape. And is it in the correct aspect ratio? I never knew if Russell filmed Mahler in the Academy Ratio, or if the DVD is in pan-and-scan, or if it was matted for theatrical release and the mattes were removed for the DVD. Finally, the thing that disappointed me most about the DVD of The Devils taken from the BBC broadcast was that they included the the ‘Rape of Christ’ scene but not the ‘charred bone’ scene. I think that scene is even more important than the ‘rape of christ’. Without it, the exchange between Sutton and Redgrave seems pointlessly campy. With the ‘charred bone’ scene inserted (no pun intended) it makes the scene work and it’s important to the story arc of the film, as disturbing or ridiculous as it is.

  7. Ken Hanke

    “The Region 1 DVD of Gothic is pretty shoddy. I own the Region 2 DVD and it is correctly letterboxed and the color is not washed out like the US release.”

    I think it may depend on when you bought it. There seem to be a number of different GOTHICs out there. There’s some trash at the reel changes on the print and, no, it’s not matted to 1.85:1, but I have no real problem with the color.

    “The print they used for the Mahler DVD is in pretty bad shape. And is it in the correct aspect ratio? I never knew if Russell filmed Mahler in the Academy Ratio, or if the DVD is in pan-and-scan, or if it was matted for theatrical release and the mattes were removed for the DVD.”

    Since I’ve never seen MAHLER in a 35mm theatrical incarnation, I don’t know about the ratio. It only played major cities and only for a very short time in 1974-75. I first saw in in 1977 at the University of Florida in a 16mm print, which was certainly “Academy Ratio.” The idea that the film was actually released matted is is improbable to say the least, since I’m assuming you mean printed with a hard matte. That’s very rare. I think Spielberg has done it on occasion, but it’s unusual to see on a 35mm print. The matting from Academy to 1.85:1 is done by the projector’s masking plate. The real question is whether or not KR was framing for that shape. Chances are that all that’s happening with a full-frame MAHLER is you’re getting extra top-to-bottom information that would have been masked off by the projector in a theater. The side-to-side information is probably all there. I’d personally like to see a matted version of the film, but more because I’d like to have enhanced for widescreen TV presentation than anything else.

    Actually, I don’t agree with the loss of the charred bone scene as particularly significant — certainly not as significant as the “Rape,” which is the culmination of the film’s overriding theme. In fact, the final scene strikes me as more campy with the bone business than without it. The whole “Rape” scene business is one that KR himself has waffled on. Over the years that I’ve known Ken (dating back to 1982), I’d occasionally mention the “Rape” and he’d invariably say it was lost for good. He finally got to a point where he told me “it wasn’t that hot anyway.” Then Mark Kermode turned it up and it became “the most mind-blowing scene” anyone ever made in his estimation. I should note that Ken’s apt to shift around in his views on his own films. A couple years ago I sent him a copy of the letterboxed LISZTOMANIA mostly because his wife, Lisi, had never seen it and wanted to. After years of him downplaying the film, he saw it again and pronounced it the “best thing I ever did.”

  8. “A couple years ago I sent him a copy of the letterboxed LISZTOMANIA mostly because his wife, Lisi, had never seen it and wanted to. After years of him downplaying the film, he saw it again and pronounced it the ‘best thing I ever did.'”

    Has dementia set in?

  9. Ken Hanke

    I know you’ll never understand the genius of LISZTOMANIA, but I’ll continue to point out that I’m reasonably sure you’ve never seen anything other than the dismal VHS copy.

  10. Now I’ve never said that I hated LISZTOMANIA!

    I love films that are out of control and that one certainly is.



  12. Ken Hanke

    “I love films that are out of control and that one certainly is.”

    Ah, but is it really?

  13. Ken Hanke

    Dr., it’s also worth noting that Wakeman adapted Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony as the score for CRIMES OF PASSION (and also has a fleeting cameo in the movie’s “It’s A Lovely Life” video).

    Don’t know about Wakeman’s website (didn’t know he had one, come to that), but he did put out a CD called THE REAL LISZTOMANIA that was a vast improvement over the A&M;soundtrack album. That said, the Japanese import of the soundtrack CD is notable for some of the wildest mistranslations I’ve ever seen.

  14. Brian

    Finally saw Salome on a very bad ex-rental VHS tape. As of right now, I would rate it right along side Lair of the White Worm in Russell’s canon, maybe slightly below Lair, ahead of Valentino and Whore. I will probably withold final judgement though, until I see a properly restored DVD version, which probably won’t be anytime soon. I can’t think of any other director who’s films rely so heavily on their visual presentation, which goes to show how tragic it is how his films have been treated on home video.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I don’t recall what the VHS looked like, but my guess is that they likely went the way of the trailers, which is to say they fiddled with the color to attempt to make the faces appear more natural. Ken shot the film with the actors in extremely heavy make-up that was reminiscent of silent movie make-up (one of the nods it makes to the Nazimova version of the play). The prints looked that way, but the trailer made it appear that everyone had spent a day at the beach.

    I don’t know where KR ranks Valentino and Whore, but I do know he ranks Salome under Lair, if only because Lair is closer to what he wanted it to be, and he thinks the ending of Salome isn’t strong enough.

  16. marek

    hey there

    and maybe you know who have the prints of Russell’s films ??

    speccialy for SALOME LAST DANCE ??

  17. Ken Hanke

    and maybe you know who have the prints of Russell’s films ??
    speccialy for SALOME LAST DANCE ?

    Here’s what I know. When Vestron collapsed, the films — Gothic, Salome, Lair, The Rainbow — were acquired by Artisan, and when they collapsed they ended up — I don’t know how — at Lionsgate. That’s where Lair was as recently as 2005 when KR was the guest at the Asheville Film Festival. We asked them about getting their 35mm print. They checked it out and said that the quality was so bad we’d be better off running the DVD. It stands to reason that they have Salome, too — or they did five years ago. Some years ago, KR himself had four of the five reels of the film, but even if he kept them, they almost certainly perished when his house burned down.

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