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WHEN LARRY MET LAWRENCE

Still from Ken Russell’s Women in Love, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 131 minutes. Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates) and Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed).

I ALWAYS THINK I’ve misremembered the title, or that the name itself is a red herring: Why is it Women in Love when the most infamous scene from Ken Russell’s 1969 film—an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s 1920 novel—features Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, both nude and sweat-slicked, their dongs jouncing, wrestling in front of a roaring fire? The lusty grapple lasts three minutes and feels like thirty. “Was it . . . too much for you?” one man asks the other, panting.

The query could apply to nearly any segment of Russell’s third movie, his breakthrough. (Within the next ten years, the English director would advance his immoderate style with a film about witchcraft, several florid biopics of artist-geniuses, and, most ostentatious of all, a screen version of the Who’s rock opera Tommy.) The film is too much. But is it—was it—enough?

Yes, there are women in Women in Love, set in the Midlands in the years immediately after World War I: the Brangwen sisters, Ursula (Jennie Linden), a teacher, and Gudrun (Glenda Jackson), a “sculptress.” And they may be in love—Ursula with Rupert Birkin (Alan Bates), a school inspector and wearisome intellectual, and Gudrun with Gerald Crich (Oliver Reed), the sulky scion of a benevolent coal-mining magnate. Bearded like Lawrence, Rupert is the author’s surrogate. He gives voice to and enacts the writer’s incoherent libidinal doctrines, which include a proto-poly platform, some version of dendrophilia, and what Susan Sontag once disdainfully called, in a 1961 essay, Lawrence’s “mystique of male separateness.” In that same piece, Sontag also decried the British novelist’s “puritanical insistence on genital sexuality.” Yet it is to the film’s great credit that, in depicting that “puritanical insistence,” heterosexuality is revealed to be the most unnatural form of coupling—never more so than during a scene of frenzied rutting between Gudrun and Gerald in an alpine chalet, the camera wildly zooming in and out as the grimacing industrialist pounds away.

Still from Ken Russell’s Women in Love, 1969, 35 mm, color, sound, 131 minutes. Gudrun Brangwen (Glenda Jackson) and Ursula Brangwen (Jennie Linden).

Some of this straight-bashing was likely unintentional, simply an expression of the hysteria common to Lawrence adaptations of the era (cf. Mark Rydell’s The Fox, from 1967)—or, more accurately, an amplification of the lunacy found in the originals. But it might also have resulted from a generative tension felt by at least one member of the principal cast. In a 1976 TV interview with Glenda Jackson included in the Criterion Collection’s new home-video release of Women in Love, the actress recounts her extreme reliance on the source text, no matter how much she repudiated it: “I never had that book out of my hand on one day that we were shooting. I found it quite difficult because I tend to discount—well, I do discount—most of Lawrence’s philosophy and certainly his view of the male-female battle.” Jackson, here in the first of five films she would make with Russell, evinces slinky hints of misandry in an early scene, as her character explains the etymology of her given name to Gerald: “In a Norse myth, Gudrun was a sinner who murdered her husband.” (Jackson won an Oscar for her performance.)

However foolish it may be to assign talismanic significance to the date that Women in Love premiered, 1969 was, of course, year zero of the LGBTQ intifada. Can we call the man who wrote the script (and also served as producer) an insurrectionist? Seeing Larry Kramer in 1968, during a brief on-location interview featured in another of the disc’s extras, proves supremely (but not unpleasantly) disorienting: How is it possible that the galvanic éminence grise of gay activism was ever this young or mild-mannered? Standing on a sloped patch of grass in Derby, Kramer, who is preppily dressed and sports a thick mane of side-parted dark hair, nervously smiles and rarely looks his interlocutor in the eye as he explains why he thinks “Lawrence would be proud” of his page-to-screen transfer.

Ultimately,Women in Love’s greatest claim to sexual sedition stems from what its success made possible almost a decade later. Kramer, as detailed in a New Yorker profile in 2002, was next asked to write the script for a project that bombed (a musical version of Lost Horizon) but for which he was paid the then-exorbitant sum of nearly $300,000—money that, owing to his brother’s wise investing, guaranteed his financial independence. He could write what he wanted. In 1978, he published a book that inspired another kind of uprising and that will likely never be made into a movie: Faggots.

Women in Love will be released by the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray and DVD on March 27.

Melissa Anderson is the film editor at 4Columns, where she is also a regular contributor.