Christopher Marlowe is the second most famous Elizabethan playwright (after William Shakespeare). He died young in 1593 in a barroom brawl (inns were tough places in the 16th c.). Some feel that, had he lived a longer life, it would be Marlowe, and not Shakespeare, who’d have top billing in English dramaturgy. Some have even gone as far as to suggest that Shakespeare’s works were by Marlowe, but his early death would seem to make that darn near impossible (it would require that Marlowe left a pile of plays about unproduced that were released over the next two decades). In any event, Marlowe’s best known tragedy is The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus, based on a German legend about a great scholar who was bored after mastering all he could and who sold his soul to the devil for access to great knowledge, experience and power for 24 years, at the end of which his soul would be claimed. The story has been told in play and novel form by several authors, including Goethe (whose Faust is perhaps the most famous version, turned into an opera by both Gounod and Berlioz), Thomas Mann, and even David Mamet.
Burton was very fond of the play and had even taken part, along with Taylor and Teuber (then an undergraduate at Oxford), in a theatrical production of Marlowe’s play at Oxford. It had gone well, and Burton decided to make a film.
The film works well as a filmed play, but might have been done better as Gielgud’s Hamlet, done on Broadway a few years earlier with Burton in the title role. It was decided to simply film a performance of the play, rather than to make a cinematic version of that play. Here, the play is made as a film, but not well. As the film is shot entirely in studio, the decision to make a more cinematic Faustus makes little sense, as the sets used give no more a sense of reality than do good stage sets. The film has the look of Hammer Studios Dracula movies. Like movies made on a low budget, or movies made using TV technique of the 1960s, this film has a cheesy glitzy look. This is especially evident whenever Elizabeth Taylor is on the screen – she represents the ghost of Helen of Troy, whom Faust chooses as a paramour. She is shot in soft-focus, to hide her age.
Of course, one does get Burton reciting lines from Marlowe’s play, and Burton had one of the greatest voices for recitation in 20th c. theater and film. And his voice doesn’t disappoint, but he still seems to be walking through the part, and the emotion of Faust is lost. The pacing of the whole production comes across as slow and ponderous, which is unfortunate, as Marlowe was and is considered a great poet for good reason. You wouldn’t know it in this production.
Consequently, I cannot recommend this film version of Doctor Faustus. If this is the only way you’ll encounter Marlowe, check it out and give it a look. If you can brave Marlowe’s verse, which can seem a bit tougher than Shakespeare at times, I’d check out the book.