Performed by THE SCRIPT FACTORY at the National Film Theatre, London, 5th December 1996

"Dark Blood" was the film River was working on at the time of his death and which was subsequently abandoned as a result. The British Film Institute's "Script Factory" performs British screenplays which have not been made into finished movies in front of a live audience, and so it was that Jim Barton's "Dark Blood" came to be performed at the National Film Theatre.

Jim introduced the performance, explaining that everyone originally involved in the making of "Dark Blood" had been so devastated by River Phoenix' death that it had taken this long for the dust to settle and for a way forward to be considered. The good news is that Jim is negotiating the return of the film rights to his screenplay, so that the film can be remade. Obviously, this will be a complete remake, but the script is so strong that it deserves to be seen.

Script Factory performances take the form of a reading of the screenplay by well known actors with a minimalist approach to scenery etc. In the case of "Dark Blood", the stage included three cushions, a small drum, a few Native American artefacts, and a portrait of a Navajo chief. The cast was small, comprising three characters and two narrators, but such was the intensity of the script and the capability of the performers that it was easy to imagine how the story could have unfolded on the screen. I and my companions had no trouble at all with the imagery.

And so to the story. A couple, Harry and Buffy, are travelling across the Arizona desert in an ageing Bentley. Harry is English, a minor but arrogant and chauvinist movie star who regards his American wife as little more than a chattel. The car is misfiring and they pull in at a Navajo settlement for the night to rest and get the car fixed up. Next day, they carry on with their journey and, in the middle of nowhere, the car breaks down and they are stranded. Harry is determined to stick to the principle of staying by the car until someone comes. Night falls, and Buffy is convinced she sees a light in the distance. The stubborn Harry refuses to believe her, so she sets out alone to try to find it. Eventually she comes upon a shack in which live the Boy, a young widower, and his black dog. The Boy spends his time carving wooden dolls. His grandfather is the Navajo chief whose portrait we see hanging behind the performers. He had married a white woman. The "Dark Blood" of the title is the Boy's dark side....

The Boy explains to Buffy that the surrounding area was a military nuclear testing site and that much of it is poisoned land. Many Navajo people have died as a result of radiation poisoning, including his wife. The next day the Boy and Buffy return to the Bentley and bring it and Harry back to the shack.

The Boy is immediately and strongly attracted to Buffy, and makes no secret of the fact whenever Harry is not around. As time passes, the Boy finds more and more excuses why he cannot get their car fixed, or take them and it to the next town. Harry gets more and more aggravated as he needs to get to a phone to contact his agent about his next film part, while the tension between Buffy and the Boy grows.

Finally Harry can stand it no longer and, stealing the keys to the Boy's truck, he and Buffy attempt their escape. The truck runs out of fuel not far from the shack, and Harry and Buffy are once again rescued and returned there. A second escape attempt finds them approaching what they think is the town, but it turns out to be a Navajo settlement deserted due to the contamination which occurred when the area was used as a nuclear testing site. Eventually, the Boy again finds them and returns them to the shack.

The Cast

(Names in brackets correspond to those in the original movie)

Harry: (Jonathan Pryce) - Charles Dance
Buffy: (Judy Davis) - Clare Higgins
The Boy: (River Phoenix) - Jonathan Rhys-Myers

Narrator 1: Veronica Hicks
Narrator 2: not known

Director: (George Sluizer) - Jim Barton

This was an excellent performance, with real tension and atmosphere. One can only wonder at how the original movie might have turned out given the calibre of the performers, script and director....

Let us hope that we don't have to wait too long for the remake.

As the Boy, Jonathan Rhys-Myers was totally convincing. He seemed to have many of the mannerisms and speech patterns typical of River - whether he'd deliberately worked on this or it was fortuitous casting I don't know, but if one closed ones eyes it could have been River.. With the right breaks this young man could go far. The only information I can find about him at present is his appearance in the 1995 film "The disappearance of Finbar". He is also in the film "Michael Collins" as Collins' assassin. Both Charles Dance and Clare Higgins are well respected English actors and both gave a fine performance.

Were you there on December 5th? If so I'd like to hear your views. Please tell me what you thought of the performance and any other comments you may have, and I'll add them to this page.

For more information about The Script Factory and The Writer, contact BFI Production, 29 Rathbone Street, London W1P 1AG. Tel: 0171 636 5587. Fax: 0171 580 9456

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