Gay Pride: Must-See Films–The Fox (1968), Mark Rydell’s Adapting (Vulgarizing?) D. H. Lawrence’s Women’s Drama (LGBTQ, Lesbian)

Based on D.H. Lawrence’s 1923 novella, The Fox, directed by Mark Rydell, was made into an explicitly lesbian-themed drama.

The tale centers on Jill (Sandy Dennis) and Ellen (Anne Heywood), two women who bond intimately, while overcoming social class and other differences.

The Fox

Theatrical release poster

The women live in a remote, snowbound cabin in an isolated, self-contained region.  For the movie, the setting has been changed from Lawrence’s English village to the Canadian wilderness, where the women run a chicken farm.

Grade: B (***1/2 out of *****)

Like other lesbian films made by Hollywood (The Killing of Sister George), the relationship is threatened and then altogether broken, when the younger, more appealing woman finds a new partner; in this case, it’s a male.

The sexuality of the film’s characters is more explicit than it is in the book, in which the bisexual tendencies are rather implicit.

In the movie, the roles have become more stereotypical: Sandy Dennis, right after winning a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? plays Jill, the blond, sensitive, and dependent femme.  British actress Anne Heywood is Ellen, the dark haired, self-reliant “butch” femme, sporting boots and flannel shirts.

A handsome male stranger, Paul (Keir Dullea), who had worked on the farm before, returns to help the distressed women. It’s noteworthy that in the book, Paul is a 20-year-old hunter; in the movie, he is a farmer (more domestic?) and similar in age to the women.

Ellen dominates the relationship, but she has also grown dissatisfied. She is no longer sure that she wants to stay with Jill.  Paul is the symbolic fox, a romantic predator, who comes between the women when he unexpectedly proposes to Ellen. The newly formed hetero couple move in together, but the proposal arouses the women’s suppressed lesbianism. Ellen, belting out a bawdy song, “Roll Me Over,” masturbates in front of the mirror, and her self-pleasure is depicted as a “perversion.”

The movie eliminates the figures of Jill’s parents, who in the book witness their daughter’s death, when Paul chops a tree that lands between her legs.

This film marks the directing debut of Mark Rydell, a former actor, whose future career would include genre pictures, such as “The Cowboys,” with John Wayne, and the Oscar-winning family melodrama, “On Golden Pond.”

In the book, set in 1918 England, Paul feels repressed by the village’s life and wants to move out.  In the movie, Paul wants to take Ellen to Vermont. Paul chooses the more independent and aggressive Ellen—by conquering the stronger woman, he proves that he’s a confident macho man. Moreover, in the book, Paul is dismayed that Ellen is still aggressive after marriage; he wishes he’d left the women “to kill one another.”

As spring begins, Ellen sells the farm, and she and Paul set off to start a new life together. Knowing that she is mourning the loss of Jill, Paul assures Ellen that she will be happy in her new life. Filled with sadness and uncertainly, she asks, “Will I?” and the movie ends on an ambiguous note.

At the time, many reviewers complained about the tampering with Lawrence’s book in the name of updating the characters, as well as emphasizing the more explicit sexuality of the text (to make the movie more commercial),

Indeed, replete with blatant phallic imagery, The Fox shows in close-up such phallic images as a shotgun, an axe, a carving knife, a tree, and a pitchfork.

The film was released after the dissolution of the Motion Picture Association of America Production Code, which enabled the inclusion of scenes of nudity, masturbation, and other sexual activity, both hetero and homosexual.

Rated R at the time of original release, The Fox was re-edited and rated PG in 1973.

The vulgarization of Lawrence, plus nudity, no doubt helped making The Fox more attractive commercially.  Produced for a small budget of $1 million, it was a hit with audiences, earning some $25 million at the box-office.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Original Score: Lalo Schifrin

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

John Barry won the Original Score Oscar for The Lion in Winter.

Sandy Dennis as Jill Banford
Anne Heywood as Ellen March
Keir Dullea as Paul Grenfel


Directed by Mark Rydell

Produced by Raymond Stross

Written by Lewis John Carlino, Howard Koch, based on the novella by D. H. Lawrence

Music by Lalo Schifrin

Cinematography: William A. Fraker

Edited by Thomas Stanford

Distributed by Warner Bros.-Seven Arts

Release date: February 7, 1968 (US)

Running time: 110 minutes