British stars Alan Bates and Oliver Reed's uncharacteristically dialogue- and clothing-free wrestling contest may be the most iconic sequence in Ken Russell's charmingly deranged melodrama Women in Love (1969). But the most sensational moments in director Russell and screenwriter Larry Kramer's thoughtful D.H. Lawrence adaptation hinge on philosophical discussions about personal freedom and marriage, and not generous displays of naked man flesh.
Kramer and Russell cue us to anticipate the heated words exchanged by bohemian school teacher Rupert Birkin (Bates), his reserved industrialist frenemy Gerald Crich (Reed) and their respective spouses, Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen (Jennie Linden and Glenda Jackson). It's hard to resist being seduced by Rupert's declaration of jealousy -- "There is a golden light in you which I wish that you would give me" -- or laughing at Ursula's speculation that marriage is not the beginning, but the "end of [all new experiences]."
The provocative conversations about monogamy and industrialization are riveting, with all four leads speaking with powerful voices: When one talks, their partners always reply in a realistic and compelling way, even if only with a bemused laugh or a hard look.
Bates, Reed, Linden and Jackson's onscreen chemistry also makes their characters' thunderous observations about home furnishings and women's orgasms feel as dynamic as Lawrence's prose. The principal cast members' dramatic pauses and expressive muscle twitches make it seem that their characters' talking points are personal expressions and not just theoretical declarations of authorial intent.
Bates and Reed's homoerotic sparring would be sexy and shocking in any context. But Women in Love's talkier scenes are more exciting than any screen nudity could be.