The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' best known works include Fern Hill,
Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night, and Under Milk Wood.
This last piece was subtitled "A play for voices" and was intended for
radio broadcast. This poem is just prefect for the radio, filled
with lyrical passages and unique phrases that colorfully describe a small
Welsh town. Unfortunately this aural work does not transfer well
to the screen as the 1971 filmed version attests. With Richard Burton,
Elizabeth Taylor and Peter O'Toole, it should have been a wonderful movie,
but the finished project falls very short of the original.
As morning arrives in the small town of Llareggub ("Bugger all" spelled
backwards), two men (Richard Burton and Ryan Davies) stagger through the
streets as the town wakes up. They, and the audience, see the towns
people and their dreams, hopes and fears. Chief among them is Captain
Cat (Peter O'Toole), a blind old sailor thinks back on the dead men he's
known, and the deceased woman (Elizabeth Taylor) he loved beyond all else.
I have to admit that this was my first exposure to this play, and I
couldn't help but thing that the video was ruining Dylan Thomas' wonderful
words. The problem is that your imagination is much more vivid than
any mere image would be. When you only hear Thomas' description of
Llareggub, you picture a city that is more real than the images that the
film shows you. Instead of enhancing the story, the images detract
from it. Take this passage for example:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black.
The cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters'-and-rabbits' wood limping
invisible down to the sloe-black, slow, black, crow-black, fishing-boat-bobbing
The image associated with this Burton-narrated opening is shot day-for-night
with the sky visible. So the building and streets are dark, but the
sky is blue and filled with well defined clouds, not what I think of when
I hear of a "starless and bible-black" night.
Thomas uses a lot of alliteration too, which sounds wonderful when read,
but doesn't seem natural when acted out. Which brings me to the acting:
This movie has an all star cast, but they don't really shine here.
Peter O'Toole does the best job really making viewers empathize with Captain
Cat and the life that he's led. The rest of the cast were rather
uninspired. Burton just walks through the town acting really creepy.
I was never really sure what his role was supposed to be. You could
have cut his screen appearances out of the movie entirely and it wouldn't
have changed the film. His narration is good, but it sounds like
he's concentrating on reciting the words correctly, rather than paying
attention to their meaning. I thought his narration, though it sounded
good, was dry and unexciting. Taylor also just seems to walk through
her role. Wearing too much make-up the star just never made me connect
with her character.
The whole production just felt pompous and pretentious. The DVD
cover proclaims that Under Milk Wood is "hilarious" but the cast seemed
to take the project (and, it could be argued, themselves) much too seriously
to derive any humor from the play.
The two channel mono audio is about average. There isn't a huge
amount of range, but then again the film doesn't really need it.
There are a couple of places where the words are a little muddled and hard
to hear, but this was fairly rare. There's nothing really outstanding
about the sound of this disc, but nothing wrong with it either. There
are subtitles in English and Spanish.
The widescreen anamorphic image (1.78:1), like the film itself, left
something to be desired. While the film was watchable, the print
was a little below average, even for a film of this age. The colors
were all dull and muted and just didn't do the Welsh countryside.
Some of the scenery was lovely but it wasn't clear and vivid like I was
hoping. There was a bit of grain to the picture, and the lines weren't
as tight as they should have been. There were some print defects
too; an occasional spot and a couple of places that had light vertical
lines running through the picture. Digitally the disc looked
good, but I was hoping for a better image overall.
This disc comes with a lot of bonus material, but not much of it really
interested me. Director Andrew Sinclair provides a commentary track.
Sort of. What this consists of is an older interview where Sinclair
talks about the production and what he thought of the film. He sounds
like he's reading a script rather than just talking about the film, it's
a very wooden delivery. This only last about 25 minutes too, and
is not scene specific.
The most interesting extra was a biography of Dylan Thomas, Dylan on
Dylan. This lasts a little more than an hour, and gives a nice overview
of the poet. There is also a two minute interview with Richard Burton,
and an introduction to the film by the director that is just as long, and
a short interview with Sinclair on the set while he was making the film
Also included in a set of text production notes, a trailer to the film,
and a photo gallery.
I think film was just the wrong medium for this project. Dylan
Thomas' play is very lyrical, and I loved some of the images his poem brought
to mind, but actually seeing someone else's interpretation of these words
just didn't work for me. The acting was dry and pretentious and the
image was just mediocre. I'd recommend getting an audio version or
reading the play (both versions are available at Amazon.com.) This
version I'd just skip.