Director Jonathan Miller's 1966 BBC adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland has been largely unknown in the U.S., but Home Vision's DVD will go a long way to change that. Of myriad versions of the story, Miller's 72-minute film is probably the most faithful, a disturbing dreamlike fantasy expertly and thoughtfully realized by everyone involved with the impressive production.
The great Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer did his own fascinating film of Carroll's story, Alice (Neco z Alenky, 1988), but like all of Svankmajer's features, it wasn't really up to the level of his earlier short films, made in the 1960s and early-'70s, which remain some of the best short films ever made. Interestingly, Miller's Alice is in many ways closer to that spirit with, as Miller describes it in his audio commentary track, a "preternatural, surreal vividness."
Shot almost entirely on the English countryside by Dick Bush, Alice in Wonderland is at once absurd and disturbing partly because it uses realistic Victorian settings in unusual ways. Miller's commentary and the liner notes go to some length to point out how this was done; how, for instance, a military hospital corridor nearly 3/4 mile long was converted (by production designer Julia Trevelyan Oman) to represent a portion of the White Rabbit's hole. Most of the picture has the impression, appropriately enough, of a Victorian insane asylum. Miller is quoted in the liner notes as saying, "I was trying to recreate a Victorian film, a film from early cinema, with the effect of Victorian photography." Though, as Miller points out, his and Bush's use of a wide-angle lens and its almost limitless depth-of-field is not in keeping with 19th century photographic technology, the general look is nonetheless effectively realized.
Miller also forsakes the elaborate make-ups expected with a live-action adaptation like this, as was done most famously in Paramount Pictures' all-star 1933 version, and again in the William Sterling Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1972). For Miller it seemed crazy to hire great actors only to smother them with greasepaint and latex; and Miller's cast is indeed quite special: Wilfred Brambell a menacing White Rabbit, Leo McKern a disturbing Duchess, Michael Redgrave an ineffectual Caterpillar, John Gielgud the Mock Turtle, Peter Sellers (who also appears in Sterling's version) as the King of Hearts. Great character actors fill even the tiniest of roles, from Finlay Currie (as the Dodo) to Michael Gough (March Hare) and David Battley (Executioner). Ravi Shankar wrote the sitar- and oboe-filled score; though effective, it comes off as less revolutionary now than it surely did when the program first aired.
The show is not for all tastes, particularly if your idea of Alice in Wonderland is solidly fixed upon Disney's very different if unjustly maligned 1951 animated feature. If you're in the right frame of mind, however, Miller's Alice works wonderfully well, with some scenes, like the superbly-directed and photographed croquet match, coming off as sublimely transcendental.
Video & Audio
Alice in Wonderland was, thankfully, shot on 35mm film (the BBC had, according to the notes, lobbied for color videotape), and Home Vision's full frame presentation is essentially flawless. The mono sound is fine, and the only thing wanting are subtitles, which would have been most welcome, given the film's literary origins.
The primary extra is Miller's commentary, which isn't scene-specific but always interesting and enthusiastic. Clearly Miller thought through every aspect of his adaptation, a pet project that had apparently been gestating in his imagination for some time. A still gallery of behind-the-scenes photographs taken by acclaimed photographer Terence Spencer is also included, along with the very first film of Carroll's story, a 1903 British short. The short has no musical accompaniment, but rather its own mini-commentary track, by the British Film Institute's Simon Brown. Brown crams an incredible amount of information about the film's background during its eight-minute running time. For example, he points out that a dog which appears in the picture is the same animal which starred in the seminal British film Rescued by Rover (1905)! The short, derived from an original nitrate print, was obviously needed rescuing itself, discovered, by the looks of it, literally at the last moment. It serves as another reminder for the need of film preservation. Scholar Wheeler Winston Dixon provides three short pages of useful liner notes.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.