Dylan Thomas' Under Milk Wood
Arts Alliance America // PG // $19.99 // August 9, 2005
Review by John Sinnott | posted September 10, 2005
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The Show:

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 sea.

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 DVD:


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.

Final Thoughts:

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.

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