THE WINNING FILM OF THE moment is Under Milk Wood, Andrew Sinclair’s beautiful screen adaptation of the Dylan Thomas play, a triumph of visualization of the verbal visions and vignettes the poet created. The film, incidentally, was made almost two years ago and opened the 1971 Venice Film Festival. The film co-stars Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole and Elizabeth Taylor and features a host of Britain’s finer actors (Vivien Merchant, Sian Phillips, Victor Spinetti, Glynis Johns and Wales’ Ryan Davies). What these performers and Sinclair have created is pure poetry, a translation of a classic concerned with the living and the dying and the continuum, with laughter and heartbreak and compassion for the human community. And that, as Variety would note, requires a “special sell.”
Who needs to be sold Dylan Thomas’s only play, written over ten years and completed a month before his death at 39 in 1953? It has been performed in nearly every country in the world, off and on Broadway in this country (most memorably in our experience by the National Theater of the Deaf, whose ballet of sign language added further dimension to the lyrical prose) where it is now a campus standard for performance and for reading. Yet over the years none had had the courage to attempt a film thereof: “Seventy little stories to tell in ninety minutes in the life of a small fishing-port. The connecting link Two Voices, their character and connection with the town unexplained It was daunting,” Sinclair admits. And the story of his accomplisment is, in a way, as fascinating as the result. (The details are in Sinclair’s foreword to the soft-cover edition of the screenplay, published by Simon & Shuster last fall, for $2.95) For it was only in the completion of the film that he understood Burton’s telling him that the play “was all about religion, sex and death,” and in the making in the Welsh sea town of Fishguard “we were all the servants of the dead Dylan Thomas ”
Thomas had written Milk Wood with himself and Burton in mind for the First and Second Voices; Sinclair found their embodiment in several Thomas short stories, with Burton and Ryan Davies as two Army-coated strangers who wander into the town before dawn, roam the streets and cliffs and share a girl of wartime memory and seemingly drift into the sea with the next night’s tide. Through their comment, the town and the people come to interwoven life, the rhythm of their days and the pulses of their ways throbbing through the melodies. Seldom has a world been so encompassed—of the daydreams and nightmares and memories, the sunlit fantasies echoed in children’s chants, the ghosts as fantastical as the seals that swell with the sea, the lush
lovely girls as fleeting as the skeletons, the graveyard only footsteps away.
No question but that Burton was born to recite Thomas’s luxuriant and flowing poetic realities and lusciously lilting prose; his voice washes over the screen, penetrates to the very heart of each matter explored, with a voice-over duet provided by him and Davies as the two—one stolid, craggy-faced, the other fey and puckish—wander the town in silence. It is a dream—that will enrapture you. The creatures of the dream are brilliantly fleshed and blooded in their actualities and their fancies— O’Toole, remarkably made up as the aged blind Captain Cat, conjuring up his crew from the dead and reliving the ecstacies of his truelove, Rosie Probert; Miss Johns and Spinetti as the sweetshop-keeper and the draper mad with love; Miss Merchant the demanding wife and Talfryn Thomas the milquetoast mate who plans her various deaths-by-torture; Siss Phillips the twice-widowed housemaid/housewife who summons her husbands to their chores with the warning that “before you let the sun in, mind that it wipes its shoes”; Aubrey Richards the foolish parson with poetry for God; Ann Beach the effulgent Polly Garter who sings of her Tom, Dick and Harry. They all spring to life—Organ Morgan, Willy Nilly, Mr. Waldo, No-good Boyo, Lord Cut Glass. The only outsider seems to be Miss Taylor, all movie-star with the blue eye-shadow and surplus hair—but in the arms of the young Captain Cat and perhaps in his dreams she becomes possible.
Under Milk Wood is all our dreams, engulfing and refreshing. I don’t know what “special sell” a great and lovely work, translated with inspiration to the screen, needs. I have seen the film three times: I shall see it at least as many times more, for with each viewing there has been a new detail of sight and sound, a fresh nuance and an underplayed word-play to bring a further enrichment to a work whose richness can be reveled in again and again.
TO LEAP DOWN TO THE LOSERS, prime among them is Little Mother (advertised as Mother, apparently more of a come-on), produced and directed by Radley Metzger, whose four previous films, for reasons I cannot even speculate on, have earned him a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, let alone an appearance on the Merv Griffin show. The four were Therese and Isabelle; Carmen, Baby; Camille 2000; and The Lickerish Quartet—films which I would classify as early mini-porn at best, all very neatly photographed, very badly acted and very sluggishly directed. Now, with a script provided by a BBC writer named Brian Phelan, Metzger has ventured into the life of a sort of Evita Peron, yclept Marina Pinares, tracing, in a series of incoherent flashbacks from the moment she learns she is dying of cancer—just as the workers are about to offer her the vice-presidency of the country (sunny Yugoslavia passing as sunny South America)—her rise from bastardy to Army plaything to television weathergirl to president-maker (that’s a pun).
Either Metzger has been in Yugoslavia too long or he’s determined on an R rating; his sole claim to erotica is Christiane Kruger (Hardy Kruger’s little girl, aged 25) in the buff sprawled beside or around or atop any number of