I have been reading Dylan Thomas, poems, stories, recollections, and "Under Milkwood" since I was a teenager, in the mid-1960s. ("Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog", and "A Child's Christmas in Wales" are outstanding, as poetic prose.)
I saw this film when it was first released in Australia, and half-liked it.
I watched it again, nearly forty years later, last night.
It is more likeable, in my old age, but, like the parson's egg (alluding to a classic cartoon-image in the British magazine "Punch") it is good in parts, and other parts are less than good.
Richard Burton speaks one of the narrating Voices, as voice-over.
He does this superbly, as he should, having been one of the first to do so in the original BBC Radio version, which is available, at least a a vinyl LP.
Burton personally knew Dylan Thomas!
Sadly, Burton appears, almost-silently on screen, as a strolling player, accompanied by a non-speaking chum: the two look as if they had wandered in from a production of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting For Godot". (Bewildered and desperate men in drab brown overcoats.)
Later he and his chum encounter "Norma Jean", a totally spurious addition to Dylan Thomas's actual radio play, and take turns to physically enjoy the pretty young woman in a dirty wood shed. What was the film director or screen-play writer dreaming of, by adding this?
The second narrating Voice of the original radio play seems to be omitted, amongst the obvious voice-overs that are the main soundtrack of the film. Again, why? Especially as the film does include Burton and side-kick, wandering through the seaside village of Llarerggub -- why not have the side-kick add a different vocal slant to Burton's rich voice?
The third main narrating voice is that of the now-blind old sea-captain, played here by Peter O'Toole, as old, blind man, and, in flash-back, as young man. The object of his old-man's memories, and young-man's lusts and loves is Rosie Probert, acted by Elizabeth Taylor -- whore with a heart of gold, obviously, and a taste for garish and massive eye-shadow (out of "Cleopatra"?).
The "story" is one day in the small Welsh sea-town and its gentle, eccentric townsfolk: from a night full of dreams, through waking daylight, to the small town falling asleep again.
It is the variety of characters, their dreams, secret hopes and passions, and living interactions, that "tell" the "story".
Here we can be thankful for, usually, good casting. Dylan Thomas was a passionate Anglo-Welsh speaker, with a vivid ear for poetic sound and voice. Most of the actors catch the sound of his radio script, and make it live, on screen, individualising the many characters.
Most of the actors also capture a convincing appearance of what Dylan Thomas might have imagined.
The school children certainly look like early 1950s children.
But not all look good.
Organ Morgan, for example, LOOKS awful, as a lunatic-like red-haired man obsessed with playing a church organ. But it is obvious that he means well, in his acting, even though he can't actually play the organ.
Glynis Johns ("Mrs Banks" in "Mary Poppins", amongst many sparkling film roles) is a sparkling Myfanwy Price, the love-object of Mog Edwards, the town draper.
Mae Rose Cottage, seventeen and never been kissed (ho ho), is a beautiful young girl, and when she says in the radio play that she intends to sin until she bursts, in the film we see her draw lip-stick circles around her bare tender nipples: you can't do THAT on radio! (The film does this very convincingly.)
No-Good Boyo (up to no good) is acted by a young David Jason (famous later for TV comedies such as "Only Fools and Horses" and "The Darling Buds of May", and the great police dramas of "Inspector Frost"). We do not actually see him masturbating, but the film suggests this is part of his no-good-ness: again, you can't do THAT on radio, and maybe it need not be on film, anyway. His Huck-Finn-like waywardness, hinted at in the radio play, is clear enough, even in his amusing name. WHAT he does that is no-good can be left UNSAID, and UNSEEN.
Importantly, the village, and its surrounds, are beautifully pictured.
(Fishguard is the name of the film location. Captain Cat is shown living in a strange house whose upper storey is shapped like a ship's hull!)
Oddly, and infuriatingly, aspects of the narration (especially the DARKNESS of the night) are CONTRADICTED by the daylight-brightness of what we are looking at in the film while we hear dark-night words.
The "anthracite" horses are hardly jet-black, hard-coal black, for example -- and the famous sloe-black, slow black sea is not black either. How many people know what a "sloe" looks like? (A deeply dark blackish plum-likme fruit. Used, traditionally, to make a home-made wine called "sloe gin". This play, and film, cries out for a Glossary, or helpful FOOTNOTES!)
This is an abbreviated, and creatively (questionably, sometimes) decorated version of the full-length radio play.
Importantly, as with the great BBC Radio Long-Playing vinyl recording, whatever the spoken accents of viewers, in different English-language eccented places around the world, THIS film captures HOW the characters of Dylan Thomas ACTUALLY would SOUND! If the many Welsh accents are hard to understand for some viewers, this must be accepted as how it is, just as Cockney speakers must accept the way John Wayne sounds, or a shucks-you-awl way-down-south-speaker must accept Katherine Hepburn's or Carey Grant's accent.
As a film, it has flaws.
But it is, ultimately, intended as a sincere homage to the original, and to a great poetic writer.
John Gough -- email@example.com