Under Milk Wood (1972)

Director/Screenwriter: Andrew Sinclair

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By Roderick Heath

This oddball, fitfully engaging, inevitably unsatisfying piece of work attempts to convert Dylan Thomas’s elegiac, often lethally funny “play for voices” into a movie. Thomas’s work, with its rolling, repetitive cadences, was always based intrinsically in verbal culture, and the play was written precisely for the vocal medium of radio, employing Thomas’s poetics in evoking a satiric yet beatific portrait of a small Welsh coastal town like the one in which Thomas grew up. To adapt such a work into a film is a downright strange project to undertake, and yet there’s a cinematic vividness to Thomas’s images and his precisely sketched characters that invites conversion. Moreover, it was a long-standing ambition of star Richard Burton to bring the work to the screen, Thomas having written the part of the narrator specifically for Burton, a fellow Welshman.

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Director Sinclair utilises Burton’s voice and look of exhausted equanimity in turning the First and Second Voices who narrate the tale into two wandering visitors (the other is played by Ryan Davies) who prowl the town of Llareggub (read it backwards) contemplating the various townsfolk as they lie in bed and indulge their innermost natures. Most are transfixed by erotic yearnings, like insomniac publican Sinbad Sailors (Michael Forest) and his pining for schoolteacher Gossamer Beynon (Angharad Rees), pumping on the levers of his beer taps and imagining they’re Gossamer’s legs, and tailor Mog Edwards’s (Victor Spinetti) ardour for both money and fellow shopkeeper Myfanwy Price (Glynis Johns). But others are defined by stranger qualities: Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Sian Phillips), a tyrannically fastidious widow, envisions both her previous husbands, one of whom killed himself, as sharing her bed and scrupulously reciting their daily chores.

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When day breaks, the townsfolk arise and get about their daily business with pointless energy, whilst a tourist bus makes a stopover long enough for the guide to note that the town’s chief attractions are its badly maintained 19th century houses and a lake full of salmon that is regularly poached. As Burton and Davies wander, their strange presence is noted by critical schoolmistress Mrs. Pugh (Vivien Merchant), whose henpecked husband (Talfryn Thomas) fantasises all day long about poisoning her, and blind, retired sea captain Tom Cat (Peter O’Toole), who can recognise every townsperson’s step. The town’s cabals of busybody housewives congregate to fiercely condemn and hope for the arrest of Polly Garter (Amy Beach), a tarty lass who is happy enough to sleep with any man who wants her, leaving her taking care of a small army of babies along with her aged grandfather, and longing for her dead true love. Lily Smalls (the always luminous Meg Wyn Owen), maid to the butcher’s family, frets at her wasting youth, and 17-year-old virgin Mae Rose (Susan Penhaligon) begs her mirror, “Come and take me, Mr. Anybody!”

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There is, obviously, no story here among the vignettes describing people in the average flow of their lives; whether Mr. Pugh might get around to murdering his wife or Sinbad and Gossamer might ever hook up is a question for another day. Under Milk Wood as a film is, in its way, something of a lyrical British take on an Our Town-type catalogue, infused with Thomas’ richly funny, critical yet indulgent feel for the rampant hypocrisies and minor perversities of small-town life. Strangely enough, it reminded me as it progressed of two films I’ve studied lately, Ryan’s Daughter, for its setting and satire on repression, and The Wicker Man, with which it shares stylistic refrains, tied together as both are by a musical-like, folk-culture-inspired entwining of song and vision. This is seen particularly in the midsection, during which Polly, scrubbing the community hall’s floor, continually sings the same refrain over and over as the others go about their own business, thus illustrating the repetitious, frustrated desire that defines the villagers. Other common themes of the three films are the tension provoked in the uneasy meeting of classic Celtic fecundity, with its celebratory earthiness still surviving in its songs, art, games, and dream-memories, and occasionally still nascent in the bodies of fulsome nature goddesses like Polly and sea-warriors like Cat, with Christian, post-Victorian, bourgeois values, which infuse a nasty, hectoring, uptight social strata.

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Ironically, the local priest, Eli Jenkins (Aubrey Richards), is the most admiring and ardent of the villagers, gazing upon the woods and dales, and whilst admitting it’s not the most beautiful of places, and its people “not the best and not the worst,” loving it to the core. The children play games where they sing and challenge each other to pair off and go kissing in Milk Wood. When one of the boys objects, stating that his mother told him not to, he is mobbed and ridiculed. Exactly the same behaviour is manifest in the opposing extreme for the adults, which is why even the legitimate romantic couples, like Sinbad and Gossamer and Mog and Myfanwy, keep their passions submerged.

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Of course Cat, the seafarer who is a beached and exhausted remnant of a vanished ocean-going, wind-driven world, is the lightning rod for the most romantic images and impulses. He’s haunted by the ghosts of long-dead shipmates who died at sea, and weeps all day for his great love, Rosie Probert (Elizabeth Taylor), a prostitute beloved of all the boys, but who only actually talked to him. She died young. Cat recalls her laid on her deathbed, coins placed on her eyes. Virtually everyone in Llareggub is defined, then, by a nature they can only approach in dreams and idle fantasies.

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Sinclair provides an interesting contrast in the cinematic texture in a scene in which the two wanderers meet clearly by prearrangement with a woman dressed in a chic suit, and duck into a barn to indulge in a ménage-a-trois. The woman only seems to care for Burton, is clearly bothered by having to screw the lanky, sallow Davies, and she stalks away wordlessly when they emerge. It’s ambiguous what this scene means. Is she a prostitute? Are these emissaries of a larger world more indulgent but less lively in their erotic nature than the folk of Llareggub, despite all their frustrations? In the final scenes, Davies dances with the dreaming folk and imagines leading them like a pied-piper to the sea, into which they dive and transform into selkie-like seals, returning to the nature from which they’re painfully divided.

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It’s a pity that Sinclair wasn’t a better, more skilled and imaginative filmmaker: one imagines the visions a more visually accomplished and expressive director might have spun from this work. Sinclair’s realisation, with obvious make-up and often clumsy staging, often has a skit-like feel, a short distance away from the comic surrealism of a Monty Python episode or The Beatles’ movie Magical Mystery Tour (1967), a comparison that’s all the more tempting to make when the tour bus turns up. Sinclair uses the tired trope of blurry Vaseline shots for happy memories, fails to come up with a better way to tackle the idle erotic fancies than to offer point-of-view visions of lusted-after women strutting about in their undies, and shoots the dream sequences in a flat, academic fashion that lacks both the sense of style and mystery crucial to transforming Thomas’ words into cinema of equal potency. The hazy updating of the material is also problematic. Thomas was writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s of the life he had loved and despised as a youth in the 1920s; it was filmed in the very different atmosphere of the early 1970s. The interloping outsiders and their erotic interlude unfortunately polarises this antiquated elegy.

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Still, Under Milk Wood is a diverting experience, especially as much of the bizarre humour still leaks through, and some of Sinclair’s adaptation of it into visual terms is effective, such as when Mr. Waldo, saddled by paternity, dreams of marrying all his many wives at once, or, in the midnight rampages of the cobbler Jack Black (John Rees), who fantasises about stalking out, bible in hand, to lash with his leather belt all the local sinners. There’s also the great cast, even if they barely have to do anything except lie about and sound and look the part. Top-billed Taylor looks blowsy and distracted in her nonetheless brief time on screen, but O’Toole is mightily flavourful as Cat, and Beach affectingly tragic and fulsome as Polly. And, as intended, Thomas’s words are aural pearls dropping from Burton’s lips.

  • Mel Neo spoke:
    21st/08/2013 to 3:35 am

    It looks funny.

  • Roderick spoke:
    21st/08/2013 to 4:10 am

    It is, mildly.

  • Kolnai spoke:
    13th/01/2014 to 4:12 am

    This is an informed and critical review, which is rich in detail and an excellent outline of wider and wilder themes. The similarities drawn in both genre and topic to ‘The Wicker Man are perceptive, and far-reaching.

    Of the two, The Wicker Man is more honest and far-seeing. For it makes plain that a terrible price must be paid for the overthrow of the Father’s Law – the burning is a metaphor for the inevitable death camps when the Law fails. As inconclusively written by Thomas, and filmed by Sinclair, Milk Wood is little more than whimsy; though whimsy with a damn serious subtext.

    I’m rather glad it is as plain and banal as it is.

  • Roderick spoke:
    13th/01/2014 to 10:51 pm

    Great comment, Kolnai.

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