Under Milk Wood (1972)


Director: Andrew Sinclair

Starring: Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Elizabeth Taylor

Release date: January 27 (UK). This series is much harder than I thought. I didn’t think every film would be a breeze but this is one film I wasn’t expecting at all, I’ve been proper side-swiped. May contain Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgog-erychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch and spoilers…

Where to start…? Usually one begins at the beginning, but I’m not sure there is a ‘beginning’, not in the traditional sense. Adapting Under Milk Wood by noted Welsh poet Dylan Thomas for the screen is so ripe for calamity that I fear director Andrew Sinclair is as crazy as the character Lord Cut Glass in his house full of clocks. The story concerns the fictional Welsh coastal town of Llareggub (read it backwards) and its inhabitants who love and lust, who hope and regret, scheme and gossip, right up until the sun sets and the honking seals return to the sea. Yes, I did say seals – and they will, you’ll see…

Jarv & Droid found alternative entertainment when the cricket got rained off...

Such is the sharp turnaround on these things, to get under the skin of Under Milk Wood in a day (or a night, more like) is near impossible. For me, anyway. I wasn’t forewarned of the subject; as far as I’m concerned, I’m going into a film like any other, a film with a start, middle and end. It was a proper head-in-hands moment five minutes in when I realised I was watching a straight translation of Dylan’s prose. I’m not qualified to pass judgement. I know nothing of the radio play and very little regarding the works of Dylan Thomas beyond Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, a poem I only read in 2010 soon after my dad died and yeh, I did rage against the dying of the light. Here I am, out of my depth, in over my head. Jarv’s well-read, he should be doing this one, or Xi – they’re more familiar with the book-to-film concept. I’m just a Mancunian oik, forever playing catch-up in the literary stakes. As such I can’t review here, I can only ramble and hit a target, more by luck than skill. No SDB, only a Scud in my alphabetical arsenal.

Cruelly, Echo got told it was the washing machine...

The overriding question is; how does a camera film words, especially when there are so many of them? They spill out of the screen in a torrent, principally as spoken by First Man (Richard Burton) and Second Man (Ryan Davies). Burton is the narrator, it isn’t clear who he is beyond that, his arrival alongside Second Man seems to summon the townsfolk, or at least their dreams. But are these frivolous vignettes the dreams of ghosts? Or do the vivid characters awake in the morning very much alive to go about their daily ordinary, rarely troubled and pricked by a nocturnal shard from their slumber-iffic adventures? I’m not sure. I’m comfy being in a state of ‘not sure’, feels exactly where I’m supposed to be. The patrons of the Sailors Arms, they’re not sure either… “Is it opening time then?” Asks Second Man. “It’s half past eleven,” answers the barman, Sinbad Sailors (Michael Forrest). “It’s been half past eleven here for fifty years…” Time has stood still in Llareggub. But not in the house of Lord Cut Glass (Davydd Havard), where 66 clocks tick-tock, tick-tock – “… clocks with no hands, forever drumming out time without ever knowing what time it is…” That’s us, we’re all clocks with no hands aren’t we. I think so.

JPT, driven beyond madness by his own 'Birthday Series'...

Who else have we got? The postman, Willy Nilly (Tim Wylton) steams the mail open and he will go door to door spreading the word of these private missives to all and sundry, recipient included. Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard (Sian Phillips) dreams of her two dead husbands, one of whom, Mr. Pritchard (Richard Davies) “ironically swallowed disinfectant.” How does one swallow disinfectant ironically? What a way to go… in irony, not guzzling Dettol. Polly Garter (Ann Beach), a buxom haven for many a man bemoans that nothing grows in her garden, ‘cept washing and babies, while the other women of the village sneer behind her back. Sinbad Sailors is desperate to nail school teacher Gossamer Beynon (Angharad Rees) and vice versa; sweet 17, Mae Rose Cottage (Susan Penhaligon) just wants to be nailed – “Oh, come and get me, Mr. Anybody…” Mog Edwards (Victor Spinetti) and Myfanwy Price (Glynis Johns) are mad for each other; Mr. Pugh (Talfryn Thomas) fantasises about murdering his horrible wife (Vivien Merchant); Mr. Waldo (Ray Smith) has been driven to drink by several failed marriages… And so many more, Nogood Boyo, Organ Morgan, Ocky Milkman, Bessie Bighead… too many to mention, ticking away with no hands.

TKD, Conti, Kloipy & Bando - always loved a good laugh down the pub...

What was the question again? Oh, yeh… It can’t. That’s the answer. The words are a tumult, they shatter on the ground around me like hail. Not normal hail, mind, those tennis ball-size chunks that usually precede a tornado. I perch in my chair, sporadically ducking as Captain Cat (Peter O’Toole), ratta-tat-tat, tells me of his lost ship mates, of his neighbours and a love long gone in Rosie Probert (Elizabeth Taylor). I’m still picking out the splinters of ice, at least those that haven’t already melted and diluted the blood in my veins. So here I sit, watched by pictures of the dead; my dad… Rob Gretton… Blair-monster – revoltingly alive yet deceased nevertheless… Challenger floats in orbit; in the artist’s fantasy she made it into space, but in reality the crew are all dead – it’s a ghost ship… Are they too wandering lost in Milk Wood, haunted by echoes of the living, a consciousness trapped within an endless looping dream? Is that our fate, or are we bound for interstellar space, an electrical jumble of wavelengths and static swimming in dark matter, communicating in multi-verse bubbles of untethered time among the quasars and the pulsars, destined to be din-dins for a hungry black hole? Yum-yum (burp)

Barfy & Xi discuss the leaps made in modern warfare technology...

Ah, well, to more pressing matters. The raptor-eyed among you may draw attention to the bosoms rather than the prose, or at least they might cause you to momentarily forget to use yer ears. Susan Penhaligan draws lipstick rings around her nipples, squeezing her tits together as she achingly announces that she will “sin until I blow up!” And then there’s Ruth Madoc (of Hi-De-Hi TV sitcom infamy), surely a sight to which no man should ever have to bear witness. First Man & Second Man meet and share a lady, Norma Jane. I have no idea what her relevance is to Under Milk Wood, certainly her presence doesn’t exist in the scant details I retain of the poem in my memory. Perhaps the relevance is to Dylan Thomas in some way. Perhaps he is both First Man & Second Man, a dual personality in the eyes of a lover. I know not, only that Sinclair’s tuning fork is humming the wrong key. But, aye, sex is everywhere in Llareggub, even suggested in the innocent songs of the Primary school children; ‘… kiss Gwennie where she says or give her a penny…’ They start young in Milk Wood, their paths already mapped, their future eternal.

Fishy - heading back upstream...

One can hear the celluloid creaking under the weight of the words, as a heavy boot upon a mouldy floorboard. I can understand Sinclair wishing to preserve the work of a poet, for no other recorded epitaph exists save for an old radio broadcast. But Milk Wood doesn’t live on a screen. Close your eyes and hear the words, see the words in your head. For are the words not describing the life burbling away around you? Go on, twitch the curtains, look outside, there’s a story unfolding behind every door in every street; “From where you are you can hear their dreams.” You can, listen… see, I can hear Howard next door dreaming of Camelot. But then so am I. Burton can recite Under Milk Wood to me all day long, without the sound effects, without music. Without a screen. Tis a noble venture to be sure, but Dylan Thomas doesn’t belong on a 50-inch Plasma with a scant Pro-logic soundtrack. Technology has no place here, the people of Llareggub have no need of it. Dreams have no need if it. Time passes. Listen. Time passes.

Blitz - she's not a full shilling...

And what of the seals flopping in the water, bookending the film? The townsfolk dance and caper to the shoreline, conducted by Second Man and in one simple edit they have shape-shifted, they become the seals. Is Llareggub twinned with Innsmouth? There is an air of that Lovecraftian wrongness, of things wetly lurking under the surface. Are the seals merely vessels of the dead, returning with the tide to some resonant, soulless underworld? Words fail me. It may be a snapshot of Dylan’s home, his life, his wishes and fears trapped in amber for all time. Yet, we all live in Milk Wood, don’t we. It’s every town, everywhere. It’s Universal. Milk Wood is us.

An intriguing failure then, though worth a visit just for the experience. But when it all comes down, you need only the words on a page plus your own imagination and you’re there. Come closer now…

Trailer: http://tinyurl.com/67vbvsq

I’m giving Under Milk Wood 2 Taff Poets out of 5.


Cheers, folk.

ThereWolf, February 2012

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About ThereWolf

I only come out at night... mostly...

20 responses to “Under Milk Wood (1972)”

  1. ThereWolf says :

    If you didn’t get a mention in the captions it’s not coz I don’t like yer – I ran out of pictures, right!

  2. Xiphos0311 says :

    Mention of the Welsh should set Jarv off in 3…2..1…

    Jesus they made that poem into a movie ? Why and how the hell do you adapt a poem to film that’s just dumb.

    Nice review Wolf.

  3. Continentalop says :

    Jesus Wolf, you got me & TKD mixed up.

  4. Jarv says :

    Fuck wales.

    The whole country is like a lovecraftian old one shat on the map.

    In an Ideal world we could float the rotten inbred shithole off into the middle of the Atlantic.

    And Thomas was an overrated alcoholic wank wallet who eulogized about his mythical wales of his youth that never fucking existed.

    • Xiphos0311 says :

      you can set your watch by Jarv’s Welsh hate.

      Its also true about Dylan Thomas talk about overrated.

    • ThereWolf says :

      I don’t know whether he’s overrated or not, don’t know enough about his writing to form an opinion.

      Spent the afternoon reading the stage play – I like it, love the words. But the ‘Norma Jane’ character is nowhere to be seen. I dunno why Sinclair put that in the film, it’s a waste of running time.

      As far as Wales goes… the South is nice, don’t much care for the North.

      • Jarv says :

        Under Milk Wood is the only thing he’s done of worth. He’s a lyricist rather than a poet, and his stuff has the thematic depth of a teardrop on a hot skillet.

        Who’s that American painter, I think it’s Norman Rockwell, who basically paints stereotype apple pie images of America? Thomas is the same thing with words and Wales. Basically, completely worthless on every level (Rockwell, actually, is far better, but it’s the simplicity that I was going for).

        And there is no North South Divide to Wales. The whole place is a festering carbuncle populated by grotesque mutations, and needs a serious act of god to sort it out.

      • ThereWolf says :

        I see Wednesday saw off Sean Bean’s Blades in the derby yesterday. Gotta be pleased with that.

      • Jarv says :

        Yeah man!

        Victory over the scum makes everything better

      • ThereWolf says :

        Should be nailed on for a play-off place. For second place, couple of points in it but you’ve played a couple more games than them. Loads of time for it to change around though.

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