This ambitious and artistic film adaptation of the legendary Dylan Thomas radio play has barely enjoyed anything resembling proper release. Its 1973 theatrical run was spotty, its 1985 home video release on the now-defunct Key Video label was barely acknowledged, and for the past two decades it has been out of circulation. Perhaps now “Under Milk Wood” can finally find its audience on DVD.
In many ways, this is an experimental film: there is no narrative in the traditional sense, but rather an extended running observation by an unnamed raconteur observing the quirks and eccentricities which permeate the small Welsh fishing village of Llareggub (read that name backwards!). The predominant voice is, indeed, the most prominent voice to come out of Wales beyond Dylan Thomas: Richard Burton, who wraps his extraordinary command of the spoken word around Thomas’ magical verse with peerless ease. Through Burton, one could literally listen to the film with closed eyes and enjoy its glory.
Of course, the idea of a film is to be seen as well as heard, so filmmaker Andrew Sinclair adapted the Thomas radio play with an inventive visual style. The characters frequently address the camera to cheerfully explain their lives and motivations , or at least state them; just why the baker has two wives is, happily, never entirely clarified.
Reliables such as Glynis Johns, Vivien Merchant, Sian Phillips and Victor Spinetti imbue their respective characters with wonderful personalities and a glorious grasp of the distinctive Thomas language. Two extended guest appearances are billed as starring roles, but don’t be fooled there: Peter O’Toole, as the blind old sea captain haunted by the voices of his drowned crew, and Elizabeth Taylor, as the most glamourous hooker in the history of Welsh prostitution, have relatively limited screen time, although their presence in the film’s marketing material would suggest they are front and center throughout the film.
Perhaps this may have explained why the film sank back in 1973: O’Toole, Taylor and her then-husband Burton had rung up too many box office flops and audiences may have feared this was yet another indulgent debacle. Perhaps three decades later, the charm of “Under Milk Wood” can finally be appreciated.