Under Milk Wood (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's notes in white

Under Milk Wood is a play in free-form verse written by Dylan Thomas, the modern voice of Wales. It is subtitled A Play for Voices, and was basically intended to be a radio play. It is an affectionate, quaint evocation of 24 hours in the life of an imaginary small Welsh seaside town, visiting the colorful inhabitants of Llareggub (Bugger-all backwards!) while they sleep, then when they wake and go about their business, and then again as night falls. The town's personality is described in two ways: first with a literal recounting of everyday activities by the First Voice, and then with an examination of the subconscious world of the characters' intimate thoughts, as revealed by the Second Voice.

The play was first performed as a solo reading by Dylan Thomas himself, first in the Fogg Museum at Harvard on May 3, 1953, and then again as a stage performance in New York on October 25 of that year, just before his death on November 9. In 1963 the BBC recorded it for radio with narration by another famous Welshman, Richard Burton. Although it has been rendered on the radio as well as on stage, those performances must have been incomprehensible to all but a few of the literati, because it is essentially a narrative poem which includes very little in the way of everyday dialogue. Most of the narration consists of beautiful, densely poetic language.

The greatest strength of this filmed interpretation is the powerhouse cast, which includes Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton in the two most important male roles, and Elizabeth Taylor as a woman remembered by the blind sailor (O'Toole) who provides the point of view for many descriptions of the town's other inhabitants. The "first voice" is provided again by Richard Burton himself, so a good portion of the film consists of the greatest voice of Wales reading the greatest poet of Wales, which is a treasure if you love serious literature. There is one rather sleazy weakness of the presentation: a bizarrely tacked-on subplot about two drunken drifters walking through town from before dawn, and later having three-way sex with a local fancy woman in a barn. This entire episode doesn't seem to be consistent with the gentle tone of the remainder of the film. With or without that subplot, the film appeals only to a tiny highbrow audience. As you might expect, the small target group interested in such a project doomed the film version to an unsuccessful theatrical release, and it and has rarely been seen since.

The appearance of Under Milk Wood on DVD gives the play new life in ways probably never imagined by the DVD producers. You see, the DVD can be watched in English with English subtitles, thus giving the play a third dimension, making it possible to read Dylan Thomas's poetry while listening to Richard Burton's oral interpretation, while seeing the events being pictured by actors in an actual small Welsh town. The threefold interpretation has the advantage of expanding the film's appeal far beyond the tiny turtleneck crowd which would attend a solo reading. I, for one, would never have the patience to listen to a long, dense narrative poem being read to me, and I don't have the patience to do so even with the illustration provided by the film, but I found it all to be much easier going when I could read along with the narrators.

For anyone interested in this material, the DVD has some nice extras. There is a second feature-length movie about the life of Dylan Thomas, some 1971 interviews with the director and Richard Burton, and commentary by the director, which is a rarity for a 35 year old film.


If you are interested in this play or the work of Dylan Thomas in general, the people who own the copyrights to his work have generously created a free web site which makes just about all his important creations available in the best possible interpretations. Most works on the site are printed out and also read by the author himself, through audio files that are embedded in the different pages.

  • Here, for example, is the famous poem "Do not go gentle into that good night", as written out and performed by Thomas himself, who rivaled even Richard Burton himself for sheer pomposity!

  • Here is the complete play Under Milk Wood, not read by Thomas this time, but as performed on the BBC by Richard Burton, with the accompanying words written out as well.




  • see the main commentary above for a description of the DVD features.
  • the transfer itself is widescreen, anamorphically enhanced (16x9), but not remastered. (It looks old and faded.)


Two women expose their breasts, Ruth Madoc while wading in the water, and Susan Penhaligon while  tending her goats, and being wanton by painting rings around her nipples.

Tuna's notes in yellow

Under Milk Wood (1973) is a dramatization of a voice play written by Dylan Thomas about a day in the life of a small Welsh town. Although it is really about the words, they did a marvelous job with the scenery, and had a stellar cast, including Peter O'Toole as a blind sea captain, Elizabeth Taylor as the long-dead love of his life, and Richard Burton as the "First Voice" who recites Dylan Thomas's prose/poetry.

I am sure it is not for everyone, but it does present a colorful picture of a culture very different from what most of us are used to, is full of quirky characters, and, best of all, has the words of Dylan Thomas. C+, only because this film probably has a limited audience of poetry lovers, Welsh folk music fans, people who enjoy other cultures, and those who like well-photographed scenery.

The Critics Vote

  • BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. A real treasure for highbrows. Not of interest to mainstream film audiences.

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