Monday 15 July 2013

Peer Gynt (1941)

The Bøyg!
I claimed a while back that I'd never seen a film made in the forties that wasn't excellent. It seems I misspoke, as a half-decade ago I saw this low-budget silent film of Ibsen's once-famous play.  It isn't by any means wretched, indeed it's quite a work of art, but I wouldn't call it the perfection of beauty, the joy of the whole world.

I was watching then for its star, the seventeen-year-old Charlton Heston. Watching it now, to stand for the year of 1941, it seems more interesting, and rather innocuous: a silent film in the forties! Made so late, it's able to stand on its own merits, not joining with the fevered rush for grander scale that we saw at the end of the twenties, nor hampered by the need to set up microphones.

Peer Gynt works rather well as a silent film. Notoriously, Edvard Grieg wrote incidental music for the original play which was too loud to include alongside dialogue, but too good to miss out. The solutions, I suppose, were to present the thing as a ballet - rather a pity when you could have Ibsen's dialogue - or, at last, as a silent film, with Grieg's music throughout, and a with well-judged amounts of intertitles.

There is, by the way, no chance that you don't know the music I'm talking about.

A child Peer begat in his imagination turns up in the real world
When I first saw this, I didn't know the story of Peer Gynt, and assumed, for the first half, that this was just a tale of a lusty jerk called Peer who goes around bothering people a bit.  I was surprised and excited, then, when Peer goes inside a mountain and discovers the Bøyg, a massive flying head.  Alarmingly, though the rest of this is a silent film, the Bøyg speaks its dialogue aloud.  Like 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' (1964), a pastoral story of rural romance turned out way weirder than I'd given it credit for.

The first half is, I think, extremely good.  For the film's back-end, I had to turn to the Internet to find out the plot, a few key points of which seem to be absent.  Gone from the play is the suggestion that Peer has lived his life as a troll, and his climactic encounter with the devil and eventual death.  As it is, there's no reunion with Solveig, which strikes me as rather a pity, and the story pretty-much ends with Peer meeting a button-moulder, who critiques him as a person, and, it seems, as a fictional character.  It's an appropriately odd end, but no real way to resolve the story or the themes.  It all looks very nice though.

Featuring Lake Michigan as Morocco.  Here, 'Sir Peter Gynt' gives a picnic.
My favourite intertitle, since this is a silent film, reads as follows: 'Peer returns to a Norway of chaos and desolation'.  Before remembering that the film is indeed Norwegian in setting, the slide caused me to entertain the notion that 'a Norway' was the generic term for a chaotic and desolate locale.  Since then, I've been seeking opportunities to apply the phrase: 'since you got those kittens, the place has been a Norway of chaos and desolation', 'since the regular arson attacks began, the Sheffield ski-village has been a Norway of chaos and desolation', or 'they need to get someone in to sort out those public toilets: they're a bit of a Norway'.

On this DVD set, in a quality that is mediocre yet sufficient, one may find this 'Peer Gynt' and Bradley and Heston's other notable collaboration, a rather fine 'Julius Caesar' from 1950.  There are also a number of episodes of 'Studio One', a series which cut classic novels and plays down to 52 minutes and shot them as-live on video with a multi-camera set-up.  It's a bit strange, being so used to America's glossy TV output, to see some that wasn't shot on film with a single-camera, but there's plenty to enjoy in these very concise productions of 'The Taming of the Shrew', 'Wuthering Heights', 'Jane Eyre', and my favourite 'A Bolt of Lightning', in which he plays James Otis, who said "no taxation without representation," and threw the Boston Tea Party.  It's out of print at present, but if it comes back and you share my strange fascination with the acting style of Charlton Heston, you may like to give it a go.

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