Judge Eric Profancik finds that he's not a fan of softcore esoterica.
"You've never been yourself."
Everybody knows "Peer Gynt" yet most people don't realize they know "Peer Gynt." It's not so much that we're familiar with Henrik Ibsen's originally poem, but that we've heard Edvard Grieg's famous musical accompaniment. Don't believe me? Then click on the Amazon link on the right and listen to "In the Hall of the Mountain King" and "Morning Mood." These two pieces are world-renowned staples of classical music (don't say that to a classical music audiophile), and there's no doubt you've heard these two pieces used in many a movie and television program.
But what about Ibsen's poem, has anyone read it? Does anyone know anything about it? I certainly didn't, but as a fan of Grieg's incidental music, I was looking forward to the opportunity to put the music to the material. Is Peer Gynt as timeless and attainable the music that goes with it?
Facts of the Case
Peer Gynt is the fantastic tale of a selfish young man, Peer (Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur, Planet of the Apes), who is selfish in his ways, oblivious to those that love him. As he eschews one person after another, he embarks on a journey that takes him to meet the Mountain King, to Morocco, and back to his homeland of Norway. His path may eventually help him discover who he really is.
A smattering of history is the first order of business, which will allow you to get a better understanding of the material. The first lesson on the syllabus is the source material itself, the poem "Peer Gynt" written by Henrik Ibsen in 1867. It was not his intent to craft any type of stage production due to "Peer Gynt"'s complicated, diverse, and lengthy narrative. But circumstances at the time coalesced and it became an extremely popular work, leading Ibsen to revise his work into a stage play. That still didn't make it any easier to recreate on stage, with its fantastic and numerous situations. This is why you'll find very few live performances of the play and just a few movies and television specials.
Lesson number two centers on the feature's director and star. David Bradley was a young 21 when he made Peer Gynt as a student film at Northwestern University. His first real feature, he ingeniously used locales from Illinois, Wisconsin, and Lake Michigan to great advantage in giving the appearance of a foreign land. This low-budget silent feature was certainly a great challenge for a novice director, but Bradley did make one choice that had a dramatic impact on movies for decades to come: Bradley's star, Peer, was the first movie role for Charlton Heston. The two would collaborate once more in 1950 for the acclaimed Julius Caesar.
As a silent feature, Peer Gynt is easier to follow if you research the plot and characters in advance. With minimal dialogue (displayed with onscreen cue cards) and long stretches of "dialogue free" moments, the fantastic journeys of Peer are hard to follow; a little quick homework allowed me to better stay with the plot. I recommend this approach to anyone watching Peer Gynt for the first time.
In the first half of the movie, Peer and his wild passage are engrossing. In a silent movie, you can't look away for fear of missing something. Yet as the narrative unfolded, I found myself having more and more difficulty understanding what was going on. When Peer went to visit the Mountain King, my research told me what was happening; but when Peer went to Morocco, I was totally lost. Why was he there, what was he doing, and just what was the entire point of this? Then upon his return to Norway, all of the threads began to come together for the big (if nebulous) moral of the story. The idea is pounded at you during the last act, but it is hard to figure out how he got to this point. Peer Gynt is a challenging story to follow, and I admit I couldn't keep pace. My initial pleasure slowly turned to confusion, leading my mind to wander a bit and lose interest in the selfish young man.
As a student film, Peer Gynt is an exceptional piece of work. David Bradley showed awesome potential in tackling this daunting material. Putting it all together on no budget, with inexperienced actors, and no experience himself, Bradley looked to have a very promising career ahead of him. I was surprised to see how small his resume was on IMDb, and more surprised to see him end things in the weird world of schlock cinema.
Peer Gynt seems to have been filmed in chronological order; Bradley shows distinct improvement in his technique from the first frames to the last. In the beginning of the film, he used one movement over and over again: one or two people walking toward the camera, stopping, and then having a conversation with one (normally Peer) having the top of his head outside the frame. By the end, this wasn't the default technique and other diverse methods came into use, with, most importantly, no one's head missing from the shot.
The actors were inexperienced in this film, and it shows. Most of the performances suffer from bad acting or overacting. This is true for everyone in the film, including Charlton Heston. There are moments in the film when he looks extremely uncomfortable (e.g. the "skipping scene"), moments when he's just a bit uncertain, but there are moments when you can see the strength of the actor that he will become. As a strapping seventeen year-old with a huge swath of wavy hair, this young man just doesn't look like Charlton Heston. Time after time I could not see any resemblance, but then when Bradley filmed him at an upward angle and Heston smiled, there was the guy we all know and love.
For those of you up for a challenge you'll get that from the poem—and also from the DVD. This 65-year-old student film definitely looks its age. The lack of budget rears its ugly head, as the source material has degraded over the years. Sporting a full frame transfer (which the package lists as 1.33:1 but has unofficial technical specs at 1.37:1), you'll see every possible combination of dirt known to man. There's dirt a plenty, scratches, lines, pops, flickers, and things I don't even know what to call. Add to that blacks that are too grey, causing washed out details, and you have an awful video presentation. I don't hold that against the disc as it is what it is. Why clean up an amateur student film so that it loses that innate quality? Honestly, I was interested more in the audio to learn what Grieg's score sounds like. Sadly, it too suffers. The mono track is muddy, muffled, and just doesn't sparkle. In a silent film, the score drives the narrative and more work should have been done to clean up this part of the transfer.
The DVD does have a few bonus items. First up is a photo gallery (running by itself for 2 minutes) that sports an excellent menu/interface. Next up is a text-based bio of Charlton Heston (it too runs by itself for 5.5 minutes) and then there's a bio for David Bradley (1.5 minutes). Closing out the disc are trailers for Hannibal (no, not that one), Chu Chin Chow, and Pippin.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
A challenging movie that will keep you on your toes, Peer Gynt receives too many accolades for its music in lieu of its composition. While the brilliance of Grieg's score is not to be denied, more people need to acquaint themselves with Ibsen's poem. This wonderful movie allows you to experience this charming work of fantasy, to appreciate the full body of work and not just half of it. As much as we love the music, we need to love the words; for one without the other is wholly incomplete.
Peer Gynt is something I wanted to enjoy, but it was too smart and esoteric for me. The challenging material left me lost for much of the story, and the moral of the story was difficult to tie to what I had seen. Regardless, Peer Gynt is an impressive piece of work, especially when put into its historical context. While I may have missed out on everything it had to offer, I won't let that hinder me from recommending it to you—but only as a rental, for the transfers are exceptionally wanting and the bonus materials are negligible.
Peer Gynt is hereby found guilty of being an unprincipled, selfish prat.
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