The Forgotten: Swift Boat Veterans

David Cairns


To begin with, something I'm outrageously proud of. Not only did my partner and I attend the public celebration of animator and special effects genius Ray Harryhausen's 90th birthday, but I was able to do the Great Man a favor. In his memoir Ray Harryhausen: An Animated Life, the author records how he was influenced in his youth not only by King Kong (obviously), but by Fritz Lang's Metropolis and something called The New Gulliver:

"I was sixteen when I saw the Russian film The New Gulliver (1935), a tour de force of stop-motion model animation which is virtually unknown today but, at the time, was one of the earliest and most complex examples of live action and puppet animation. Directed by Alexander Ptushko, it told of a small boy who dreams of the land of Lilliput where workers revolt against the monarchy. For me, the movement of the tiny characters was totally absorbing, while the underlying politics went right over my head."

So I was thrilled to be able to source a copy of the film for Ray, who apparently hadn't seen it since his teenage years. Thanks to Randy Cook, who presented me with the task, and the shadowy figure known to me only as MinimalBoy, who actually obtained the film and upgraded the fan subtitles.

Pre-dating Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by years, Ptushko and A. Vanichkin's film loses a place in the history books because it's not wholly animated. Apart from a live action framing structure introducing a troupe of boy scouts, one of whom dreams his way into his own version of Jonathan Swift's satirical tale, the film mixes human and puppet characters throughout, with elaborate interactions between the two. When young Gulliver is pegged out on the beach of Lilliput, the mayor walks over his pinioned torso as the crowds mill around and soldiers arrive on penny farthings. It's an amazing shot, starting in live action and switching to combined stop-motion puppetry and "pixillation" (the animation of full-sized human beings), as the camera roves across the boy's tethered body and over the surrounding scenery. In fact, using puppets to present the Lilliputians allows so much interaction and obviates much need for process photography, that it's amazing, on the face of it, that every adaptation hasn't used this approach. But with some thought, the reason becomes clear: animating scores of little figures, while requiring a juvenile star to remain perfectly still while they trample over him, must have been hellishly laborious.


Obviously, Swift's satire is somewhat dulled in this version, which plays much as a young boy of the Soviet era might have dreamed it. Instead of the original author's acerbic demolition of human folly and beastliness, we have instead a good guys versus bad guys vision of politics, where people are fundamentally good, if society can be configured to give them the power. There was a huge tradition of animated propaganda in the Soviet Union, which this movie falls squarely into. At least while it's trashing monarchy and democracy it can vent some Swiftian spleen. The King of Lilliput is a congenital imbecile (looking not unlike 30s Hollywood Russian Mischa Auer) who lipsynchs to proclamations played on a gramophone, and his ministers beat each other to death while "debating" whether to war with Gulliver or trade with him (the only two options these capitalists can conceive of).

Ptushko, who went on to make numerous acclaimed Russian fantasies in live action, achieves amazing detail (the little characters all have their own distinct dental work) and magisterial camera moves through his imaginary kingdom, and if the diagrammatic commie brainwashing is rather tedious, the filmmaking is never less than strange and charming.


In 1960, Harryhausen himself got to follow in the footsteps of Ptushko (and Dave Fleischer, who had directed a cel animation version in 1939) with The Three Worlds of Gulliver. Unfortunately, since this was a project brought to Harryhausen by writer and director Jack Sher, it didn't offer many opportunities for animation. Harryhausen contented himself with elaborate process work and forced perspective tricks to allow Kerwin Mathews to interact with the miniscule Lilliputians and massive Brobdingnagians, who are all played by regular actors. In Brobdingnag, Dr G. eventually meets a nasty giant squirrel (which whinnies in a most disturbing fashion) and is forced to fight a duel with a baby alligator, allowing Harryhausen to cut loose with some impressive animation—Mathews' interactions with the baby gator are particularly elaborate and mind-blowing (since Mathews is actually being projected, a frame at a time on a miniature screen behind the reptile, how can his sword pass in front of it—and how can it grip his shield in his teeth and tug it away from him? You work it out.)


While this movie jettisons almost as much of Swift's misanthropy as the Russian version, it likewise retains some satiric vigor, showing the pettiness and treachery of politicians in a way that's pretty bold and thought-provoking for a kids' film. Gulliver embodies vaguely humanist/democratic principles, and never sinks to the embittered level of the book's narrator.

I guess it's natural that most adaptations leave out the other kingdoms Gulliver visited: firstly, the contrast of Tinytown and Land of the Giants is so striking that you kind of feel you've had a full movie's worth of spectacle just with those two, and secondly, Swift's other creations are of a different order and are less likely to fit the simple patterns popular with children. I do think it's a slight cheat for the Russians (and the Anglo-Belgian version of 1977) to only give us one fantastical kingdom: it hardly seems like traveling at all. But at least Ptushko and co. have the added idea of a child Gulliver (he's a doctor, aged ten, like Dougie Howser?), playing into children's fantasies: the small and powerless becomes enormous and omnipotent.


The Japanese Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon certainly plays fair on the globe-trotting front, not even confining itself to our globe. A homeless lad, ejected from a Gulliver movie, meets the man himself, unaccountably still alive in the 20th century, if elderly. Gulliver has been planning a space mission for some time, and subjects the lad to a series of comic-sadistic tests, much like those in The Right Stuff, only this time the prospective astronaut is accompanied by a talking dog and a sentient toy soldier, and none of them have to give a sperm sample. The movie follows a format often called picaresque, which can be a synonym, and in this case certainly is, for one damn thing after another.

What's lacking in structure is certainly made up for in charm and whimsy, with a strong Disney influence (deep cobalt blue skies, and an arboreal night-fright sequence seems lifted straight out of Snow White) coupled with the elegant clean-line designs associated with all Japanese cartoons bearing the influence of Osamu "Astro Boy" Tezuko and the UIP cartoons from America featuring Gerald McBoing-Boing. What's not charming is peculiar: Gulliver's spaceship is piloted by his pet crow, Kuro, while the passengers perch on chairs suspended over a nasty metallic abyss.


As might be expected from all this fairy-tale stuff, Gullier and co.'s journey to the Blue Star of Hope does not take in the kind of scathing observations afforded in Swift. It's here that we see one of the more pernicious effects of movie-izing the classics: Yoshio Kuroda's movie owes more to cinematic versions of the book, and to other unrelated movies, than to its putative source. All that's retained is the idea of traveling to other, exotic places, where the laws of physics and society behave strangely. A time-warp briefly turns the little boy into a talking zero-gravity baby, but no general observations are drawn from this as to the nature of time, mankind or childhood. The attitude is pure gee-whiz, rather than sadness and anger. Is this a bad thing? The negative effect, in purely aesthetic terms, is that without the equivalent of a satiric intent, where all the varied adventures add up to make some kind of point, the picaresque narrative comes to seem merely disjointed and shapeless.

True, the movie is gorgeous to behold, but the runaway robots and dinners in capsule form encountered by the heroes in space are basic sci-fi tropes already somewhat familiar. Only crusty old Gulliver, with his triangular nose, seems determined to add a bit of spleen to the proceedings. The aliens say that Earth sounds very interesting. "No no no, it's not interesting at all!" protests the old guy.



The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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