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The Sandpiper

The Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Film Collection

An uptight male square meeting a vivacious, ensorcelling bohemianette has been a staple of Hollywood since movie-time immemorial. It's a genre that includes such films as Breakfast at Tiffany's, Save the Tiger, Breezy, and the early Fox-TV series "Flying Blind." And what better location is there for a modern tale of square vs. bohemian than Big Sur, that 72-mile strip of coastal bliss in Marin County, Calif., about 120 miles south of San Francisco, where the last vestiges of the beatnik lifestyle mingled and transubstantiated with the burgeoning ethos of the hippies. As also later seen in John Frankenheimer's Seconds, it's a place of polysexual openness and recreational drug use, where revelers rally around a beach bonfire to guitar strums. Released in 1965 and falling between The V.I.P.s" and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the long string of Burton-Taylor collaborations, The Sandpiper also strays into this free-spirited arena, bringing news of the ways of those west coast weirdos to the stolid citizens of Muncie. The plot is an excuse to meld a pompous Burton with a freewheeling Taylor, his conventional cleric enslaved by her unpossessible figure. After shooting a deer, an act apparently illegal in California, a nine-year-old home-schooled boy named Danny Reynolds is court-ordered to attend the San Simeon Episcopal School, led by Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton), against the wishes of the boy's mother, an unwed painter (of what appears to be motel-lobby art) named Laura Reynolds, played by Elizabeth Taylor (apparently child custody films are where old MGM contract players go to die: vide Judy Garland in A Child is Waiting). The good headmaster soon learns that young Danny already has a rather refined education, able to recite Chaucer in the original accent, and then falls for the mom.

Directed by Vincente Minnelli from a script credited to former blacklistees Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson (then "adapted" by Irene and Louis Kamp from a "story" by Martin Ransohoff), the tale of The Sandpiper is smug and earnest ("The world can't be innocent with man in it") as it makes its methodical progress toward an affair between the married headmaster and the society-shunning maverick. This is the kind of philosophy-free film in which a broken-winged sandpiper laboriously symbolizes the fragility of Laura's liberated spirit; its progress charts the romance just as the building of a house does in Strangers When We Meet. Burton alternates between stodginess (it's a shock when the minister finally sheds his tie) and verbal facility (his sparring matches with Laura's bohemians), but the supposedly freeform Laura can also create the occasionally unmotivated public scene, such as when the minister reveals that he has admitted the affair to his wife, Laura then taking the dubious position that love between a man and a woman bears the same sanctity as that between a lawyer and client. Modern audiences will probably be shocked at the ease with which the minister violates his Church and professional code in order to enter a hopeless relationship. The film moves inexorably towards the minister's public self-abasement, the type of scene Burton was so good at (see the beginning of The Night of the Iguana). New viewers of the film will be amused by the presence of Charles Bronson as a muscular sculptor, but more pleasing is to see grand old character actors such as Robert Webber as the trouble-making jilted lover, his beautiful, clear American voice interacting with Burton's husky poetic brooding tones. Also in the cast are Eva Marie Saint as the fallow wife, and Nico as a party dancer. This is also the film that introduced the song "The Shadow of Your Smile."

*          *          *

An MGM production, The Sandpiper comes to DVD for the first time via Warner Home Video's "The Elizabeth Taylor–Richard Burton Collection," a four-film set anchored by Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Warner offers a fine, colorful anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) of Milton Krasner's nature-smitten imagery (interiors, by contrast, betray conventional studio lighting), with an adequate DD 1.0 track. Supplements consist of two contemporaneous promotional "making-of" spots. First there is the black-and-white, full frame "A Statue for The Sandpiper" (4 min.), which chronicles the creation of a statue of Miss Taylor forged in redwood guts by one Edmund Kara, a former studio hack who gave it all up to sculpt on the Big Sur. The exuberant contours of her lavish bosom below the poor likeness of her face gives an idea of the sculpture's focus. "The Big Sur" (8 min.), also black-and-white and full-frame, is an ode to the region, intoned by Burton on the soundtrack. In a fine performance, perhaps better than the one in the movie, he recites a Robinson Jeffers poem about Big Sur before the short transitions to images of the film in production. In between are shots of long-haired and bearded bohemians in action, sculpting, mosaicing, or dancing to pan flutes, drums, and tambourines, especially at a cabin called Nepenthe, once owned by Orson Welles, which has a Geodesic dome in the background. Slimcase in the box-set.
—D.K. Holm



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