Part of the aim of The American Film Theatre’s filming of some of the most famous pieces of serious drama was to give audiences access to original productions with some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period that they would be unlikely to see outside of Broadway and the West End. However one or two films brought original or very rarely performed dramas back into the public eye. Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo had not been performed anywhere for decades, but it was a cherished project of director Joseph Losey, who had directed an early version of the play starring Charles Laughton on Broadway in 1947.
Brecht’s play covers the life of Galileo Galilei from his days as a teacher of Mathematics is Padua in 1609, through to his house arrest at the end of his life under the orders of the Papal Inquisition for his heretical theories. The play is tightly structured, each scene depicting an important event or discovery in the scientist’s life – his pioneering work with the telescope, his confirmation of the Copernican view of the solar system, and his important astronomical discoveries and theories on sunspots. The play also examines the impact these discoveries have on society, from the benefits they had to merchants and ship owners, allowing their ships to be guided by star charts to the resistance they faced from the influential Medici family in Florence and of course the church, who saw his theories are contradicting the word of the Bible, leaving no place for God in the universe.
Rather than just being merely biographical however, the play has wider relevance, bringing into question the right of scientists to explore, invent and theorise without being fully responsible for the effects of their work on society. Rather than just show the church as being reactionary and dismissive, it does put the case for the deep theological schism that his discoveries gave rise to. When science offers nothing more than the idea of humanity clinging to a chunk of rock spinning through a cold, empty universe, what would the poor toiling in the fields have to live for if they didn’t have faith that they would be rewarded in the next life? Galileo’s response, that it suits the rich families of Italy and the church to keep poor people in their place, and that “the seduction of proof” would eventually win through is persuasive, but it nevertheless contradicts centuries of thought and belief and would have a profound, damaging effect on society. Brecht obviously puts the emphasis on truth, progression and enlightenment, but he himself would come to be less sure of the message of the play after the detonation of the first atom bomb, revising the play a number of times, and the same questions of morality and responsibility set against truth and discovery must remain relevant today for scientific advancements in the field of genetics.
Although there was no recent stage production to base the filmed version upon, Galileo nevertheless retains the feel of other AFT productions. Like The Maids which was released alongside this, the film makes excellent use of the limited set designs and locations, creating a strong feel of a stage drama, while at the same time opening it out slightly with imaginative lighting and shooting angles. The costumes and colours are magnificent, as elegant as a Renaissance painting and as glowingly vivid as the restored ceiling of the Sistene chapel. The linking musical elements – three choirboys introducing each section like Oompa-loompas – are less successful. The cast, featuring many famous British actors including John Geilgud, Margaret Leighton, Edward Fox, Michael Gough, Colin Blakely and Tom Conti, is superb, although Topol is a strange choice to play Galileo, mangling many lines through his Israeli accent and getting emphasis wrong all over the place. Some audio re-dubbing of his lines can be detected on the soundtrack. On the other hand, he looks the part, is a strong, imposing presence and ages marvellously throughout becoming more convincing as the film goes on. Unfortunately, it does go on a bit too long.
The American Film Theatre series was an ambitious attempt in the 1970s to bring drama rarely seen outside a Broadway stage to a wider American public. Each of the fourteen films that were made benefited from some of the finest stage actors and directors of the period, capturing some of remarkable original productions and permanently preserving them for future audiences. Galileo follows the AFT DVD releases of The Homecoming, Butley, A Delicate Balance and The Man In The Glass Booth, Rhinoceros, The Iceman Cometh and The Maids as part of the complete set of all fourteen titles in the American Film Theatre Collection. Details of the collection can be found here. Each of the releases contains a substantial number of relevant and high quality extra features.
The film, like all the other titles in the series is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Colours are appropriately bold and strong, fully conveying the richness of the costume and set designs. The image is fairly soft however and blacks, while strong and deep, are rather flat and lacking in detail. The image flickers perceptibly throughout, possibly through the telecine transfer, although it could be on account of the numerous macro-blocking artefacts that can be detected shimmering throughout. There are one or two marks on the print and some large reel-change marks, but for the most part the image is clear of print damage. Overall the image is satisfactory, but it will depend on your tolerance for the above sort of problems.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono audio track is average. There is a certain amount of background hiss and a little roughness around the edge of voices, but the dialogue is mostly clear and audible. There may be some difficulty making out the occasional word, particularly through Topol’s accent and it is unfortunate that there are no subtitles provided.
There are no hard of hearing subtitles on the feature or on the extra material.
Interview with Topol (21:11)
Topol in a recent interview talks about his love of Brecht and the themes that he brings up in the play. He was delighted that Losey chose him for the part and clearly loves the play and making the film with a great cast and director, providing a couple of anecdotes about the film’s making.
Interview with Otto Plaschkes (21:47)
The Executive Producer of the AFT series talks about the approach to putting famous plays onto the screen, with reference to Butley, The Homecoming, In Celebration and Galileo. This interview is duplicated on those other titles.
AFT Trailer Gallery
Trailers are included for The Maids (2:57), Luther (2:28), Lost In The Stars (2:05), Three Sisters (2:41), Rhinoceros (1:50), The Iceman Cometh (2:37), The Man In The Glass Booth (2:27), A Delicate Balance (3:19), The Homecoming (2:29) and Butley (2:53).
The programme notes for the film’s presentation are a little more obscure this time around. I found it difficult to find anything meaningful said in Barbara Bray on Joseph Losey and the Cinematic Theatre of Bertolt Brecht, which are notes written by the screenwriter for the film version of Galileo. I, Bertold Brecht presents a chronology of the dramatist’s life. In The Individual Eye, Losey looks at adapting Brecht to the cinema and Nevertheless, It Does Move presents the prominent facts in the life of Galileo.
The stills gallery contains 9 black & white stills.
“Bertolt Brecht and Galileo” by Michael Feingold, the Chief Theatre Critic for the Village Voice, takes a closer look at Brecht’s life and theatre and some background on Galileo.
There is much of interest in Joseph Losey’s adaptation of Bertold Brecht’s Galileo for the American Film Theatre. The play works both as an intriguing historical biography and as an examination of the responsibility of the scientist in the quest of truth and discovery. It’s superbly presented on the screen, coming colourfully to life with an excellent cast – but some elements could stretch a cinema-goer’s patience where a more intimate theatrical setting possibly wouldn’t be quite as demanding. Nevertheless, Galileo is another unique and worthwhile presentation in the American Film Theatre Collection.