Joseph Strick’s Ulysses

Ulysses might well be thought an impossible book to film, what with its stream-of-consciousness narrative and dizzying  stylistic switches.  But Joseph Strick made a good fist of it with his 1967 adaptation that I revisited when it was screened at this year’s Liverpool Irish Festival.

Strick had been enthralled by the Ulysses since he was a 16-year-old, reading a copy that had been smuggled into the USA from Europe by his Polish-immigrant, steelworker father in the 1920s. The book, first published in 1922, was banned as obscene in the US and Britain at the time of its publication, although the bans were lifted in the 1930s.

‘Even before I made it’, said Strick, ‘people were saying it was unfilmable. I think the truth is, some people just find the book unreadable’.  Apparently, Strick originally envisaged an 18-hour film version, faithful to every word and unsurprisingly he couldn’t raise the finance: potential investors no doubt fearing it would be unwatchable.

Just as Joyce transposed elements of Homer’s Odyssey to a warm June day in Dublin in 1904, so Strick decided to set the movie in 1960s Dublin: a decision that served to highlight the continuing relevance of  Joyce’s critique of  Irish social and sexual mores, since nothing of 1904 seemed out of place in 1967. Ramming the point home, the film was immediately banned in Ireland for being ‘subversive to public morality’ – and remained banned there until 2000.

Here in the UK, the British Board of Film Censors demanded 29 cuts, but eventually passed the film after Strick re-submitted it with the offending sequences replaced by a blank screen and shrieking soundtrack.  It gained the honour of being the first film in Britain to include the word fuck. Strick had already had a run-in with the organisers of the 1967 Cannes film festival – an event described by him as ‘corrupt and fake, and just a mechanism for keeping the hotels open’ – when Ulysses was shown with some of the French subtitles cut. During the screening, Strick stood up and yelled out that the film had been censored. He then went upstairs to the projection booth and turned off the switches. A scuffle ensued, and Strick was thrown down the stairs by security guards and broke his ankle. He withdrew the film immediately from the festival.

Joseph Strick was certainly a maverick in the film world; a lifelong anti-establishment figure, he carved out a career away from the Hollywood studios. After the Cannes debacle, he snubbed the Academy Awards ceremony when Ulysses was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay award. The film failed to win.  Three years later he  later made a short documentary Interviews with My Lai Veterans in which five American soldiers talk frankly about the 1968 massacre of up to 130 Vietnamese villagers in four hours.

There’s another good story about Strick: in 1969, against his independent instincts, he accepted Twentieth Century-Fox’s offer to direct Justine – based on Lawrence Durrell’s novel about a Jewess married to a wealthy banker in 1938 Egypt. He was sacked soon after filming began, having insisted that Glenda Jackson (with whom he had worked at the RSC) should have a role, but, he said, ‘they wanted a bimbo’. George Cukor took over as director and one critic described the resulting film as ‘Peyton Place with camels’.

Returning to Ulysses: one of the joys of Strick’s film is the superb black and white cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky which magnificently captures the landscapes of Dublin, its streets and bridges, pawnshops and outdoor bookstalls, monuments and seascapes.  Strick and Suschitzky have carefully selected locales that convey the same sense as the book of an atmosphere of teeming life in a shabby environment.  This is faithful to Joyce, who once remarked, ‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.  In the particular is contained the universal’.

Strick is also rigorously faithful to Joyce’s language, every word of the film deriving from the original text, though his decision to set the story in 1960s Dublin subtly shifts its focus to give a more intense, humanistic interpretation of Joyce’s novel. Famous lines, such as ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ and major themes (the hold of the church on Ireland, anti-Semitism, the father-son relationship, sexual repression) and the ironic parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (the sirens on the beach, the carriage ride to Hades and the funeral, the encounter with the Cyclops in the bar, and Circe in the brothel) are all present and correct, as well as almost the entirety of Molly Bloom’s uncensored concluding monologue.

The acting is uniformly excellent, too.  Apart from two English actors (Barbara Jefford as Molly Bloom and TP McKenna as Buck Mulligan) Strick cast a host of little-known fine character actors from Dublin, including Maurice Roëves as Stephen Dedalus and Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom.  The bar scene (below) is a particularly fine illustration of the quality of the acting.

The episode in the bar gives rise to my favourite exchange, Bloom’s contretemps with The Citizen:

Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
Yes, says Bloom.
What is it? says John Wyse.
A nation? says Bloom.
A nation is the same people living in the same place.
By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
Or also living in different places.
That covers my case, says Joe.
What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. […]

But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
What? says Alf.
Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

This is one of several memorable passages from the novel that are realised with particular fidelity in the film.  Earlier, there is the famous scene at the school where Stephen Dedalus teaches, between Stephen and the head teacher:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
What? Mr Deasy asked.
– A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders. […]

Mr Dedalus!
Running after me. No more letters, I hope.
Just one moment.
Yes, sir, Stephen said, turning back at the gate.
Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.
She never let them in, he cried again through his laughter as he stamped on gaitered feet over the gravel of the path. That’s why.
On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.

Then there is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which takes up the final quarter of the film; here’s the concluding passage:

I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes sixteen years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Watching this, I was reminded of Eve Arnold’s wonderful photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, taken in 1954. What I love about the shot is the extra frisson that comes from knowing which particular passage she’s reading (because you can see where she is in the book).

The whole of Joseph Strick’s Ulysses can be watched on YouTube, broken arbitrarily into 15 sections, beginning here:

This section includes the barroom encounter between Bloom and The Citizen:

This is the final 8 minutes of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:


3 thoughts on “Joseph Strick’s Ulysses

  1. I agree as the film is in black and whit you would almost image it is contemporaneous with Ulysses, the other work which does justice to the book is RTE radio’s 24 hour dramatization of the book.


  2. I think Bloomsday only goes back to the early 1950s when Anthony Cronin, Pat rick Kavanagh and others celebrated the day there is a well known photo of them on a horse and carriage.

    Earlier this afternoon I happened to pass the house which was once the school where Joyce taught briefly and is the scene of Mr Deasy’s school in Ulysses.

    I was reading through the new biography of Joyce by Gordon Bowker it is amazing how much Joyce packs into the works from various sources and untangling them must be like getting the solution to a complex crossword.


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