This medium-length 1977 film showcases the work of four great
artists: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who wrote the immortal poem “The Rime
of the Ancient Mariner”; Gustave Dore, who provided the
still-unsurpassed illustrations to the text; Orson Welles, who reads the
poem in his inimitable baritone; and filmmaker Larry Jordan, who
integrated all these elements.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient
Mariner” was originally published in 1798 and revised in 1834. Gustave
Dore’s stunningly illustrated version arrived in 1875, and is believed
by many (myself included) to be among the legendary illustrator’s finest
Larry Jordan’s 42-minute film version appeared over 100
years later. Jordan is a famous underground filmmaker best known for OUR
LADY OF THE SPHERE (1969) and SOPHIE’S PLACE (1987). His style tends to
consist of cut-out animation superimposed over Nineteenth Century-era
paintings and illustrations (not unlike the
of Max Ernst). This in my view makes Jordan the perfect
choice to render Coleridge’s poem and Dore’s illustrations in cinematic
Orson Welles had a vocal range like no one else. In the
1960s and ‘70s he did readings of several classic texts, among them Jack
London’s “To Build A Fire” for director David Cobham’s 1969 film
adaptation. For “The Ancient Mariner” Welles, with the help of his
cohort (and future crap movie maestro) Gary Graver, allegedly recorded
each line of the poem several times over until he got the readings
absolutely right, leaving it up to Jordan to string the recitations
Other cinematic renderings of Coleridge’s masterpiece
include a 1975 animated version by Raul DeSilva and Paul Bush’s 1998
film THE ALBATROSS, which also utilizes Dore’s illustrations.
A carefree young man, a guest at a friend’s wedding, is
cornered by a creepy old guy who identifies himself as a Mariner. He
insists on telling his story, which transfixes the wedding guest, about
a doomed sea voyage to Antarctica.
According to the Mariner’s tale, after sailing through
various ice-bound landscapes his ship is guided out of the region by an
albatross. The Mariner, however, stupidly shoots the albatross with an
arrow. His shipmates initially shun him but once they reach calm waters
change their tune, not realizing the ship and its inhabitants are
Before long the ship is adrift in windless waters (“as
idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean”) leaving its inhabitants
stranded without sufficient food or water (“water, water everywhere, nor
any drop to drink”). The crewmembers renew their hatred of the Mariner,
and hang the dead albatross around his neck as a reminder of his crime.
But then the ship is approached by an eerie black sea
vessel. Upon it Death rolls dice with a white-robed woman for the lives
of the Mariner and his shipmates. The woman wins the roll, meaning the
Mariner gets to live and his shipmates die. This comes to pass, and the
Mariner is left alone on the idling ship. Yet he’s moved to bless the
sea creatures he once cursed, and the albatross falls from his neck.
From there the ship is destroyed in a whirlpool and the
Mariner escapes by hitching a ride on a rowboat. Back on land he finds
that the only way he can get any peace is by telling his tale to anyone
he can find, with the wedding guest being the latest (but far from
Larry Jordan pays Coleridge’s tale and Dore’s etchings
the utmost respect, but still adds quite a bit of his own to the film.
Viewers of any of Jordan’s other films will recognize the constantly
shifting color schemes and various bits of ephemera that periodically
drift across the screen, superimposed over Dore’s backgrounds: birds, a
smiley-faced sun and the woman-with-a-globe-head who turns up in quite a
few of Jordan’s animations. Other Jordan trademarks include periodic
flashing and buzzing, emitting more often than not from tiny objects
stationed near the edges of the frame. All in all the film looks and
feels like one of Jordan’s more odd and esoteric efforts, highlighting
the underlying weirdness of the poem (which many scholars believe was
conjured during one of Coleridge’s not-infrequent opium trips).
Orson Welles’ authoritative and dramatic reading of the
text is superb, as you might expect, and Jordan does a good job
synchronizing the artwork with it. Oft-times he’ll pan or zoom through
the pictures, emphasizing certain details and allowing for a renewed
appreciation of the extraordinary complexity of Dore’s art.
The film, in the end, is both appropriately reverential
and deeply trippy. I haven’t seen the other adaptations of this poem,
but can’t imagine they can possibly be any better than this one.
THE RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER
Director/Producer/Cinematographer/Editor: Larry Jordan
Cast: Orson Welles