My dad used to own a CD-Rom called Cinemania, a movie encyclopedia which was a major, major influence on my blossoming love of film. The foundation of Cinemania was a vast collection of movie reviews, most notably those of Leonard Maltin, Roger Ebert, and Pauline Kael. Among the films I first heard of through Cinemania was a 1960¹ film called The Sand Castle, described by Maltin as the story of a boy who builds a sand castle and imagines people living in it.
It was an interesting enough premise, and the fact that I’d never heard of the film didn’t hurt. Years later, remembering the film, I looked it up, only to find little trace of it online. I would continue to search, and was able to find the film’s soundtrack, but the actual film continued to elude me. I learned I could rent a tape of the film from the Museum of Modern Art for $45 (or buy it for $160!), but barring such an indulgence, the film seemed effectively out of my reach.
Then, Googling the film yet again, searching for whatever I could find about it, I discovered that the Jerome Foundation–devoted to The Sand Castle‘s writer-director Jerome Hill–had uploaded the film to Vimeo, ending my search. Finally, I had a spare hour², and finally saw the film I had so long wondered about.
NOTE: This review contains a number of screencaps from the film itself which I took from the Vimeo upload linked above. I do not own the film or these caps.
A young boy (Barry Cardwell), his sister (Laurie Cardwell), and their little dog are dropped off at the beach by their mother (Anita Bohling). He sees a bunch of other boys playing in a sand fort, but they throw sand and debris at him when he approaches, and he goes off down the beach, suddenly finding a shell which seems to fire his imagination (the B&W film blossoms into color when we see the shell). He sets to work on a sand castle, which over the course of the day grows larger and more elaborate, attracting the attention of his fellow beachgoers, whose own little human comedies we see played out:
- An older woman (Maybelle Nash) sets up an ostentatious tent and gets into a feud with a sunbather (Erica Speyer), who criticizes the behavior of the children (whom the older woman takes an affectionate interest in); the sunbather tries to alert the police, and is instead threatened with a citation for indecency;
- An artist (George Dunham) tries to paint his view of the beach, growing frustrated as he tries to accommodate the ever-changing details of the scene;
- A lackadaisical father (Lester Judson) brings his infant child to the beach, makes a weak effort at amusing it, then begins drinking (he and the sunbather seem to flirt a bit as well);
- A group of nuns, accompanied by a priest (Ghislain Dussart) come to the beach to play baseball.
Other characters factor into the mix, namely a fisherman (composer Alec Wilder), a frogman (Martin Russ), and a pair of young lovers (Charles Rydell and Allegra Ahern).
As the sand castle is completed, most of the beachgoers having some part, conscious or not, in its creation, rain begins to fall, and the children huddle under an umbrella and fall asleep, and the boy dreams of being a knight in his castle (influenced by a toy knight given to him by the older woman), and witnessing the beachgoers dining and dancing in its halls, before panic sets in; the castle’s destruction is imminent (in reality, from the tide). The “voice of the Shell” speaks to him and tells him that the dream-inhabitants of the castle don’t realize they are in a dream, his dream, and he will understand when he wakes.
The mother arrives, and urges them to leave quickly, as she does not wish to see the castle destroyed by the waves. The boy takes the knight and watches the waves consume the castle, and smiles.
Now for the big question–is The Sand Castle a good film?
I would say no, but that’s not entirely fair. It’s certainly got its share of flaws–as I will enumerate–and it’s hard not to think of other films that would handle similar themes with greater success (hell, the basic premise is not that far off from The Lego Movie), but it’s not without its strengths either, and if it heralds later and better films, it has historical value as a precursor to them.
To my frustration, the upload of the film, at least when I watched it, was not of the highest resolution, and evaluating the cinematography was difficult; I suspect the film is not markedly better even in tip-top shape, but since I figured my chances of seeing it at all were virtually nil, I guess there’s not much point in complaining. It’s a shame, though, since Lloyd Ahern’s cinematography manages some agreeable compositions throughout:
The real visual feast, however, and the most memorable aspect of the film, is the boy’s dream, animated in the style of 19th-century children’s theater (the credits specify thus), and in bright color which contrasts with the B&W of the rest of the film (except for the shots of the shell). The film was inspired by Jung’s theories, and the reflection of the day’s events in this sequence presumably reflects Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, but the beauty of the cut-out animation will probably stick with most viewers more than the rather simplistic parallels.
Again, the parallels between the day’s events and those of the dream sequence are pretty basic stuff by today’s standards, and not enough to hang a film on, but the craftsmanship is pleasing to the eye.
A more interesting parallel, honestly, is between the boy and the old artist. The boy crafts his sand castle largely in his own world; he solicits the help of others in gathering tools to shape the sand walls, but works from his own vision and, when reality intrudes (the nuns’ baseball smashes a bit of the castle), he fixes the issue without complaint. Although the film is rather unclear as to just what happens, the other boys on the beach seem to respect the castle as well; I think they help build a moat around it, to help ward off the tide. I assumed they would smash it maliciously, but Hill does not allow such a heart-rending development.
The old artist, however, is constantly reshaping his image to encompass the people and objects within it, and when the company disperses at the end, he scrapes the image clean of its figures and throws it petulantly in the sand, before looking it over, turning it sideways, and seemingly accepting it as an abstract work! (This scene, being in B&W, is a bit less clear than it should be.) Is Hill perhaps saying that the essence of the artistic spirit is, or should be, adaptability? That the artist should keep their vision theirs, but adapt with changing circumstances as needed? Certainly this would seem to be reflected by the film’s loose, semi-improvisatory feel.
Likewise, the boy’s acceptance of the sand castle’s destruction by the tide suggests an embrace of the transience of life and art, and an acknowledgment of the strength of imagination and the creative spirit; as long as that spirit endures, more castles can be created.
But I’m dodging the question of quality. And the truth is, The Sand Castle is just okay. It’s nicely shot, it has a few interesting ideas, it has some imagination…but the Jungian influence aside, it aims too low to be really thought-provoking, while not being substantial enough to be consistently entertaining in its own right.
Watching the film, I thought of the films of Jacques Tati (an observation shared by others), but Tati skewered modern society far more incisively and gracefully than Hill. The jabs at social pretension haven’t held up too well, and the dialogue is generally flat (it doesn’t help that most, if not all of the dialogue was obviously looped, which combined with the sometimes-awkward delivery tends to distance the viewer from the material), while the characters themselves are generally stock archetypes–possibly another Jungian nod, but not a terribly rewarding one.
The acting is generally adequate (though the bad dubbing makes it hard to judge at times), but a little research shows that most of the cast made no further film appearances, those who had doing so mostly in Hill’s second film, Open the Door and See All the People, as of this writing unavailable for viewing. Hill’s direction of the actors is at times confusing (is the father flirting with the sunbather? She seems to be flirting with him a little, but it’s not really clear), and the best moments, aside from the dream, are those which just capture life going on. Hill was best known as a documentarian (he won an Oscar for his eponymous film about Albert Schweitzer), and there his strengths seem to lie–there, or in the abstract sphere.
The cinematography, as noted, is solid; it’s fitting that the soundtrack was the most available element of the film, since it’s quite a nice score. By turns whimsical and haunting, Wilder’s music largely outshines the film (indeed, being an arguably more sophisticated work, it fits the film less well than a more modest score would have), and is reminiscent of Virgil Thomson’s acclaimed (the only film score to win a Pulitzer!) work on Louisiana Story, itself a portrait of childhood’s adventurous and imaginative spirit. Here, in fact, is the score, which I recommend more than the film itself:
The film I recommend to curiosity seekers and those interested in experimental cinema. 55 years ago, it might have been a nice alternative to more mainstream children’s fare, but it has been largely superseded by works of greater skill and depth. That it was one of the earlier children’s films to try and be a little more gives it some historical value, but as entertainment it’s just not quite there anymore.
¹Although some sources, like Cinemania, credit the film as a 1960 release, according to the IMDb it opened August 15, 1961.
²Pretty much every source I’ve seen lists the running time as 70 minutes, but the print uploaded on Vimeo is only 64 minutes. I’m not sure why the discrepancy exists, but the film’s episodic, surreal nature makes identifying possible cuts rather difficult.