Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece and Tintin and the Blue Oranges – a review of the new DVD releases from the British Film Institute

Filed: 24 October 2010.

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece, and Tintin and the Blue Oranges - British Film Institute DVD releases
Image © BFI/Roissy Films.

It’s taken almost fifty years for the two 1960s live action Tintin films Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece and Tintin and the Blue Oranges to get a decent release in English.

The closest we could get to these movies were the translations of two tie-in story books, published by Methuen in the 1960s; however, they didn’t remain in print for very long, are fairly hard to come by now, and without actually having the films to accompany them they seemed rather inconsequential.

Even in the Francophone world the film albums fell by the wayside, and are no longer in print. The films themselves continued to be shown on television there, often in the holidays; they were also released on VHS home-video, and eventually came out on DVD. Sadly for those less than fluent in French, there were no subtitles in foreign languages, so apart from allowing us to actually see the films, they remained tantalizingly incomprehensible on a fundamental level.

Things began to look up in 2007, when an Australian company, Umbrella Entertainment, released the films on DVD for the first time with English subtitles. However, these versions were still sadly less than perfect, and therefore not wholly satisfying. They presented the pictures cropped, in anamorphic widescreen, rather than in the true 1.66:1 ratio. The subtitling was reasonable, if sometimes out of sync with the action on screen. Lastly, and possibly most irritatingly, the picture quality was very poor, like a VHS tape copy of a VHS copy. It was certainly a good attempt, and for the first time both films were accessible to an English-speaking audience – but the best was yet to come…

Finally the dream has become reality, and we have a release of which we can be proud. The earlier editions have been blown out of the water, and in ways that may be beyond the imaginings of even the most ardent Tintinologist. The British Film Institute have given them a thorough going over – polished up the pictures until they positively glow, tweaked the audio, then added booklets packed with information and photographs – and a very fine job they’ve made of them too.

Most importantly for the enthusiast, we can now finally see, or perhaps I should say hear, the original English language soundtrack for Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece. In 1961 when this was recorded, Methuen’s English-language books had only been appearing for three years, with only six stories released; they hadn’t yet fully entered the public consciousness in the UK. Thus while many of the catchphrases we’ve come to know are there, they sometimes appear slightly differently to the way in which we are more used to them. There’s “blue blistering typhoons!”, for example, which is close, but then there is also the less familiar “blistering blue buzzards!”, not to mention “jumping jellyfish”, which was actually one of Captain Pugwash’s favourite curses.

The voices are excellent, matching the original French versions marvellously, and were dubbed by English sounding actors, except for Tintin who has a very ‘polite’ American accent. It doesn’t grate whatsoever and suits him just fine.

Flicking between the languages on my remote revealed the English language soundtrack of The Golden Fleece to be slightly quieter than the French version, but not in any really detrimental way. The background sound effects are almost exactly as they are on the original French version – when a dub to a film is made it requires replacing all of the background sound too, such as ship’s horns, barking dogs, barrels rolling down hillsides and crashing into market stalls, etc. – but it all sounds very authentic, and the (excellent) music links are all still in place, perhaps proving that they were dubbed at a time when various components of the film were still available.

It’s also interesting to compare the subtitles with the English language track (if you play it with the English language track and the subtitles on) because the two don’t exactly match. The script for the voice artists cleverly alters their dialogue to better fit the original lip movements, whilst the subtitles are a more direct translation of the original French. This gives us the best of both worlds, as on the level of a purist the subtitles gives the English reader an experience closely fitting the original French-speaking viewer; the dubbing is more expressive and free than the translated subtitles, and is thus more vibrant and in keeping with the tone of the movie.

The English language track for Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece was salvaged from what may be the only surviving copy, discovered in the BBC archives. They’d broadcast it only once during a May Bank Holiday in 1978, where it was re-titled Tin Tin and the Golden Treasure. Thankfully the BBC held on to their copy. It was later located by BFI curator Vic Pratt, who in 2007 presented a screening of it at the National Film Theatre in London, along with other rare TV footage related to Tintin.

Sadly, a dubbed version of Tintin and the Blue Oranges is still yet to be found (if it ever existed), as is information about who provided the English voices for the earlier film. Let’s hope that the advent of these releases might lead to further information that will provide answers to the questions raised by these issues.

Both films are presented in their original aspect ratios of 1.66:1 (I think for the first time). They’ve been transferred in high definition from the best available pre-print 35mm films and the result is very clean, very clear and very colourful. Indeed, the glorious Eastman colour is the first thing that struck me; it is quite outstanding in these films endowing them with much more of a comic book look and feel.

The DVD menus look very nice, presented as a double page of an open comic book with the options inside speech bubbles. Unfortunately I found it rather difficult to see where I was navigating to, even on my fairly large TV screen. However, that won’t matter too much if, like me, you’re able to turn the subtitles on and off and change the language by pressing the relevant buttons on your remote control.

Another word on the menus: The Blue Oranges disc has two blue oranges up in the comic header, but I’m not sure what those are on The Golden Fleece. They look like folded up towels or blankets, but I suppose they’re meant to be fleeces…!

The discs are each complemented by full-colour booklets. These are well illustrated with many photographs, and contain newly commissioned essays by Vic Pratt, Simon Doyle, John Fardell and Christian Owens (better known to me as ‘me’!). Also included in the booklets are some very interesting extracts from the autobiography of Tintin himself - Jean-Pierre Talbot’s book J’étais Tintin au Cinema, translated into English exclusively for these discs by the producer Sonia Mullett.

It’s also nice to find that the original French trailer for each film has been included on the appropriate disc – a nice bit of attention to detail.

Although Hergé didn’t write these stories there certainly are many incidents which evoke the flavour of his adventures – for a start, the storyline to The Golden Fleece is quite similar to that of The Secret of the Unicorn. In one scene, when they’re trapped at the top of a tower, the Captain drops stone cannon balls down the spiral stairs, bringing to mind a similar scene in The Black Island.  The story also mentions a fictitious Latin-American country, Tetaragua, which could be a second cousin of San Theodoros or Nuevo Rico. Interestingly, the ‘Harmonie de Moulinsart’, the Marlinspike Brass Band, made their debut appearance in the final scene. They were not seen in comic book form until The Castafiore Emerald, released two years after the film.

However, the strength of The Golden Fleece is not to be found in strict adherence to existing material, but rather in the way that it creates a narrative that is both new, original and yet embodies the themes and spirit of Hergé’s paper creation in a manner which feels entirely right. By having the courage to take the characters out into the real world on their own adventure, rather than adapting an established book, the film-makers give themselves the freedom to seek out new locations and situations to set their story.

Hergé never sent his characters to Greece and Turkey, but if he had, they would have travelled roads like those in the film, sailed into harbours like we are shown, and doubtlessly climbed vertiginous rocks to visit remote monasteries.

The artist himself always had mixed feelings about Tintin projects over which he had little or no control, but he took a keen interest in these particular films, contributing storyboards and analysing the scripts in great detail. The closing credits of The Golden Fleece were drawn by him, and offer a tiny glimpse of how a comic book version of the story might have looked – one of the drawings shows a huge pile of crossed out and discarded scripts, a subtle reference to his contribution, perhaps?

The recycling of sequences from the albums is most apparent, and less effective, in The Blue Oranges, which seems largely constructed of one short borrowed skit after another, making the plot (such as it is) quite hard to follow. The professor receives a letter from a scientist and is later kidnapped, trench-coated baddies stalk Marlinspike, Castafiore hides Tintin in her wardrobe – all sequences bearing a similarity to parts of The Calculus Affair. Even the opening sequence where the hard-of-hearing Calculus is interviewed on TV is reminiscent of a page from Hergé’s aborted early version of the Moon adventure, where the professor is interviewed for the radio.

While fidelity to the source material is essential, and often commendable, in the case of The Blue Oranges it sometimes gets in the way, and seems to stifle the progress of the action. For example, Captain Haddock – who seems rather out of character for much of the time – on one occasion pointlessly waves a sword about as he does in The Secret of The Unicorn, as if that was all that was needed to imbue the character with life (although the sequence shortly after where he attempts to put the sword back on the wall is quite amusing).

The film is not without its good points however. One of my favourite sequences in The Blue Oranges is where the Thom(p)sons are shown in their adjacent rooms, as viewed in a split-screen, each mimicking the other’s actions. It’s a very Jacques Tati-esque moment and I feel more could have been made of it. Indeed, although they have little dialogue, the Detectives as played by a pair of real-life twins are (one of) the highlights of the second film. The physicality and humour these former wrestlers bring to their performance is superb.

Still to date the only Tintin movies made with flesh and blood characters, it’s really the performances that make these highly watchable films, especially Jean-Pierre Talbot’s portrayal of Tintin. It’s true they don’t live up to the subtle wit, biting satire or careful plotting of Hergé’s own adventures, but they have a great sense of fun and warmth. The passing of the years has not dimmed the potential enjoyment of these films one bit. Indeed, it has gifted them bags of nostalgic charm and enhanced the curiosity value. Whether you are a lover of ‘60s kitsch and exotica, or a fan of straight-ahead, cold-war era travelogue adventure films, you will probably find great enjoyment in them. They are also unique stories, not (officially) available in comic book form, making them remarkable in their own right, interesting anomalies in the Tintinverse spacetime-continuum.

So all in all, a very welcome release that I’m very pleased to have filling the gap in my English-language Tintin collection. Let’s hope for more Tintin from the BFI! Perhaps Egmont could now do a limited reissue of the English tie-in books?

If you’re a Tintin fan you have to buy these films. And if you don’t like Tintin or ‘60s exotica, but you know someone who does, blistering blue buzzards – buy these films for them!

Tintin and the Golden Fleece, and Tintin and the Blue Oranges - British Film Institute DVD booklet
Image © BFI/Roissy Films.

Tintin and the Mystery of the Golden Fleece
Cat no: BFIV902 / France / 1961 / Cert PG / colour / French language, with English subtitles and optional English audio / 98 mins / DVD9 / Original aspect ratio 1.66:1 / Dolby Digital dual mono (320 kbps)

Special features:

Tintin and the Blue Oranges
Cat no: BFIV903 / France, Spain / 1964 / Cert U / colour / French language, with English subtitles / 98 mins / DVD9 / Original aspect ratio 1.66:1 / Dolby Digital dual mono (320 kbps)

Special features: