Since the NFB’s inception, we have been mandated to make as many films as possible available in both official languages.
In the early days, a new voiceover would suffice to create the French version of an English film, and vice versa. In the 1950s, films made for television were shot in English and then re-shot with an entirely different cast in French. Very few films were ever made available with subtitles, as the thinking in the film industry at the time was that these were box office poison. Naturally, our first feature films in the 1960s were dubbed into the other language. There were some exceptions of course—The Cat in the Bag (Le Chat dans le sac) only exists with subtitles—but the majority were released in dubbed versions.
The English version of Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault’s Pour la suite du monde is a really interesting example of adapting a film into the other language. I should really say “English versions” as there were several over the years. The story of these is the subject of my blog post today.
The original 105-minute French version had its premiere at the Festival de Cannes in May 1963. It was the first Canadian film ever to be in competition at this prestigious festival. The print that was screened at Cannes had a healthy sprinkling of French subtitles to help decipher the joual spoken by the inhabitants of L’Îsle-aux-Coudres. The film (complete with French subtitles) had its Canadian premiere on Radio-Canada television on August 4 of that year, while being simultaneously screened at the Montreal International Film Festival. A theatrical run throughout Quebec followed.
With the success of the film, the NFB started to look into making an English-language version. It was decided to cut the film to eighty-three minutes, record an English voiceover and offer it to television and the non-theatrical market under the title The Moontrap. Why narration as opposed to subtitles? It was felt that the voiceover method was best for TV, where subtitles can be difficult to read. Pierre Perrault himself wrote the text, which was read by veteran narrator Stanley Jackson. (I suspect that Jackson greatly assisted Perrault in writing the narration, as he had done for scores of other films at the NFB.)
Unfortunately, the CBC felt that the narrated version lacked the charm and authenticity of the original, but the NFB decided that this would be the English version, and that making a subtitled version would be counterproductive. There was no discussion about the length of the film. Everyone felt that 105 minutes just wouldn’t work on television or elsewhere, and that eighty-three minutes was an excellent compromise. The Moontrap, which was eventually broadcast on the CBC, would be the only English version of the film distributed by the NFB for the next thirty-six years.
In 2000, with a tribute to Michel Brault to take place at a Montreal film festival, the NFB determined it was the right time to produce a full-length, English-subtitled version of the film. Its original dialogue was painstakingly translated and the film was released as Of Whales, the Moon and Men, which infuriated Brault, who had never authorized this new title. The title notwithstanding, everyone who saw the film felt this new version was closer in spirit to the original French version. The NFB promptly withdrew The Moontrap and proceeded to distribute Of Whales, the Moon and Men for the next few years.
In 2007, when box sets of Pierre Perrault’s films were being produced, it was decided to revisit the English version. A few of the film’s subtitles were revised and the film was re-released under the title Pour la suite du monde – English version as part of the DVD box set of Perrault’s Îsle-aux-Coudres trilogy. This is now the definitive English version of the film. Just like The Moontrap before it, Of Whales, the Moon and Men was officially withdrawn.
I invite you to check out this wonderful, classic film in its final incarnation, now available at <NFB.ca> in all its glory. Enjoy.