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A High Wind in Jamaica

by Glenn Erickson Aug 31, 2019

Alexander Mackendrick’s exhilarating pirate adventure mixes accurate history with a fine story of innocence corrupting the corrupt: Anthony Quinn’s pirate goes soft for a 12 year-old girl, and jeopardizes his highly insecure professional standing. James Coburn is superb as the first mate trying to keep the skullduggery on course with a passel of interfering kids on board. And young Deborah Baxter offers an un-sentimentalized portrait of the ordinary magic of childhood. No Summer Magic this! Region-Free German disc.

 

A High Wind in Jamaica
Blu-ray Caution This May be Region B only see below
Explosive Media GmbH
1965 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 106 min. / Street Date July 20, 2018 / Sturm über Jamaika / Available at Amazon.de
11.99 Euros Starring: Anthony Quinn, James Coburn, Deborah Baxter, Dennis Price, Lila Kedrova, Nigel Davenport, Isabel Dean, Kenneth J. Warren, Gert Fröbe, Vivienne Ventura
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Director: John Hoesli
Film Editor: Derek York
Original Music: Larry Adler
Written by Stanley Mann, Ronald Harwood, Denis Cannan from a novel by Richard Hughes
Produced by John Croyden
Directed by
Alexander Mackendrick

 

Last week’s terrific experience with Alexander Mackendrick’s second feature The Man in the White Suit prompted moving this second-to-last Mackendrick movie ahead in the queue. Things in Hollywood were never as welcoming for the director as they had been back at Ealing in London. Sweet Smell of Success was a battleground where the producer-star had the advantage, and the adult adventure A Boy Ten Feet Tall (Sammy Going South) was massacred for U.S. screens and sold as suitable for kiddie matinees. After one more signed film, Don’t Make Waves, he just got sick of the lack of studio support and cooperation and retired to teaching. I wondered why Quentin Tarantino used clips from The Wrecking Crew to show off Sharon Tate; it’s an abysmal movie, and she’s terrible in it. Maybe that’s the point. She’s fairly charming in Don’t Make Waves, but I guess Mackendrick’s show is not on QT’s pulp trash radar.

Perhaps Mackendrick’s problem in the 1960s is that he was consistently drawn to GREAT, original movie ideas instead of cookie-cutter commercial drek. A High Wind in Jamaica is riskier material in today’s climate than when it arrived in 1965. He mixes pirates with little kids in an amazingly proficient and sensitive manner — yet would likely be met with charges that it suggested unhealthy, vague sexual relationships. It doesn’t, but what difference would that make to the angry mob?

 

It’s really a sweeping story about the realities of life in colonial Britain, sometime in the middle 1800’s. After a calamitous hurricane the Thornton family of Jamaica decides to send their score of unruly children back to England for schooling. But when their packet boat is hijacked by the scurvy pirates of Captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his pragmatic Yankee partner Zac (James Coburn), the kids accidentally become part of the loot. The superstitious Spanish-speaking crew is nervous, and Zac knows that they need to be rid of the children or every man ‘o war on the seas will be after them. But Chavez is charmed into inaction by the direct innocence and disarming decency of Emily Thornton, the oldest of the Thornton captives (Deborah Baxter). The pirates reach the wide-open port of Tampico, where they prove no more able to control the kids than their parents were. Their old friend Madame Rosa (Lila Kedrova) can’t believe they’re so crazy as to not ditch the children at the first possible moment. When the crew becomes mutinous, events drive a wedge between the sentimental Captain and the protesting, pragmatic Zac.

Putting kids and animals into movies is traditionally fraught with peril but Alexander Mackendrick makes it look easy. His kids in A High Wind in Jamaica are rambunctious but not brats, inquisitive and disobedient without being obnoxious. Even better, they behave naturally. The movie really is about innocence and knowledge, responsibility and irresponsibility. The pirates are able to function because of the scarcity of law and order in their part of the world. To them shady activity is just another business risk. The logic of corruption shows in the fact that the two pirate partners hide the booty from their own men, a pack of illiterates completely at the mercy of foolish superstitions.

 

The sheltered kids are accustomed to living under conditions in which the adults tell them as little as possible about how the world works — which makes them incredibly trusting. After witnessing their boat assaulted by pirates, they’re gullible enough not to draw any conclusions, as if the change of ships must be a part of their itinerary they weren’t told about. When nothing in the world makes sense, one doesn’t get upset over individual inconsistencies. That Captain Chavez eats spoons of hot pepper and uses the naughty word ‘drawers’ for pants makes more of a negative impression on the children than the fact that they’re in the company of unruly drunks and criminals.

Mackendrick conducts a rewarding investigation of the contact between the worlds of pirate and child. Much of this is communicated in compositional blocking, spacial relationships and acting instead of dialogue. There isn’t much official byplay between the pirates and their prisoners. As far as the kids are concerned, Chavez and his crew are just more adults doing funny things. This leads to some odd but telling moments as when, after being used for target practice in the wheelhouse, Emily verbally chastizes Chavez as if he’d broken a rule of etiquette.

 

A High Wind in Jamaica isn’t a watered-down ‘pirates are softies’ tale, and neither is the director straining to show us how barbaric barbarism can be. The kids aren’t symbolic of anything and the tone of the show has nothing to do with grim allegories like Lord of the Flies… although they get dirty enough (see just above) to fit anybody’s idea of little savages. Mackendrick and his writers somehow avoid the credibility problem that comes with the thought that pirates with a price on their heads wouldn’t think twice about murdering a half-dozen troublesome brats. It gets too personal too quickly for that. The kids are like mice – investigating everything, making messes and swiping hats. The youngest of them has fun playing games as a voodoo dupé’e, a ghost with its head on backwards, because doing so freaks out the crew. Although the voodoo nonsense indeed puts them in danger, the kids worry little about what’s going to happen to them. It’s the old-fashioned complacency that once existed when children were routinely sheltered from most realities.

Director Mackendrick creates a highly believable pirate world, both on the boat and in Lila Kedrova’s house of ill repute in the port of Tampico. The kids wander everywhere underfoot. Pirates aren’t exactly good babysitters, and these children aren’t as street smart as they need to be … and something unfortunate eventually happens.

 

The film employs an interesting mix of English and Spanish cultures, which I’m sure 20th Fox considered a big liability. Along with the pack of English moppets, the captives include two well-to-do Spanish kids, who are better-behaved and mannered despite being separated from their nanny. The girl is a teenager of maybe fourteen or fifteen, and there’s a constant tension that she may be raped by someone. Our younger heroine-witness Emily is partially aware of this but mostly confused. She’s may be pre-pubescent and ignorant but she’s certainly capable of intuiting certain things for herself. The story is an adult investigation of the gulf between innocence and guilt, much of it regarded from a child’s point of view.

The tragedy for Pirate Chavez is that he falls in love with Emily — not sexually, but in the sense that he considers her the daughter his brigand lifestyle could never allow. The way his concern for her overrules his instinct for survival is beautifully conveyed without so much as a single expository line of dialogue. In Alexander Mackendrick’s previous adventure Sammy Going South (A Boy Ten Feet Tall), a pint-sized boy crosses a continent on his own simply because he’s too young to know how impossible it is. A High Wind in Jamaica is a complimentary rite-of-passage for a young female character. It’s so intense that we don’t mind that most of the final naval confrontation takes place off-camera. Emily is laid up feverish in her bunk, and the action is all heard from her perspective.

 

Star Anthony Quinn was strongly typed in lovable rogue or earthy peasant roles at this point in his career; he surely preferred that to the 101 swarthy villains he had to play in the previous two decades. His Captain Chavez has a sentimental streak but doesn’t beg the audience to be loved the way Zorba the Greek does. James Coburn is the rational center for the picture. We soon realize that if his pragmatic first officer can’t control events, nobody can. Just before Fox gave Coburn the star-making lead in the next year’s Our Man Flint, the lanky actor proved his mettle in a variety of brilliant character parts: The Great Escape, The Americanization of Emily, Charade, Major Dundee. His frustrated pirate in Jamaica is yet another finely-crafted performance.

Nigel Davenport (Play Dirty) and Isabel Dean (the original TV Quatermass Experiment, 1953) are the kids’ worried parents. They and Dennis Price’s London barrister give concise performances from the margins while the story proper concentrates on the kids. Lila Kedrova’s madam and Kenneth Warren’s cowardly captain are also effective in smaller roles. Gert Fröbe’s part is so tiny, he should have done it as an unbilled cameo. He literally enters and exits like Walter Huston does in The Maltese Falcon.

 

Deborah Baxter is the big surprise here. She’s a beautiful, expressive child actress and her performance makes everything work, from Emily’s semi-comprehending stares to her angry outbursts. We never take our eyes off her. At one point she’s injured in an accident and her screams of pain are completely convincing. We immediately side with Anthony Quinn’s pirate when he drops everything to care for her. Ms. Baxter plays in only one other film (or so sayeth the IMDB): ten years later she plays Teddy Roosevelt’s daughter Alice in John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion. That’s a perfect two-for-two batting average for great performing.

This show is also a fine place to catch actor Ben Carruthers, who showed up in one of the strangest selections of hip 1960s pictures: Cassavetes’ Shadows, Rosson’s Lilith, Philip Kaufman’s Fearless Frank, Jean-Louis Roy’s L’Inconnu du Shandigor. Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen and Michael Carreras’ The Lost Continent. Here he’s one of the distinctively feral pirates, none of whom seems to come from central casting or affects “Arrr–Arrh!” mannerisms.

All in all, A High Wind in Jamaica is a superior show by a filmmaker determined to make something more than just a commercial product. The more extreme events in the book, violent and sexual, have for the most part been toned down, but author Richard Hughes’ rejection of the Victorian image of children remains untouched. Viewers willing to engage will be fascinated by its nuanced look at adolescents confronted with adult politics and violence. Its view of childhood is resolutely unsentimental, and the adult characters are balanced and sympathetic. Not even the harsh English justice system is made a standard villain.

Captain Chavez is one of my favorite Anthony Quinn characters — a career knave with enough heart to philosophically accept what fate offers without any great resentment. There’s no ‘Zorba’ grandstanding, just expert underplaying of the best kind.


Explosive Media’s Region ? Blu-ray of A High Wind in Jamaica is so far not available on domestic Blu-ray. (September 29: I DON’T KNOW WHAT REGION this is encoded … the disc I was supplied plays in a Region A player, but that has been put into question for purchased discs … watch this space)

The original English audio and subtitles are present, but one must choose them in the menu. The disc normally defaults to Deutsch.

The image appears to be Fox’s one HD transfer, which is colorful and bright, better than the images seen here. The framing retains the widescreen CinemaScope format; although it’s 1965 old lenses appear to be in use, for the left extreme of the image is often squeezed, and close-ups show a bit of the CinemaScope Mumps. Yet we’re continually impressed by the many difficult-looking shots taken on and of real multi-masted sailing ship. Much of the show was achieved at sea with the whole cast present, including the children.

Although the film is a visual delight, I have a feeling that 20th-Fox went cheap on post-production frills. The unrefined audio mix uses mismatched looped dialogue and dubbing that makes some words difficult to hear. For instance, when the pirate cook yells at the little girl, she talks back in a normal tone of voice. She’s louder than he is and neither of them sounds as if they’re on the deck of a ship at sea. These things don’t interfere with the story, but from what I cans see, somebody had decided to rush the finishing job. The old (2004) Fox DVD has full French and Spanish audio tracks, should anybody be interested.

The show’s overall beauty isn’t reflected in its awkward main titles, simple white overlays with dissolves that don’t play well. Strangely enough, the titles display the same optical mistake just seen in the similar surf-backgrounded main titles of Fritz Lang’s semi-classic Moonfleet from ten years earlier. Both movies are about kids and pirates, and both conclude with a shot of a boat sailing ‘magically’ away from the camera.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A High Wind in Jamaica
Region ? Blu-ray 
(see above) rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good +
Sound: Excellent (English, German)
Supplements: trailer, photo gallery.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English, German
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
August 28, 2019
(6073uber)
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Here’s John Sayles on Mackendrick’s sea-going adventure and Joe Dante on the director’s little seen gem from 1963, A Boy Ten Feet Tall.

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.