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Krakatoa East of Java

by Glenn Erickson Sep 02, 2017

‘Things Blowing Up Good’ has been surefire entertainment since the beginning of cinema, but this ill-fated Cinerama extravaganza about the biggest explosion in recorded human history limps along despite some pretty darned impressive volcanic effects. It’s quite an entertaining spectacle, with various good performers in three soap opera plots, either overacting or loitering about with nothing to do. And don’t forget the from-left-field musical striptease.


Krakatoa East of Java
Blu-ray
KL Studio Classics
1969 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 131 min. / Street Date September 12, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Brian Keith, Barbara Werle, Sal Mineo, Rossano Brazzi, John Leyton, J.D. Cannon, Jacqueline (Jacqui) Chan, Victoria Young, Marc Lawrence, Geoffrey Holder, Niall MacGinnis, Sumi Haru.
Cinematography: Manuel Berenguer
Film Editors: Walter Hannemann, Warren Low, Maurice Rootes
Production Design: Eugèné Lourié
Costumes: Laure Lourié
Special Effects: Eugèné Lourié, Alex Weldon, Francisco Prósper
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Written by Clifford Newton Gould, Bernard Gordon
Produced by William R. Forman, Lester A. Sansom (associate), Philip Yordan (originally)
Directed by Bernard L. Kowalski

Some back-story might be a good idea here.

Grandiosity in movies can be its own reward; a lot of older pictures that probably aren’t great cinema still generate a lot of entertainment just for their oversized productions. 1969’s Krakatoa East of Java promises everything, delivers a lot less and yet always fascinated me. Movies of this kind are different today, when digital effects companies can deliver all manner of visual miracles for a set price. The director and actors don’t always have to be present for amazing production shoots. That’s what makes us want to clap for the special effects in, say, 1986’s Aliens: when we see spaceships and bizarre aircraft and a fantastic tank rolling through an alien landscape, we know that somebody constructed, lit and shot all of it. It’s art-craft.

Once upon a time, producer Samuel Bronston rolled the dice on outrageously lavish super-productions with shaky international funding. His The Fall of the Roman Empire has scenes that appear to use multiple thousands of costumed extras, in massive sets bigger than several city blocks. Was I too easily impressed? I don’t think so.

 

Bronston filmed in Spain, where a budget went farther than anywhere else with comparable studio resources. Making ‘arrangements’ with the Franco regime, he established a production center in Madrid with world-class crafts talent. The Spanish Fascists also rented out the armed forces, providing modern soldados to play Roman legions, and ex-Nazi aircraft to fill out the Luftwaffe squadrons of Battle of Britain. Nobody seemed to think any of this was politically dicey.

Bronston’s workaholic writer-producer Philip Yordan put together his own Spanish side productions at this time, often using personnel he’d imported to work on Bronston pictures. Most notable was the blacklisted writer Bernard Gordon, but ex- Allied Artists jack-of-all-trades Lester A. Sansom got involved as well, in different capacities. Krakatoa: East of Java began as a Philip Yordan production, like Battle of the Bulge and Custer of the West. Because their Crack in the World did good business worldwide, Yordan and company must have decided that an all-star epic period costume drama about a volcanic disaster was a great idea. Krakatoa: East of Java has innumerable commercial hooks: it’s like a Jules Verne story, but with romantic subplots and plenty of suspense. It’s a Titanic story crossed with The Last Days of Pompeii: the audience will wait out almost anything to see what blows up at the finish.

Filmed in 65mm, Krakatoa comes near the end of the Road Show craze. It never made it to provincial San Bernardino, along with The Charge of the Light Brigade, another film sold as a Cinerama production. The grandiose posters for these pictures were irresistible. I was assured that they all looked incredible in 70mm, spread out across the Cinerama Dome’s enormous screen.

 

The picture is entertainingly bad in the most unexpected ways — impressive production details are followed by total visual silliness. Earnest performances go for naught because of terrible writing and bad direction. Sometimes the movie can’t make up its mind what it is — our jaws drop when an anemic children’s song opens the picture. By this time our homegrown schlock-meister Irwin Allen had already made the proto-disaster epic Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. I can just see him attending a matinee of Krakatoa and thinking, “That’s it! Just make everything ridiculous! I will become the king of disaster pictures!”

Krakatoa: East of Java jams four weak TV movie plots into a disaster format, doing none of them justice. In the early 1880s the tramp steamer Batavia Queen goes on a treasure hunt in the East Indies. With the island volcano Krakatoa threatening to erupt, Captain Chris Hanson (Maximillian Schell) rushes to recover a priceless treasure of pearls from a shipwreck. Hanson doesn’t believe in half measures. Young Rigby (John Leyton) has brought along an experimental diving bell with picture windows to find the sunken craft. Pro salvage diver Harry Connerly (Brian Keith) is on board with his consort Charley Adams (Barbara Werle). Desperate to earn money, Harry doesn’t let on that his lungs are shot, and he may not survive a deep dive. Also on board is the father-son ballooning team of Giovanni and Leoncavallo Borghese (Rossano Brazzi & Sal Mineo), who will try to spot the wreck from the air. As if that weren’t enough, a team of pearl divers led by Toshi (Jacqui Chan) is on hand to search as well. A harbormaster in Singapore (Nial MacGinnis) forces Hanson to take on a load of prisoners, so the ship is full up. The prisoners’ leader Danzig (J.D. Cannon) was once an associate of Hanson’s, and the Captain unwisely gives him the run of the deck.

 

The lost ship captain’s widow Laura Travis (Diane Baker) is on board as well. She’s hoping that her lost son Peter (Peter Kowalski) will be found at a Catholic mission, as her husband has written.

Krakatoa isn’t at a loss for incident. The ship weathers a number of crises before reaching Krakatoa, including a deadly mutiny. Laudanum abuser Harry Connerly suffers hallucinations, but is in good enough shape to try to rape one of the pearl divers. Charley accepts her husband’s behavior with a sigh. The Borghese’s balloon is illogically drawn into the volcano’s crater and catches fire. The pearl divers take part only to clear a tangled oxygen line. The pearls are eventually recovered in a wholly unexpected way. Toshi falls in love with young Leoncavallo, however, and Laura and Hanson also appear to form a secure romantic future.

But then, as they say at Republic Pictures, the volcano explodes. The Batavia Queen prepares to be hit by a giant tsunami wave, which breaks and rolls in the middle of the ocean, Ride the Wild Surf– style. The ship must then navigate a hellish passage between flaming rocks, while lava bombs rain down from the sky. Who will survive, and who will be burned alive?

Overall Krakatoa has everything required for excitement, and its name cast seem eager to score a popular success. They’re let down by a weak script that limps from one crisis to the next, failing to develop the characters. They also get little help from the interesting director Bernard L. Kowalski, who had an unpromising start with the Z-pix Night of the Blood Beast and Attack of the Giant Leeches. According to Tom Weaver, subsequent success in TV led to an ownership role in 1966’s Mission Impossible. Winning the helm of this monster 65mm production is an accomplishment not to be sniffed at. But Kowalski’s direction sticks with dull coverage. The few attempts at stylishness are awkward at best, as in Brian Keith’s hallucination scenes.

 

The movie overall lacks control. Brian Keith and Diane Baker overact, trying to make underwritten scenes amount to something. Rossano Brazzi and Sal Mineo seem just along for the ride; we scarcely see a build-up for the Leoncavallo-Toshi romance. Episodes like the prisoner revolt are so pre-ordained, they generate little excitement. Several of the supporting characters come off reasonably well just because they’re not asked to do much more than watch from the sidelines, steer the boat and look concerned.

Star Maximillian Schell is largely untouched by the dramatic quicksand around him. Often accused of overacting, Schell’s Captain is a cool customer with a positive attitude. He offers occasional reassurances to Laura, while observing and gauging the other characters from an appropriate emotional distance. Even when the ship is bouncing around like a cork and firebombs are falling from the skies, Schell always looks like he can handle things. The film at least has a solid center.

 

The weak dramatics weren’t enough for the producers, who gave actress and dancer Barbara Werle a bizarre musical number — she raises her devoted husband’s spirits by singing as she undresses in their cabin below decks. It’s just awful, one of those scenes that any sane person would take out. Perhaps Krakatoa couldn’t afford to lose any running time, and still call itself a quasi- Road Show attraction.

Marc Lawrence is the ship’s first mate, and hovers quietly on the sidelines. Among the crew is the young Geoffrey Holder (Live and Let Die), but he’s given nothing to do. Holder’s wonderful laughter might be able to out-shout the volcano; putting him in a film and not using his voice is an act of criminal stupidity. Actor John Leyton (The Great Escape, Von Ryan’s Express) polishes his diving bell but otherwise is a non-entity too. Everybody is under-used. A typical Kowalski’s scene crowds them all into the boat’s dining hall, listening to somebody make a speech.

Who was in charge? Cinerama co-producer William R. Forman’s only previous credit was the mostly un-released Cinerama production The Golden Head, which is reportedly nigh-unwatchable. Associate producer Lester Sansom had plenty of experience in the low-budget trenches before apparently joining forces with Philip Yordan. According to sources, Cinerama forced Yordan out of the picture right after the special effects were completed, and the production proceeded with a new screenplay. My guess is that Bernard Gordon’s script was rewritten by Clifford Newton Gould, who at the time had very few credits.

The production has the benefit of sunny Spanish skies, lots of water and the use of a real steamship. Top Spanish cameraman Manuel Berenguer is in charge, but almost all of the lighting is flat and high key. With the added detail of 65mm, we find ourselves noticing shortcomings in the period costumes. Ms. Baker and Ms. Werle’s hairstyles are also a little on the fake side, which is not good. This may be a big show, but it looks like a rush job.

The spectacular effects go a long way toward offsetting these drawbacks. The real Krakatoa hissed and threatened for four months and then let loose with four increasingly gigantic explosions, the last of which created a pressure wave that blew out sailors’ ears at a great distance. The sound could be heard thousands of miles away. In this show the Batavia Queen is just offshore! We’re lucky that the real pressure-explosion of Krakatoa didn’t ‘crack the world’ in a similar way — it erased an enormous island, forming a vast underwater crater. Did Krakatoa ‘loosen’ the Pacific Rim ring of faults and volcanoes?

Given the alarming effects we see, nobody reacts as they should. The volcano is in full-on eruption mode from the first scene, with schoolchildren in class literally on the slope of the cinder cone mountain. They keep singing over the noise just outside their window. Impressive miniature pyro effects are seen every few minutes, which diminishes the impact of the eventual big (single) explosion. After listening to the booming sound effects all that time, our ears are already worn out.

In charge of the all-important disaster visuals is the legendary Eugèné Lourié. After collaborating with Ray Harryhausen and being sidelined into directing monster movies The Colossus of New York, The Giant Behemoth, and  Gorgo, the French production designer found ready employment with the big Spanish movies of Philip Yordan. Lourié pulled off effects miracles in the volcanic Crack in the World, which surely pegged him as the man to make Krakatoa erupt.

The problem is that Lourié is asked to do too much. Perhaps fifteen or twenty full minutes of the show are devoted to his effects shots. The close-ups of the eruption are marvelous feats of miniature pyrotechnics, with colorful blasts of flame and hurled stone looking quite dramatic. Long shots are good too, but the mattes involved are a little shakier. The object was of course to do everything in the camera, as most European optical work was never very good. I’m ready to be corrected, but the only fully tricked-out 65mm optical printer I ever heard of was in Hollywood, with Linwood Dunn’s Film Effects of Hollywood. MGM and Fox had fancy 65mm matte setups as well, but I’m not sure if they had full-on optical printing at that gauge.

 

This a must-see picture in which to ponder old-school epic disaster effects. The Spanish miniature makers crafted a great ship model and reasonably good models of a sea village and some rocky volcano-scapes, but all of them are given far too much screen time. Miniatures dominate scenes that are minutes long, allowing some illusions to break down. Excellent in some shots, the boat looks like a toy in others. We’re told that one problem was that the 65mm cameras available couldn’t run faster than 72fps. The slow-motion scale effect is not always enough. The effects are asked to do too much, without help from the director. I guess this makes sense – if the information I have is accurate, the final screenplay was written after the effects were in the can.

Curiously, the main explosion event is just a lighting effect in a long shot of the ship. I guess it’s one of those things that is just too big for audiences to fully appreciate. In the actual photo evidence of Mt. St Helens, even half of a mountain blowing up doesn’t convey the scale of the cataclysm. Eugèné visually expressed something similar in Crack in the World, where for a couple of seconds we feel as if a huge chunk of Africa were being flung into the sky.

There’s an excellent seventy- or eighty-minute action spectacle in Krakatoa: East of Java. With everything trimmed to the bone, we wouldn’t have time to ponder the lack of dramatic urgency, or question why Barbara Werle is doing an impersonation of Julie Andrews.

The most salient precedent for this movie is Republic’s long-forgotten 1952 thriller Fair Wind to Java. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the whole thing but I caught the fantastic finale several times on TV (in B&W). A pirate adventure with Fred MacMurray and Vera Hruba Ralston, it concludes with heroes and villains climbing an endless staircase up the side of Krakatoa, just as it is about to blow. They never reach the inviting palace at the summit. Dozens of movies big and small use volcanoes as a lame way to rush to a conclusion, and volcanoes always seem to erupt right on a screenwriter’s cue. Martin Scorsese called Fair Wind a personal favorite, and he, UCLA and The Film Foundation reportedly restored it in 2006. So where is it? It’s really not been seen since the 1970s. Are the first sixty minutes really terrible, or something?

I don’t know if second-unit director Frank Kowalski is the brother of director Bernard L., but he has a list of great credits going back to the 1930s and eventually worked as Sam Peckinpah’s right-hand man on several pictures. He also penned the story for the daring Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.

Source: Wide Screen Movies Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes, McFarland 1988.


 

The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Krakatoa East of Java is a fine encoding of this once hard to see show from the waning end of the Road Show years. This cut has no intermission, but the 70mm Super Cinerama presentation originally had extra music, an overture, intermission and an exit cue. The running time on the disc is 131 minutes, but the ‘with or without music?’ question confuses the other reported times — 147 (BBFC, before censorship) and 101 for a later 35mm cut-down for general release. The movie was also reportedly reissued in Europe as Volcano.

The image looks quite good, revealing all the grace notes and occasional flaws in the production. The film elements appear to be in fine shape. They may be from a 35mm master, for the aspect ratio is standard widescreen, not the taller 70mm frame.

The sound is good too, even with the endless volcano rumblings and explosions. The school kids sing a dippy Mack David song called ‘Teacher Teacher’ while Ms. Werle’s frankly terrible number is David’s ‘I’m an Old Fashioned Girl’. The generally weak score by De Vol goes for ‘big effects’ without increasing the excitement factor.

For trailers Kino offers a stiff list of disaster pix, including Meteor and Avalanche. This show is at least better than those two.

And yes, I know that the island of Krakatoa is actually West of Java. But now it’s everywhere, considering that 2/3 of the place was tossed into the sky and circled the Earth as dust for the next twenty years. Meteorologists studied weather data from that time, to help predict the intensity of a possible future ‘nuclear winter.’


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Krakatoa East of Java Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Fair + Plus but too much fun to dismiss
Video: Excellent
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Trailers
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 31, 2017
(5506krak)


Special Note:

Long-time Savant correspondent “B” responded with a letter (September 3) so informative, I had to ask to include it here. Notes like this really help to make me feel I’m learning something:

Dear Glenn: I liked your long, incredibly detailed review. I dunno whether the movie deserved such attention, but I certainly enjoyed reading it.

It’s incredible that Yordan proved so influential in the mounting of big-budget movies. His credo — write (or get someone else to write) an original story based on historical or public domain material — shouldn’t have prevailed to this extent. [ I do find interesting that Yordan’s Security Pictures produced a number of low-to-moderately budgeted movies actually based on contemporary works, like God’s Little Acre, The Day of the Triffids, The Thin Red Line and The Royal Hunt of the Sun. But the writer-producer stayed away from such material when pitching to more well-heeled backers. Probably because he could then pocket all literary fees himself, doling out a percentage to his screenwriters… ] El Cid turned out well, but the others are all over the place. Custer of the West, a previous brush with Cinerama’s William Forman, is really unforgivable (plus, it was a little late in the day to depict the General as a hero), and it’s clearly made on the cheap. This mess was actually roadshown in numerous cities.¹

When I read writer Bernard Gordon’s excellent memoir, I wanted more information about how the crazy narrative of Krakatoa was conceived. You do recount the ridiculous story pretty well. Years ago I read the movie’s paperback novelization (by the notoriously prolific Michael Avallone) and found the convoluted intertwined stories hilarious all over again. [The novelization even interpolated some of the awful Mack David song lyrics. “Kee Kana Lu.” Woof.] The movie can’t decide what it wants to be — a rousing adventure tale for all ages and audiences, or a gritty, adult themed story.

With Forman and ABC putting up a fair amount of cash, it’s amazing that the film’s “all-star” cast seems sadly lustreless, though Schell actually gives a stand-up performance. I know Barbara Werle had been in a number of movies (including, very briefly, Seconds), but she’s very hard to take here; was she related in some way to Forman?

[[Interruption: Correspondent Robert Cashill wrote in with the following information, more or less at the same time: “Barbara Werle was Forman’s girlfriend — he also shoehorned her into Battle of the Bulge, irking Ken Annakin and Robert Shaw. Hard to tell who or what is the biggest disaster in Krakatoa.“]]

Back to “B”:
Brian Keith, possibly the most prominent actor in the cast (to Americans, anyhow) thanks to his hit sitcom Family Affair, seems determined to act up a storm and play something utterly antithetical to his warm, grounded TV uncle — this might have given some of the hoped-for juvie audience for the movie a few disquieting moments. This again points to the bizarre, schizophrenic quality of the screenplay; it’s half a thrilling adventure story (which we want, I think) and half sordid and almost distasteful stuff (which we don’t want, at least in this movie with this cast). The fact that this is a 1969 picture explains a little — the business, and pictures, were changing dramatically at that time, and mature themes were being inserted into all sorts of pix — but whatever sort of verisimilitude they’re trying just doesn’t work.

I do love the effects; when I came across Lourie’s book some weeks ago, I was impressed all over again by the sheer ingenuity and cleverness of the designer/director in creating and mounting the fabulous miniature work. It’s dramatic, effective stuff, if a little overbright at times. [It’s possible that Lourie was using some “decommissioned” Todd-AO cameras to shoot the effects; some of the rest of the movie was shot in Super Panavision. Krakatoa is the only single-lens Cinerama movie not to cite a widescreen process in its credits.] I still think the Academy really screwed the pooch when it gave the ’69 effects Oscar to Marooned.

When I first visited New York back in ’69, ABC and Cinerama had licensed what was then called “the largest billboard in the world” to tub-thump Krakatoa. At some point in the spring of ’69, Cinerama decided not to roadshow the movie; rather, they’d chase the family trade² and send it out to Cinerama houses as an exclusive first-run item at prices somewhat lower than the usual hardticket.³ The company tried to promote it as the great family adventure movie of the summer, but found only middling results.

 

As you note, during the vogue for disaster pix, the film was later reissued in Europe as VOLCANO; some Euro distributor worked up a faux-Sensurround track for the picture for some engagements, using leftover paraphernalia from Earthquake. When Krakatoa finally premiered on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie, it was similarly retitled Volcano.

As usual, your review makes me wanna see the movie again…

Though Krakatoa wasn’t a big hit, it did play 23 weeks at the Dome in LA and 20 weeks on Broadway. I mentioned that the film received some mid-’70s reissue exposure in Europe as Volcano; well, it turns out that the movie did receive some domestic reissue playdates in the U.S. in 1975 under that title, with the augmentation of Sensurroundish “Feelarama.” Widescreen Review’s Michael Coate posted an October 1975 Arizona Republic ad for Volcano, indicating that the picture did at least play Scottsdale. [Scottsdale’s Kachina Theatre had been a Cinerama house, and presumably still had a wide, curved screen.] Cinerama Releasing had ceased operating as a distribution entity by then; AIP was by this time handling both remaining and catalogue CRC product domestically (and possibly overseas as well). I have no idea who might have assembled or adapted the “Feelarama” soundtrack. The attached image of an American Volcano reissue poster is from inCinerama.com.

 

On other matters, I thoroughly enjoyed GOG 3-D last night. Bob Furmanek was proud to announce that this was, in fact, the New York theatrical premiere of the 3-D version; when it preemed at the Palace back in ’54, it was shown flat. [According to Furmanek, the movie had only seven 3-D playdates.] These guys should get MacArthur grants for this work. I politely resisted the temptation to ask Mr. F the current plans for THE MAZE.

Best, Always.
— B.


¹ Numerous major cities, including New York and Los Angeles, never showed Custer of the West in hardticket situations; except for 14 Cinerama reserved seat engagements (mostly in the middle of the country), the picture went out domestically in general runs. The movie, shot in Super Technirama 70, was never screened even briefly in Cinerama or 70mm in either NY or LA . Considering that Forman, who owned the picture (along with ABC), controlled Pacific Theatres (and, perforce, both LA Cinerama houses), this is quite a comment on Custer. [I think Forman also then controlled one of NY’s Cinerama houses.] That said, Detroit (home of the second Cinerama-equipped theatre) was the only American city to exhibit all of the official Cinerama productions (except the never domestically released The Golden Head) in Cinerama, from This is Cinerama to Krakatoa; the Motor City even got a converted to three-strip Scent of Mystery (aka Holiday in Spain).

² It is possible that the film was roadshown in a few U.S. cities. The attached color newspaper ad appeared in the Detroit Free Press Sunday comics section. It’s a pretty nice Frank McCarthy illustration, eh? No, I don’t know what the usually astute Kevin Thomas had been smoking before the L.A. critics screening…” {Since Thomas’ text is too small, here’s a transcript: “Everything about ‘Krakatoa’ has a clean, spare look, rich in the atmosphere of exotic faraway places. It is so buoyant and bracing you can almost smell the sea air. In short, it’s everything a Cinerama entertainment should be.”}

 

³ I believe the commenter on your site mis-remembers mid-1969 Times Square admission prices. The standard Times Square ticket price for non-roadshow pix in June of 1969 was $3, not $2.50. [It might have been $2.50 or less elsewhere in Manhattan or in another borough.] Though it wasn’t a roadshow attraction, Krakatoa, in Cinerama and six-track stereo, probably did command $4 for an adult seat on Broadway.

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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 DVD Savant.