The Island (1980) -**½
Originally, the idea had been for me to review Blood Beach as my contribution to the B-Masters Beach Party, but that movie proved unaccountably elusive, and I was forced to use my backup plan instead. In point of fact, even the backup plan fell by the wayside, for while I was looking for either a beach-themed slasher flick or a Jaws rip-off to substitute for the movie I really wanted, my eye fell upon a copy of The Island, a mostly forgotten film written by none other than Jaws creator Peter Benchley. This is not, however, one of the sea monster stories for which he is best known. No, in The Island, we are dealing with a nest of 17th century-style pirates living in absolute secrecy on a tiny island in the Bahamas, who have somehow gone unnoticed for nearly 300 years despite their continued insistence on living the buccaneer lifestyle! It’s no wonder that The Island didn’t quite live up to the expectations which Universal’s leadership had formed on the basis of their previous foray into adapting Benchley’s writing to the screen. Nor, I think, is it any wonder that I immediately decided that The Island was going to become my new plan-B for the review roundtable.
Somewhere in the Bahamas— not far, incidentally, from the extremely cool wreck of a freighter hung up on a barely submerged coral reef, to which the movie will draw a great deal of attention before moving on to do nothing at all with it after the first fifteen minutes— a bunch of well-to-do twits are out fishing aboard the chartered cabin-cruiser Lady. Shortly after nightfall, one of said twits notices something in the water, drifting in the direction of their boat. As the thing comes closer, it becomes evident that it’s a small, canoe-like vessel, in which some large object lies concealed beneath a filthy tarp. Then another of the twits spots the motionless hand sticking out from under the edge of the tarp, and concludes on the basis of the horrendous stench surrounding the little craft that they’ve got a dead guy on their hands. No sooner has he hooked his gaff over the canoe’s gunwale and hauled it up against the Lady’s side, however, than the supposedly dead man leaps out of the canoe with an axe, and starts chopping the well-to-do twits to pieces.
Evidently the Lady incident is far from the first time such a thing has happened in that particular stretch of the Caribbean Sea. In fact, a reporter up in New York, by the name of Blair Maynard (The Swarm’s Michael Caine, who would have a second brush with Peter Benchley seven years later in Jaws: The Revenge), has determined that some 600 boats have disappeared in the vicinity of Navidad Island during the last three years alone. He secures permission from his editor to go and investigate, and sets off for Florida with his twelve-year-old son, Justin (Jeffrey Frank), in tow. Florida, of course, is but the staging area from which Maynard will proceed to the Bahamas, despite the cock-and-bull story he feeds Justin about taking him to Disney World. There’s a brief detour from the plot to establish that both Blair and Justin are crackerjack shots with a pistol, plus a slightly longer interlude depicting a group of sailboating vacationers meeting a fate similar to that of the Lady‘s passengers and crew, and then Maynard starts digging for leads. He interviews the leaseholders of the docking slips adjacent to those once occupied by the vanished boats before hooking up with a markedly unscrupulous cargo pilot who is willing to fly him and his son out to Navidad in his rattletrap DC-3. Unfortunately for the Maynards, the plane is such a rattletrap that its landing gears refuse to extend when the pilot comes in for a landing on the stretch of clear sand that passes for Navidad’s only airstrip, and all three passengers soon find themselves racing away from the wrecked aircraft in a frantic scramble to find cover before its fuel tanks blow. Westcott (Zakes Mokae, from The Serpent and the Rainbow and Dust Devil), who gives the impression of being Navidad’s only cop, justly keeps the pilot locked up when he lets Blair and Justin go after determining that they probably aren’t drug smugglers.
Well, with the plane they rode in on destroyed and its smoldering wreckage doing a damn fine job of preventing anybody else from using the Navidad airfield for the foreseeable future, Maynard and his son obviously have some time to kill. Unfortunately, there’s pretty much nothing to do on the island itself, but the day after their rather catastrophic arrival, Blair gets it into his head to rent a boat and take his boy fishing. According to the staff at their “hotel” (“really big shack” would be closer to the mark), a retired academic (most likely a historian, but possibly an anthropologist instead) named Dr. Windsor (slumming Shakespearean Frank Middlemass) owns several small boats which he can occasionally be talked into renting out, so Blair and Justin head on over to see about securing the use of one for the day. While they’re out at sea, trawling for barracuda, Justin catches sight of a person floundering around in the water ahead. When his father brings the boat in, we (but neither of the Maynards, for obvious reasons) recognize the swimmer as the teenage girl (Susan Bredhoff) from one of the sailboats that were attacked earlier. Justin reaches over the side of the boat to pull her aboard, but when the kids link hands, the girl drags him into the water instead. Then a grizzled-looking man with a big knife climbs onto the bow of the boat; Maynard shoots him down with the .22-caliber target pistol he bought his son during that plot detour I mentioned a while ago, but the man lasts long enough to knock Blair unconscious before succumbing to his injuries.
When Maynard comes to, he and Justin are trussed up on some kind of improvised scaffold, surrounded by what look for all the world to be 17th century pirates. Now that would be an alarming sight to wake up to anyway, but to make matters even worse, it would appear that the pirates are conducting some kind of trial, in which Maynard and his son are the defendants. The leader, John David Nau (David Warner, from The Omen and Body Bags), is not interested in answering any of the 40,000 questions that spring to Maynard’s mind, and “prosecuting attorney” Dr. Brazil (Dudley Sutton, of The Devils) will hardly let him get a word in edgewise anyway, but Blair does eventually get the picture that he is being tried for the “murder” of the man he killed on Dr. Windsor’s boat. The situation seems to change somewhat when Maynard tells the pirates his name, however. If Nau is to be believed, somebody named Maynard slew the notorious Blackbeard, an exploit which apparently entitles Blair to a good deal of respect on the theory that he is somehow descended from his illustrious pirate-killing namesake. In fact, Maynard’s “heritage” makes such a muddle of the legalities surrounding his “crime” that Nau decides just to keep him and his son prisoner rather than killing or maiming them according to the crew’s usual practice. What’s more, Maynard’s “noble” blood makes him enormously valuable to the pirates. Blair is immediately betrothed to Beth (Angela Punch McGregor), the widow of the man he killed and apparently the only fertile woman among the buccaneers, while Nau “adopts” Justin as his own son. The latter, as you might expect, will require a rigorous course of brainwashing if it is to be at all successful.
So while Nau and his flunkies get all Heaven’s Gate on Justin’s ass, and Beth does her damnedest to get herself pregnant by Blair, Maynard the elder spends most of his time thinking about possible avenues of escape. He’s lucky in one respect, in that while the pirates make much use of modern goods plundered from all those boats they hijack, they don’t really understand how many of the stolen items work. In particular, it doesn’t dawn on Beth that the padlock with which she has secured Blair’s manacles uses a combination cylinder rather than a key, let alone that the series of numbers necessary to open it is written plainly on the discarded packaging, which she simply tossed on the floor of her hut where her prisoner could easily read it. Maynard’s first escape attempt doesn’t get very far, however, for unbeknownst to him, the water surrounding the pirates’ island becomes infested with Portuguese men o’ war after dark, and Blair gets the shit stung out of him before he’s even had a chance to inflate the rubber raft he brought with him. The pirates recapture him, and it’s back to Beth’s hut for Maynard. He tries again by sunlight when he spies Dr. Windsor zipping around just offshore in the very same boat which he had rented on the day the whole nightmare started, but Blair’s got a big, ugly surprise in store for him. Windsor knows about the pirates, and indeed he’s in league with them! As the professor explains to Maynard, Nau and his people aren’t just a bunch of nuts playing at piracy. They really are the descendants of 17th century English privateers, who went into hiding on this remote island to escape capture at the hands of an especially fearsome Spanish colonial admiral. Windsor discovered them by accident, and his historian’s imagination was fired by the idea that here was the last surviving enclave of an otherwise totally extinct culture. He has since done whatever was in his power to aid them; in fact, Windsor deliberately set Maynard and his son up for capture in the hope of counteracting the inbreeding which is slowly but surely sinking the pirates into a morass of congenital idiocy and recessive genetic fuck-ups.
Justin’s brainwashing, meanwhile, is proceeding apace. Not only does he no longer answer to his given name (insisting instead on the sea-dog handle, “Tue-Barbe”— French for “Kill-Beard”— the significance of which will be totally lost on non-francophone viewers, since none of the pirates ever bothers to explain what it means), he is now more or less totally signed on to the pirates’ way of life, and at least conditionally accepts Nau’s claims to be his real father. The boy’s final assimilation into buccaneer society comes when he accompanies his captors on a raid against the sailing ship on which a band of shaggy young people are running a huge quantity of cocaine. The battle is hotly contested at first, for the shaggiest of the smugglers is a Bruce Lee wannabe who single-handedly kung-fus his way through several of Nau’s best men, but the pirates are ultimately victorious. They strip the vessel of everything they recognize as valuable, then toss the remainder overboard and set the ship ablaze. There’s one thing Nau hasn’t figured on, though. He and his followers may not know what cocaine is, but the US Coast Guard sure as hell does, and when thousands of dollars’ worth of the stuff starts washing up on beaches all over the area, they’re bound to get curious and come snooping around the vicinity of the pirates’ lair.
It’s hard to imagine how the bosses at Universal got it into their heads that The Island was going to be worth the $22 million they spent making it. It is a confused, ridiculous, embarrassing movie, even despite a handful of reasonably effective sequences here and there. The biggest unanswered question, of course, is how in the hell an active pirate colony could survive for three centuries without anybody finding out about them when they make no discernable efforts at stealth and consistently attack a vessel of one size or another about every three to four days. I’m also somewhat curious as to how exactly Nau’s men acquired their remarkable mastery of 20th-century brainwashing techniques when they’ve supposedly had next to no contact with the outside world, and how it’s possible, for that matter, for the pirates to maintain their cultural quarantine in the face of the constant influx of modern goods which their continued raiding brings them. At the very least, you’d think it would have taken the pirates no time at all to recognize how vastly superior the outsiders’ weapons were to their own muskets and flintlock pistols after about the middle of the 1860’s. If artisans in the Afghan countryside could figure out how to hand-craft copies of Soviet military firearms in less than ten years, then certainly the buccaneers’ gunsmiths ought to have introduced workable copies of relatively simple modern weapons like shotguns, revolvers, and repeating rifles by now! Windsor’s professed motives for assisting the pirates, meanwhile, come nowhere close to making sense of his actions. Providing unspecified aid and abetment to a nest of bloodthirsty pirates is a rather more extreme form of going native than one typically encounters in those who fortuitously find themselves in contact with isolated and marginalized cultures, after all. Then there’s the glaring loose end represented by the incompetent pilot and his flying junkheap’s death-dive into Navidad’s airstrip. Maynard’s main problem for the rest of the film is his captivity on the pirates’ island, not his inability to communicate with the mainland per se, so there’s really no reason at all for this subplot to be here in the first place!
Michael Ritchie’s direction, for its part, is just as muddled as Benchley’s screenplay. For example, the kung fu battle on the coke runner comes completely out of nowhere, and plays out in a style that’s jarringly at odds with the rest of the film. More importantly, there’s a major inconsistency of tone which plays havoc with our sense of the movie’s perspective. The first few pirate attacks that we witness are handled in the manner of slasher movie murder scenes, but as the movie wears on, the tone of the raids increasingly becomes less Jason Voorhees than Douglas Fairbanks. That would make a certain amount of sense if we were intended to take the pirates’ side after we’d gotten to know them better, but since Nau and his followers remain the villains throughout, it just ends up being extraordinarily, counterproductively bizarre. Now it’s just barely possible that we’re looking at an attempt at polyphony on Ritchie’s part— that, by the middle of the movie, he wanted us to identify with the pirates and hate them at the same time— but if so, then his efforts to create such ambiguity hit nowhere near the mark.
This review is part of the latest B-Masters Cabal roundtable. Click the banner below to see what my colleagues did on their summer vacations.