The Island (1980)
After the commercial success of Jaws and The Deep, Universal Studios decided to explore the works of Peter Benchley a little further and adapt his novel The Island. Benchley wrote the screenplay himself and director Michael Ritchie was given the job of bringing this rather dour tale to the screen. A substantial budget of $22 million was assigned to the production and a somewhat eclectic cast was assembled. The resulting movie was very poorly received and subsequently pilloried by the critics who found it both risible and revolting. 35 years on is The Island as bad as some would have you think?
Upon watching The Island the first question that crosses one’s mind is did any of the studio executives have the vaguest inkling about the content of the source novel? Where they seeking a traditional swashbuckling “man versus pirates” action movie, with the pirates firmly being from the school of Robert Newton? I would surmise they were oblivious to the true nature of the book. Despite the film’s commercial failure, director Michael Ritchie delivered quite an honest adaptation that captures the unsavoury themes and elements of the novel. The key to appraising this movie’s merits depends on how you approach it.
Newspaper reporter Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) travels to the Caribbean to investigate a spate of missing boats and pleasure craft. His young son is far from happy with this change in itinerary, having been promised a trip to Disney World. The trail leads to an uncharted island where a group of pirates have lived in isolation from society for hundred years. This inbred, semi-literate group of murderer’s have remained faithful to their traditions of looting and pillaging. However, with their numbers dwindling due to their closed gene pool, they keep Maynard for breeding stock and look to his son as a possible future leader. As Justin (Jeffrey Frank) is slowly brainwashed and turned against his father, Maynard desperately tries to find a means of escape.
The pirates in The Island as a far removed from Jack Sparrow as can possibly be. They are a dirty, violent, unwholesome bunch led by David Warner and a curious array of British character actors like Don Henderson, Colin Jeavons and Dudley Sutton. Their credibility is bolstered not only by the quality of the cast but the fact that despite their nature, they do follow a code that has been passed down for generations. Australian actress Angela Punch McGregor is the sole female character, playing a widow to whom Michael Caine is given in compensation. It’s all rather sordid and unpleasant. The sort of film that makes you want to take a shower after watching. However it’s not sleaze for the sake of sleaze. There’s a curious air of honesty to it all; from the pitiful shanty town where the pirates live to their curious hybrid language.
Yet the movies tone and moral ambiguity ultimately alienated the alleged target audience. The advertising campaign for the movie was also ill conceived. Jaws and The Deep are the embodiment of high adventure. Universal obviously thought that was what they were going to get. Instead they took custody of a bleak, grotesque adult adventure that most certainly was (and still is) an acquired taste. Michael Caine is an unlikely hero playing a weekend Dad who puts his career over the needs of his parental obligations. The film is also quite violent. Although not excessively graphic, the oppressive atmosphere and sordid ambience does heighten the impact. There is a jarring axe attack at the beginning of the movie and the final plot resolution is hard hitting. The current vogue for romanticising pirates glosses over the fundamental reality that pirates were by nature, murderers, robber and rapists. The Island does not shy away from the truth.
The international nature of The Island does make the film a horse of a different colour. American director Michael Ritchie, French cinematographer Henri Decae and Italian composer Ennio Morricone along with a global cast all manage to pull in the same direction, offering a dark but coherent experience. The film also reflects the culture of the times. Journalism is driven by newspapers. The notion of isolated and uncharted island was still tangible due to the technological restraints of the time. There’s also a nice reference to contemporary drug culture. After the pirates raid a schooner they find a large stash of cocaine, which they have no need for. When asked what it is, Michael Caine informs them that it is a drug. “What does it cure” he is asked. “Insecurity” he replies.
I usually don’t like to make obvious comparisons to other movies and try to distil a film into a simply analogy. Under Siege, it’s Die Hard on boat for example. But if I were to cite a few examples of films with a similar vibe to The Island I would perhaps include Deliverance, The Naked Prey and The Light at the End of the World. Don’t be mistaken, The Island does not fall into the “hidden gem” category. It is a competently made piece of cinema that may be of interest to those viewers with a more robust constitution and tolerance for the bleak and grimy. For those expecting a comparable companion piece to Peter Benchley’s previous cinematic outings, you may prefer to look elsewhere.