Michael Caine had an interesting run of genre flicks starting in the late ‘70s. The Swarm (1978) was laughed off the screen, Dressed to Kill (1980) was enjoyed by audiences and critics alike, and The Hand (1981) dropped his batting average once again. Nestled in between all those was The Island (1980), a killer pirate movie from the author of Jaws and directed by the man behind The Bad News Bears. What could go wrong? Well, everything, according to most folk. It’s an odd one to be sure, but the wild tonal shifts that prevent the ship from staying on a clear course make it a fascinating treasure that gets better with each viewing.
Released in June by Universal, The Island had a surefire pedigree for success; the Jaws juggernaut of producers Zanuck and Brown and author Peter Benchley (here, adapting his own novel) promised a good time to be had by all. Ooh boy, were they wrong. Eviscerated by critics, it couldn’t even recoup its gargantuan budget of $22 million. (It brought in just short of $16 million.) So why didn’t it connect with mainstream audiences? Oh, many reasons; but first, some story!
Our film opens with a group of businessmen on a fishing expedition in the Caribbean. As they drink on their vessel at night, a small boat passes their way. They investigate, and are besieged by a couple of buccaneers who quickly instruct them on the finer art of fileting. We then cut to a prototypical New York street shot, a sea of people with reporter (and war vet) Blair Maynard (Caine) on his way to the office. He begs his editor to let him fly to Miami to investigate disappearances in the region known as …The Bermuda Triangle (duh duh DUH!). After much Caine braying, Maynard is on his way, with his estranged 12 year old son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) in tow.
After a stop and purchase at a gun shop (the first attempt at shoehorning in some social relevance) and one fouled up puddle jumper flight later, Blair and son are on the island of Navidad. Blair rents a boat for the day from ex pat islander Windsor (Frank Middlemass – Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), who seems to know a lot about the area for a recluse. While out fishing, Blair and Justin are attacked, captured (after Blair shoots a pirate dead), and awaken surrounded by buccaneers and scoundrels. As it usually goes, there’s an impromptu tribunal, and Justin is taken under pirate leader Nau (David Warner – Time After Time)’s wing, while Blair becomes the property of the widow Beth (Angela Punch McGregor – The Efficiency Expert) because, hey, when you kill a man in self defense, you should have to procreate with his spouse, right? In between hitting the high seas with his captors to raid unsuspecting vessels, Blair tries desperately to flee the island with his uncooperative, brainwashed son. Will Blair manage to save Justin and himself, or will they be destined to sing sea shanties forever on The Island?
Well, let’s kick things off with the music. Composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), the score for The Island seems to mimic the more adventure themed strains John Williams put forth in Jaws; the only problem is this film is supposed to be a thriller, and it’s quite odd to hear jaunty music accompany full bore pirate slaughter. Of course it’s a lovely score – for a different movie. But this is where you first notice what Ritchie has up his sleeve; he’s making a comedy.
Unintentional, you say; I think on purpose. And the effect is twofold. While the audience gets comfortable with the hijinks on the propeller plane, or the unbelievable stretch on a schooner where the pirates fight a passenger who practices Kung Fu (Bruce Lee noises and all), Ritchie alternates these scenes with moments of shocking, jarring violence. The opening with the weekend fishermen has unaccredited Stan Winston handiwork; and many throats are slit and stomachs gored throughout. And the impact is tremendous when it hits, because it’s so unexpected. I’m assuming by Universal as well; they were probably expecting an adventure/suspense film; Ritchie chooses to toggle between comedy and horror, leaving mom and pop audiences unable to get a grip on the swerving tones.
Benchley’s script attempts to instill a Lord of the Flies flavor, but that is quickly jettisoned as fast as Justin turtles into Nau’s surrogate son role. But what he does get spot on is the feel, look, and sound of the pirates. Here there be no Errol Flynn sashes and pressed puffy shirts; our buccaneers are grimy and grungy, which is befitting of an inbred tribe hundreds of years removed from modern society. And he gives them an effective patois that’s English based, but veers off for a word here and there. (How audiences at the time couldn’t understand what they were saying is beyond me.) His commentary regarding man’s innate proclivity for violence is pretty overt; this is especially true of the amazing climax aboard a Coast Guard vessel where Maynard flexes some of those Korean War muscles. Things get very messy.
Which is to say this: Michael Ritchie completely understands the ridiculousness of this story, and runs with it. There is no way that people would plausibly buy a tale of pirates surviving for centuries by looting, raping and pillaging in the “Bermuda Triangle” – that’s just a step left of Monty Python. But by embracing that absurdity – the heroic music, the improbabilities at every turn – and then amplifying it (honing in on the exploitive elements of the material, Caine’s “what, me, worry?” performance), he ends up creating a minor genre gem that gleefully cackles in the face of mainstream entertainment. And much like our lusty band of buccaneers, The Island is content to live far removed from civilization, pulling up beside unsuspecting voyagers every once in awhile, just to remind them they exist.
The Island is available in a Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack from Scream Factory.