Saturday, February 27, 2016

Alexander Mackendrick | A High Wind in Jamaica

horrible knowledge
by Douglas Messerli

Stanley Mann, Ronald Harwood, and Denis Cannan, screenplay, based on the novel by Richard Hughes), Alexander Mackendrick (director) A High Wind in Jamaica / 1965

Filmmaker Alexander Mackendrick’s 1965 film, A High Wind in Jamaica is a remarkable blend of terror, humor, and tenderness that also is revolutionary in its questioning of the Victorian-based concept of childhood innocence.

The several little monsters of the Thornton and Fernandez families are all being sent away from their Jamaican home after a hurricane has destroyed the Thornton’s island home. But what we also discover in that first scene is that these children, particularly young Emily (Deborah Baxter), have grown up on the island as nearly feral beings, who, having easily associated with natives and their children, know nearly as much about Jamaican superstitions as they do about their parents’ Christian religion, in particular the belief in the return of the dead as a duppy (described, inexplicably as “stuppy” in this film), often with his face turned in the wrong direction. 
      Even during the destruction of their own home, which ends in the death of an elderly black who has worked with the family, the children seem inattentive to parental restrictions, afterward citing rhymes to protect them from the dead.

       Is it any wonder that their parents and a neighbors ship their kids off to England for a more conventional education? The ship that is to take them there, however, is captained by a vainglorious puff of a man, Captain Marpole (Kenneth J. Warren) who is too busy dining in his quarters to even notice that his men have been tricked into permitting a dozen or more pirates to board, who have taken over the vessel before he can even bring himself above deck. 
       Less frightened than curious, the children treat the ridiculous pirates—who throughout this film behave more childish than the children—with open-eyed wonderment, riding the lift from the cargo hold to the pirate ship as the intruders take away their hauls of the stolen wares and goods. The pirate captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his associate Zac (James Coburn) try to determine from the absurd Marpole whether there is any money aboard, threatening at one moment to even shoot the children dead. When freed, the children sneak off to the pirate ship, bolding exploring its hold.

      Finally, as Chavez and Zac create a mock pyre on which they intend to burn Marpole, he breaks down and tells them where he has hid 900 pounds. Even as the pirate’s leave, he exaggerates to his own men how many pirates there have been and seems more worried about his explanation of the children’s disappearance than in the loss of the children themselves.
       It is only as the pirates sail off that they discover they have hauled off the children as well. And once the children have been released from the hold, they quite literally overrun the ship, climbing its sails and sliding down the deck even during a heavy rain-storm. The boys usurp Chavez’ Napoleonic-like captain’s hat, while Emily shows up time and again even in the Chavez’ quarters. In short, the pirates cannot control these young hellions any better than could their parents.
       After a late night drinking and dancing spree the drunken adults slip into the hold where the children, including a young teenage sister, are sleeping—obviously with the intent of sexually molesting them. But the complete startlement of the seeming innocents, and Emily’s stated recognition that they are drunk, after which she bites Chavez’ finger, stops them in their tracks, as they retreat in abashment.

       Indeed, as time passes, the children become more and more difficult to control, beginning to play dangerous games on a ship of such superstitious adults. At one point, as the pirates are facing off with the specter of a British warship, a boy accidentally releases the anchor, which breaks off from its chains in the quick descent. At another point, the terrified sailors discover their shiphead woman’s figure has been turned around to represent a “stuppy.” Increasingly, the grown men begin to see the children as emblems of their increasing bad luck.
       Stopping at the wild trading and whoring center of Tampico, the pirate’s intend to drop off the children and run. The local brothel owner, Rosa (Lila Kedrova) tells them of the outrageous reports of Captain Marpole, including his report that Chavez and his men have murdered all the children, but is willing to put up the children until they can be rescued. But before she can even agree to the act, Emily’s brother, staring from a window of Rosa’s bedroom, falls to the concrete courtyard below and is killed. Rosa, now faced with the death of a child in her personal realm, declares that Chavez, his crew, and the children must leave immediately. 
       Back on ship, Chavez attempts, ineffectually, to explain to the children that their brother and friends has had an accident—but the children seem already to sense the truth. Their lack of fear or sorrow over the event reminds one of the early scene in the film, and calls up the kind of childish obliviousness to the meaning of death that William Goulding put forward in The Lord of the Flies. Both Richard Hughes 1921 novel, and the film based on it, begin to cast the innocents as a kind of “curse” to the adults; a bit like British novelist’s Ivy Compton-Burnett, in which children are seemingly far more knowing and dangerous than the grownups surrounding them; these children have a kind of horrible knowledge—having blankly witnessed so many strange ways of behaving and inexplicable deaths—that attests to the hypocrisies of the adults.
      The superstitious sailors began to plot mutiny, particularly after, as the children are ordered back into the hold, a heavy piece of metal falls upon Emily, whose obviously broken leg begins to become infected. Chavez takes her, once more, into his own room, mildly drugging her to allow her to sleep, and even holding her when she becomes frightened—strangely fathering her at the very moment when he cannot even control his own men. 
       The sight of an approaching Dutch ship—another perfect target for the pirate’s plunder—calms down the rebellion; but when Chavez orders that there will be no plundering, but simply the turnover of the children into the Dutch captain’s hands,  his companions become even more determined to challenge him. In order to save his friend, Zac orders Chavez to be chained, and the guns to be released. 
       The Dutch captain, upon being bound, somehow escapes to the pirate boat, encountering the slightly drugged and feverish girl in Chavez’s room, and grabbing a knife, attempts to explain to her that she should cut his bonds. Mistaking his sudden approach as a terrifyingly hostile act, she takes up the knife and stabs him to death. 
       By coincidence, as the men begin to empty the Dutch ship of its valuables, a British warship appears on the horizon and captures the pirate rig, discovering aboard not only the children but the dead Dutchman.
       In the final scenes, the children, having been reunited in England with their parents, are being questioned about their adventures aboard the pirate ship. Because of their youth, they are not able fully to answer the sometimes subtle and vague accusations of the British lawyer, hoping to build a case against the accused. Emily is forced to appear in court, but despite her own “horrible knowledge” of events, she is unable to properly focus on the meaning of what she is asked, speaking instead on Chavez’ mention of her “drawers” (which he warns her earlier on that, if she rips them, he will be unable to mend), and is unable to appropriately describe her semi-conscious condition during which she, not the accused Chavez, stabbed the Dutch captain.

      Observing her distressed confusion, her father refuses to allow her any more testimony, in the process assuring the conviction and hanging of all the pirate crew. Strangely, the audience alone realizes the injustice of this decision, and perceives, that despite their unlawful behavior, they are not guilty of what they have been charged. Only the children and we, the mute observers of history, know the truth, but the children—now being raised as perfect Victorian innocents—cannot speak of their own secret knowledge. Who these monstrous innocents might become as adults is an open question:  perhaps they will simply turn out to be the blind and incapable fools who their father and mother represent.
      In any event, Mackendrick, in this film further reveals his true talent as a director. If only he could have chopped the de rigour Hollywood-inspired theme song, composed by Larry Adler and sung by Mike LeRoy!

Los Angeles, February 26, 2016