Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Beautifully shot and also rather well acted by Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson,
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is nonetheless a repellent & pretentious
movie from a story by Yukio Mishima. Insistently arty, its main appeal is an exploitative
strain of softcore voyeurism.
Wealthy widow Anne Osborne (Sarah Miles) meets handsome ship's officer
Jim Cameron (Kris Kristofferson) and together they embark on a torrid affair in her seaside town.
Anne's troubled son Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) watches their bedroom through a peephole and at
first idolizes the seafaring man. But Jonathan is under the influence of a perniciously evil
playmate who runs a secret club. "Chief" (Earl Rhodes) browbeats his gang of affluent preppie
boys with antisocial Nietzschean ideas, ideas he isn't afraid to put into sadistic practice.
Yukio Mishima is an interesting and frightening historical and literary personage who dedicated
his life to his militaristic and ultra-conservative ideas. One of those extreme
characters willing to follow their most dangerous ideas to their ultimate end, he was reportedly
a mass of contradictions - a sensitive poet consumed by his own image and a nihilistic philosophy.
When The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea turns to 'dangerous' content, we get the
feeling that it's watered-down Mishima. It is as naive as a fairy story - schoolboys punish a man
for not living up to their idealized image of the traditional values they've decided he represents -
and numbingly literal. The plot moves like a snail toward unpleasant events that we
can see coming a mile off. What the filmmakers take for inexorable logic unspools as a series
of nasty contrivances.
The film spends a lot of time with the proto-fascist gang run by the Chief, a beautiful blonde
kid, the son of a rich doctor who trifles with dangerous ideas much like the thrill killers of
Rope or Compulsion. Constantly
screaming and punishing his subservient acolytes for behaving like the adolescent boys they are,
he turns their minds to the beauty and power of nature, represented by the everpresent and
ever-changing sea. Soon he's teaching oppressive ideas about the primacy of the strong over the weak,
and the group progresses from sick talk to sick deeds - like drugging and vivisecting a living cat,
or blowing up seagulls with firecrackers.
As ideas abstracted in print this probably had a certain poetic symmetry, like Grahame Greene's
The Destructors. In the movie, it comes off as exploitative overkill. The gauzy closeups of
cat innards echo Jonathan's slow-dissolve observations of his mother and her handsome sailor friend
making love. The sex scenes fulfill the commercial need for hot content, and the unconvincing
acting of the boys (or their badly written dialogue) make the kid's crimes just seem like nasty
ideas imposed on them and us.
It's really a coming-of-age story with the pubescent boys expressing their hormonal hysteria in
the wrong directions. Jonathan's repressed desire for his own mother is played out all too directly.
The perversity of the gang stems from sexual impotence and fear - the thirteen year-olds are too
young to possess the women they covet, and their violence is a reaction to their lack of power.
There are sexually ambivalent interpretations of the Chief's dominance over his flock
of pampered preppy brats.
Jonathan resists the Chief's taunts and jeers until he feels threatened by his Mum's new beau. It's a
reversal on The Night of the Hunter, with a benign stepfather victimized by warped children.
Frank and Eleanor Perry essayed a somewhat similar tale in their 1969 Last Summer, a grim story
where bored wealthy kids at a seaside island victimize first a total stranger and then one of their
own. The same self-defeating process that bogs that film down works here as well - the brutalities
and 'aesthetic ugliness' are too real to be contained by the contrived plot. We feel as though we are
being preached to with an unnecessarily cruel story, for no point at all. Lord of the Flies,
The suspicion is that the original story might have a completely different tack than this 'softened'
movie. Perhaps Mishima's original message was that the boys are justified in their actions,
because there really is an 'order to the sea and the land' that the sailor has violated, a crime
for which he must atone. Mishima proved he was nuts enough to forfeit his life to a warped ideal, so
I can't see him fashioning the muddled compromise we see here.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea bathes all of this in beautiful exterior and
landscape photography, with every view as pretty as a picture. The lovemaking scenes are all softcore
gauzy dissolves, 'tastefully' restrained to R-rated content. Sensual powerhouse Sarah Miles
follows up with more intimate orgasms carried over from Ryan's Daughter; she's
so good an actress that these scenes are largely successful. The big surprise is Kris Kristofferson,
who looks far more trim and focused than in his other films of the period, although I'm hard-pressed
to think of a film he's in that hasn't got a wide streak of pretension. Their romance is entirely
convincing. Again, they're limited by the dialogue, but Kristofferson, Miles and Jonathan Kahn have
some very good scenes. Lewis John Carlino's direction can be fluid and effective, especially in a
sequence where mother and son tour Kristofferson's ship.
All that said, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is no more offensive than the tons
of soft-core 'erotic thrillers' that have been playing on cable TV for two decades, and it's
certainly better made. And this reviewer's general rejection of its 'shocking' content may be just
the thrills other viewers are looking for - Hey, let's see the scene where they carve up the
cat again! Writer/director Lewis John Carlino was considered a possible future great
in the 1970s, after writing interesting movies like The Fox, The Brotherhood and
Reflection of Fear. He later both wrote and directed the superior The Great Santini.
Image/Castle Hill's DVD of The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea is a beauty, with a
handsome enhanced Panavision image bearing good color. Only a couple of early scenes seem a bit red,
and everything else is stunning.
The packaging retains the suggestive ad art from the original release, and the gloppy & misleading
"He gave his soul to the sea and his heart to a woman. Their love will arouse you. The
story will disturb you. The ending will startle you."
The box text wants us to think this is a 'timeless classic' where 'obsession and fate collide,' but
shows the film's true appeal with a review quote from Playboy magazine. The awkward false
profundity here is perfectly suited to that magazine's idea of art.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea rates:
Movie: Fair +++
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 26, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson