Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This warmly reviewed, not-widely-seen adventure movie is being released by Fox to fill the
sails of its Master and Commander DVD promotion. We have a lot to thank for that very good
picture, when it "inspires" the appearance of something like A High Wind in Jamaica. In
the same way, I'm grateful for Pearl Harbor for motivating DVD marketers to release dozens
of relatively obscure combat films we otherwise might not have seen. Well, almost grateful.
A High Wind in Jamaica actually stands in a category by itself, like most of the movies of the
great director Alexander Mackendrick. The king of the Ealing comedies
(The Man in the White Suit,
The Ladykillers) and the maker of the
most politically sophisticated 50s film noir Sweet Smell of Success, Mackendrick
here mixes pirates with little kids, and does it amazingly well.
After a calamitous hurricane the Thornton family of Jamaica decides to send their
score of unruly children back to England for schooling. But when their packet boat is hijacked by the
scurvy pirates of Captain Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his pragmatic Yankee partner Zac (James
Coburn), the kids accidentally become part of the loot. The superstitious Spanish-speaking crew is
nervous and Zac knows that they need to be rid of the children or every man 'o war on
the seas will be after them. But Chavez is charmed into inaction by the direct innocence and
disarming decency of Emily Thornton, the oldest of the Thornton captives (Deborah Baxter). The pirates
reach the wide-open port of Tampico, where they prove no more able to control the kids than
their parents were. When the crew becomes mutinous, events drive a wedge between the sentimental
Captain and the protesting, pragmatic Zac.
Putting kids and animals into movies is traditionally fraught with peril but Alexander
Mackendrick makes it look easy. His kids in A High Wind in Jamaica are rambunctious but not
brats, inquisitive and disobedient without being obnoxious. Even better, they behave naturally.
The movie really is about innocence and
knowledge, responsibility and irresponsibility. The pirates are able to function because of the
scarcity of law and order in their part of the world. To them shady activity is just another
business risk. The logic of corruption shows in the fact that the
two pirate partners hide the booty from their own men, a crew completely ruled by superstition.
The sheltered kids are accustomed to living in a state where adults tell them as little as
possible about how the world works. this makes them incredibly trusting. After witnessing
their boat assaulted by pirates, they're gullible enough not to draw any conclusions, as if the change of
ships must be a part of their itinerary they weren't told about. When nothing in the world makes sense,
one doesn't get upset over individual inconsistencies. That Captain Chavez eats spoons of hot
pepper and uses the naughty word "drawers" for pants makes more of an impression than the fact that
they're in the company of unruly drunks and criminals.
Mackendrick conducts a rewarding investigation of the contact between the worlds of pirate and child,
communcated in blocking, spacial relationships and acting instead of dialogue. There isn't much official
byplay between the pirates and their prisoners. As far as the kids are concerned, Chavez and his crew
are just more adults doing funny things. This leads to some odd but telling moments as when, after being
used for target practice in the wheelhouse, Emily verbally chastizes Chavez as if he'd broken a rule of
A High Wind in Jamaica somehow avoids the credibility problem that comes with the thought that
pirates with a price on their heads wouldn't think twice about murdering a half-dozen troublesome
brats. It gets too personal too quickly for that. The kids are like mice - investigating everything, making
messes and swiping hats. The youngest of them has fun playing a voodoo dupé'e, a ghost with
its head on backwards, to freak out the crew. The kids aren't symbolic of anything and the tone of the
show is completely opposed to allegories like Lord of the Flies. An adventure is an adventure and
the kids occupy themselves having fun, to the point of not worrying much about what's going to happen to
them. It's the old-fashioned complacency that once existed when children were routinely sheltered from
most realities. These kids accept whatever happens because they have nothing to judge it against.
Director Mackendrick creates a highly believable pirate world, both on the boat and in Lila Kedrova's
house of ill repute in the port of Tampico. The kids wander everywhere underfoot. Pirates aren't exactly
good babysitters, and these children aren't as street smart as they need to be ... and something
unfortunate eventually happens.
The film has an interesting mix of English and Spanish cultures. Along with the pack of English moppets,
sagely introduces two well-to-do Spanish kids and shows them to be better-behaved and mannered, even after
they're separated from their nanny. The girl is a teenager of maybe fourteen or fifteen, and there's
a constant tension that she may be raped by someone. Our younger heroine-witness is partially aware of this
but mostly confused. She's just pre-pubescent, ignorant but certainly not too dumb to intuit things for
The story ends up being about the gulf between innocence and guilt. Pirate Chavez falls in love
with Emily, or at the very least makes her into the daughter his lifestyle could never allow. The
way his concern for her overrules his instinct for survival is beautifully conveyed without so much
as a single expository line of dialogue. Alexander Mackendrick had just finished making Sammy Going
South (A Boy Ten Feet Tall), an adventure in which a pint-sized boy crosses a continent
on his own simply because he's too young to know how impossible it is. In A High Wind in Jamaica
is a complimentary rite-of-passage for a young female character.
Events are always scaled from the kids' point of view. The final naval confrontation all takes
place off-camera, but we don't feel cheated: Emily is laid up feverish in her bunk, and the action is all
heard from her perspective.
Anthony Quinn was waist-deep in loveable rogue or earthy peasant roles at this point in his career. His
Captain Chavez is sentimental but doesn't beg the audience to be loved the way
Zorba the Greek does. James Coburn is
the rational center for the picture. We soon realize that if he can't control events, nobody can. This
role was reportedly the one that convinced Fox to give Coburn the star lead in the next year's
Our Man Flint.
Nigel Davenport and Isabel Dean are the kids' worried parents. They and Dennis Price's London
barrister give concise performances from the margins while the story concentrates
on the kids. Kedrova's madam and Kenneth Warren's cowardly captain are also effective in smaller
roles. Gert Fröbe's part is so tiny, he should have done it as an unbilled cameo.
Deborah Baxter is the big appeal here. She's a beautiful child and her
performance makes everything work, from her semi-comprehending stares to her angry outbursts. At
one point she's injured in an accident and her screams of pain are completely convincing. We
immediately side with Anthony Quinn's pirate when he drops everything to care for her. She's in only
one other film (or so sayeth the IMDB): John Milius'
The Wind and the Lion, where
she plays Roosevelt's daughter Alice. That's a perfect two-for-two batting average of great performances.
Fox's DVD of A High Wind in Jamaica is a beauty. I'd only seen terrible pan-scan television
prints, and viewers who want that experience are welcome to the pan-scan transfer on the A side
of the disc. The B side has a handsome and richly-colored CinemaScope version that only played for
a few weeks in theaters in 1965. It looks terrific.
I have a feeling that the film was short-changed on post-production frills. The titles up front are
cheap, with dissolves that don't work well. 1
Although the film is a visual delight, with many difficult-looking shots taken on and of real
multi-masted sailing ships, its unrefined audio mix uses mismatched looped dialogue and dubbing that
makes some words hard to hear. For instance, when the pirate cook yells at the little girl, she
talks back at him in a normal tone of voice. She sounds louder than he does and neither seems to
be on the deck of a ship at sea. It doesn't interfere with the story much, but it's not the same as
hearing an unobtrusive, quality track. There are full French and Spanish audio tracks as well.
The tasteful box art sells the film as top-notch goods with handsome portraits of Quinn and Coburn
on the cover. This is one of Savant's favorite DVD releases yet this year.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A High Wind in Jamaica rates:
Sound: Good -
Supplements: Trailers (English and Spanish : Ventada en Jamaíca)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2004
1. Strangely enough, the
titles have the same optical mistake I've seen in the similar surf-backgrounded titles of Fritz Lang's
Moonfleet from ten years earlier. Curiously, both movies are about kids and pirates, and
both end with a shot of a boat sailing "magically" away from the camera.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson