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For just plain weirdness, few can top the career of Leslie Stevens, who wrote for television, had hit plays on Broadway and then embarked on a strange film and TV career. Stevens is best known as the creator of the Outer Limits TV series, and the bizarre faux-Bergman horror film Incubus, which he had the audacity to film in the Esperanto language. Stevens attracted talented associates like a creative magnet: cameramen Ted McCord and Conrad Hall, composer Dominic Frontiere, actors Warren Oates and William Shatner. His dynamic '60s film work also plays out like an extended curse, as his volatile group of collaborators included troubling suicides and murders. Leslie Steven's first independent offering Private Property hasn't been seen in years and is rumored to be permanently lost. A minimalist thriller, it is about the strange relationship of a pair of criminals that kidnap and threaten a young woman. Made in 1960, Private Property is said to be quite a shocker; it starred Warren Oates, Corey Allen and Stevens' wife Kate Manx, a Salome Jens- like beauty with a disposition more suited to the later years of the 1960s.
Kate Manx returns in Stevens' Hero's Island. Another tale of terror in isolated circumstances, it is as far removed from contemporary life as one could imagine. In the early 1700s, penniless American sharecropper Thomas Mainwaring (Brendan Dillon) and his wife Devon (Kate Manx) arrive at tiny Bull Island off the Carolina coast. Devon was the indentured servant of a rich man, and has been given the island in his will; the Mainwarings arrive in a small boat with their two small children and their friend & helper Wayte Giddens (Warren Oates). They are soon threatened by three local fishermen, the Gates Brothers Enoch, Dixey and Nicholas (Robert Sampson, Harry Dean Stanton & Rip Torn). Enoch refuses to acknowledge the Mainwaring's legal claim, and when the two parties can't resolve their difference, violence breaks out. Of the Gates Brothers only Enoch is a real killer. But Wayte isn't keen to fight, because he's a wanted man back on the mainland. Devon, a strict Bible woman, adamantly refuses to defend her land with force. Possible help comes in the form of a man who arrives lashed to raft, apparently cast adrift in a mutiny. He's Jacob Webber (James Mason), a very practical individual who thanks Devon for feeding him. Jacob claims not to be interested in Devon's problem, but can't help but get involved when the fishermen return to forcibly evict -- or kill -- the new arrivals. Jacob is very handy with a cutlass, which leads everyone to believe he's not an ordinary seafaring man. To defeat him, Enoch Gates sails to the next island and brings back the notorious slave master Kingstree (Neville Brand) and his two henchmen. Armed with a pistol, the brutal Kingstree should have no problem eliminating the troublesome Devon Mainwaring.
Like everything else Leslie Stevens touched, Hero's Island is, well, unusual. Stevens takes an odd credit for "Direction and Dramatization", indicating a strong touch of Orson Welles in the man. As a drama the show is quite absorbing. Steven's script sketches a number of interesting period personalities and confects to have the "spellbinding tension" of the island standoff play out at a completely different pace than it would today. The main bad brother spends most of each day sleeping, leaving his less-motivated kin to wallow in moral inertia. The pushy but full-of-life Devon seems to think she can stave off disaster just by being a good Christian -- she discourages attempts by her husband and Wade to take measures against the fishermen, and when things don't look good for her side seems to expect God to arrive with bolts of lightning. The movie certainly has dramatic tension.
Stevens' script is good but his direction lacks the one thing that would put Hero's Island over the top -- urgency. Released by United Artists and filmed in beautiful Panavision by a top cinematographer, the show is still a very low-budget affair, sort of an Arch Oboler Malibu backyard movie with improved tech credits. There are no sets to speak of, and the biggest props in the movie are the ragged, small boats we see. Neville Brand makes a realistic but rather unimpressive entrance sitting on a throne-like chair stuck on the foredeck of Enoch's fishing boat Real Carolina islands are green, windswept and fairly flat, with wide sandy beaches. A well-known show filmed there is the kids-love-horses movie Misty. Hero's Island was filmed on the beaches of Catalina, with its dry scrub and rugged hills. It looks more like a desert island than anything Carolinan.
Stevens finds good angles for some of his dialogue scenes, a few of which run on for minutes without losing our interest. But he has neither the knack nor the resources to stage the film's final action scenes. James Mason finally roars into full-on heroic mode, proclaiming his true identity 3 and kicking the film's spirit ten notches upward in just one declarative burst of dialogue. But the fight on the beach is shortchanged for logic and thrills. It's the kind of duel where two fighters clack cutlasses 150 times to no purpose; how Mason backs Neville Brand from the beach, into the surf, and onto the deck of the fishing boat makes no sense whatsoever.
What does make sense and makes the film worthwhile are the completely atypical characterizations. Kate Manx is a fundamentalist Earth Mother in the good sense, a woman who can motivate those around her. Warren Oates is surprisingly good as an ineffectual man who wants to pitch in but has no faith in himself. Rip Torn was finishing the first leg of a movie career and getting set to retreat to television. His wishy-washy Gates brother is another likeable guy who'd rather talk than fight, and has been around the hothead Enoch and the not-too-bright Dixey (Harry Dean Stanton) too long. We get the notion that Leslie Stevens' eccentricities drew unattached bohemian actors like flies. Stanton and Rip Torn had small parts in Pork Chop Hill together. There were probably a dozen connections between them and actor Neville Brand, who receives second billing for his brief but impressive role. James Mason's son Morgan also has a small role.
James Mason starred in the film version of Leslie Stevens' Broadway play The Marriage-Go-Round, and formed a company with Stevens to make Hero's Island.
Commercially, Leslie Stevens' independent film didn't have much of a chance. It wants to be sold as a sea-going adventure yet has no ships or pirate battles. 1962 was the year of the lavish 70mm Mutiny on the Bounty remake, and the comparison probably limited Hero's Island to the second slot in double bills, the fate of too many interesting United Artists releases.
Fans of James Mason, Rip Torn, Neville Brand, Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton won't need encouragement to see Hero's Island; this is one hip roster of well-regarded actors. Until the elusive, notorious Private Property surfaces 1 this is probably the best opportunity to see the interesting Kate Manx, a now completely forgotten name. It's hard to say if the tragedies associated with Stevens' 'jinxed' film Incubus are just a matter of unstable people; most of what can be found about the deaths is written up in unreliable "Hollywood Babylon" terms. Inside information on the story of Kate Manx is just as hard to come by, so the void is filled with dark speculation that's probably wholly unwarranted. The official record states that Ms. Manx committed suicide two years later. 2
The MGM Limited Edition Collection DVD of Hero's Island is a handsome enhanced widescreen encoding of this fairly obscure little pirate-historical drama. Ted McCord's bright cinematography, all exterior work, is quite handsome. The little cove where most of the violent action takes place forms an attractive seaside stage. The cove looks like Catalina but the rest of the inland action could very well have been filmed in the wild hills of Malibu, near Leslie Stevens' home that had been his primary location for Private Property. In one long dialogue scene with Mason and Manx we see what may be an error -- a wide white shape atop a hill may be a retaining wall on somebody's property.
The sound is good throughout, although a few dialogue lines are a bit hard to make out. Hero's Island is quite a surprise, and an interesting curiosity in the United Artists library. The film's key art is not bad, but I was unable to locate a single interesting still image.
As with all Limited Edition Collection discs, a card comes up at the outset of the film to assure us that the movie has been mastered from the Best Elements available. Once again, MGM and its distributor Fox use language that gives the entirely wrong impression. The disclaimer reads like a defensive pre-apology for a bad-quality presentation. It's as if Ed Sullivan stepped out in front of the curtain to tell his audience that what they're about to see is very possibly going to be just terrible. The only other interpretation is that MGM keeps separate vaults, one with "The Best Elements" and another with substandard negatives and wretched printing lo-cons that no decent lab would touch. MGM wants us to know that it is tempted but, like Dr. Frankenstein skipping the jar marked "criminal brain", is promising to use only printing materials from the "Good Vault".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hero's Island rates:
1. The 1960 trade notices I've read of Private Property simply call it an 'experimental' and somewhat raw suspense thriller without giving many details. Is it 'experimental' in the improvised fashion of John Cassavetes? And how raw "raw" is, is an open question as well. UCLA film professor Robert Epstein had seen the movie. He deflected our questions, and said that he thought the movie was over-hyped junk, but he didn't describe it enough or offer any arguments about it. If Private Property turned up tomorrow, we have no idea if it would be considered a great discovery, or a big nothing.
2. In 1988 I met a daughter (by a later marriage) of Leslie Stevens, while working at Cannon Films. At the time, friend Todd Stribich and I were keen to see Incubus, which had been out of circulation for some time as well. The daughter (I give no name, as I'm not sure she'd like the attention) couldn't help us. She of course never knew Kate Manx, and was quite fascinated by her "legend" as well. I have located a no-nonsense profile of Kate Manx, with a photo, online at the Glamour Girls of the Big Screen website.
3. (Spoiler) Mason's Jacob Webber turns out to be a famous, notorious historical pirate, who nevertheless is a man of honor. This was the year of Lolita for Mason and a rare "swashbuckling' role for him. As is usually the case any film with James Mason is well worth watching -- he never turns in a dull performance. I repeatedly tune into the lumpy last hour of Lord Jim just to see Mason's wickedly committed performance as a thieving blaggard. When he shows up wearing a bowler hat and fingerless gloves, with a smile and a double-cross for everyone he meets, Lord Jim springs to life for about twenty minutes. Mason lends the same star-quality energy boost to Hero's Island.
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T'was Ever Thus.