An altogether strange, oddly effective no-budget pirate movie...with deliberately damned few pirate movie thrills and an anti-hero lead everyone seems to mistake for Blackbeard the Pirate. M-G-M's own M.O.D. (manufactured on demand) Limited Edition Collection line of library titles has released the obscure 1962 U.A. adventure, Hero's Island, starring James Mason, Neville Brand, Kate Manx, Rip Torn, Warren Oates, and Harry Dean Stanton. The complete genetic opposite of another 1962 sea adventure you're probably more familiar with―Marlon Brando's Mutiny on the Bounty―Hero's Island focuses instead on a pirate's downtime with some down-on-their-luck settlers, believably creating a world that looks and sounds and feels like it supposed time frame. No extras for this okay transfer.
1718, Bull Island, off the Crown Province of Carolina in the New America. Former indentured servant and devout Christian Thomas Mainwaring (Brendan Dillon), with his even more devout wife Devon (Kate Manx), their two adopted children, and their wanted criminal helper, Wayte Giddens (Warren Oates), have come ashore to settle the land and plant corn, carrots, and peas, and to "raise a life out of it." Legally entitled to the land when their master willed it to them, Mainwaring and his family quickly erect a cross to consecrate their land...before running into muscular Enoch Gates (Robert Sampson) and his furtive brother, Nicholas (Rip Torn). The threatening Enoch quickly disavows Mainwaring's notion that Bull Island is his; the Enoch family has been fishing there since the island was first settled, and they consider it Enoch land, regardless of what any law back on the mainland says. They give the Mainwarings one day to get out, or face violence―an escalation of which leads to the death of Thomas. Facing eviction or worse by the Enoch brothers, Devon firmly believes she'll prevail with God's help, and sure enough, God answers...by washing up shady adventurer Jacob Weber (James Mason) onto their beach, tied to a makeshift raft with the sign "dead man" hung around his neck....
MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS WARNING!
The opening sequence of Hero's Island gives the viewer a good indication of where this unusual little movie is coming from: straight out of left field. As the new settlers arrive on shore, and Thomas erects not a lean-to or some other kind of necessary shelter but a cross, writer/director Leslie Stevens (The Outer Limits) cross-cuts with the Gates brothers...who kneel and cross themselves right along with their enemies the Mainwarings. That quirky but telling little detail is indicative of his take on the whole story: don't expect the conventional. Stevens, whose career swung wide, from the Broadway hit (and Hollywood adaptation failure) The Marriage-Go-Round, to the celebrated TV and movie cult classics, The Outer Limits and Incubus, to a pilot for McCloud and later, Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, approaches this pirate tale as if it's not a pirate tale at all, building up our expectations along conventional genre lines before we begin to realize this shaggy dog tale is just going to meander (pleasantly) along until the final, deadly (yet also oddly small, intimate, and personal) duel.
With Disney having cleaned up at the box office in 1960 with its colorful, slapstick Swiss Family Robinson, and M-G-M touting a potential blockbuster in its elephantine remake of Mutiny on the Bounty, it probably wasn't hard in 1962 for co-producers Stevens and star James Mason to scratch up a little coin for this pirate tale. What's fascinating about Hero's Island, though, is how completely opposite an experience it is from those two outsized examples of the seafaring adventure subgenre. Whereas Disney created an enjoyable (but totally unbelievable) Boys Own adventure romp where pirates get comically knocked down like ten pins, and M-G-M blew away ticket buyers with 70mm widescreen compositions of Tahiti and the site of Marlon Brando in full (and rather erratic) diva mode, Hero's Island goes for an almost ultra-realistic presentation filled (ironically) with halting poetic philosophical talk spoken in odd, unfamiliar rhythms, a bare-bones production design that deliberately fails to impress, a soft-spoken star who stays low-key throughout 95 percent of the movie, and a story that only needs to swing into limited action at the very end of the piece.
With most of us having seen countless period costume adventures, not only do we very probably have completely skewed ideas about how things "really were back then" (and that can be whatever "then" you happen to be talking about), but we also have pretty set-in-stone ideas of how those genre conventions should play out on the big screen. When we think of a "pirate movie," we have a set of expectations from our previous experiences we'd like to see met. Hero's Island is having none of that. Characters here talk not in that flowery Hollywood approximation of "old timey speak," nor do they sound contemporary, either, but rather with a decided "otherness" to their vocabulary and speech patterns that suggests isolated people, educated mainly by the Bible, having difficulty communicating outside of the simple exchanges required in day-to-day living. When the Gates brothers spy on the settlers, we expect them behave as conventional bullies...but Stevens has them come off as rather ineffectual villains, more drunk and suspicious rather than actually dangerous, suffering from their own lethargy and moral turpitude rather from any perceived threat suffered by the arrival of the Mainwarings. And when Mason arrives (he's marvelous here, as always), we fully expect him to operate as a conventional anti-hero who needs convincing before he steps willingly into action. This does happen in Hero's Island, but it's motivated more because he's sickened by his reduced state on the island; when he proclaims he's the devil and a pirate, and proceeds to take on slave master Brand and his cohorts, it's more to reestablish his own sense of piracy, rather than to help Devon and her family ("I am the devil! Oh yes I am! I have lived in hell! I have wrecked and burned a 100 ships! Crown ships! And I don't pull a plow!"). Even the look of Hero's Island is anti-Hollywood pirate movie, with no awe-inspiring vistas or established sets filled with period décor, to impress ticket buyers (almost everything is shot outside―certainly not the Carolinas―with only one mock-up I could spot).
Writer/director Stevens maintains that quirky realism throughout Hero's Island, keeping us off balance with our pirate movie genre expectations while creating an atmosphere (helped by the no-nonsense budget and the natural location work) that feels refreshingly "period" without the usual florid, overstuffed Hollywood gloss that passes for "period detail." Just by its very contrariness our established (and exhausted) movie cookie-cutter perceptions, you start to get the feeling that this is probably how it was for people back during the early 1700s. Of course, Stevens' vision is just an approximation of that time period, just as Disney's Swiss Family Robinson was, but Stevens' world is sparse and largely uneventful and blankly harsh (the unexciting stoning death of Thomas). When Wayte and Devon go to bury Thomas, it's not a grand or even dignified affair; they have difficulty getting his corpse into the small hole. When Wayte first sees Jacob lashed to his raft, he doesn't rescue him as we would expect a good man to do―he takes his shoes and leaves him for dead. And yet Wayte is a good man. What is drunken bully Enoch's weird version of intimidation? Getting drunk and passing out...and then throwing the settlers' goods into the trees. And at the end, when the villains are defeated, is slimy, murderous Dixie Gates' (Harry Dean Stanton) hash settled, too, by Jacob? No, he's shown to be rather pathetic, and even sympathetic, as he tearfully embraces his brother Nicholas, who returns the hug. All of these moments fall outside what we expect to see in a conventional Hollywood adventure movie (aided immensely by the off-kilter, live-wire Method cast), and thus they play remarkably fresh here.
The movie's finale perfectly illustrates this. After Jacob finally becomes disgusted enough with his own inaction when Wayte is killed, he reveals his true identity―which is not Blackbeard the Pirate as some critics have suggested (even the back of the DVD case says this); he confesses he's Major Steve Bonnett, sail master to Captain Teach, who was the infamous Blackbeard―and goes after Brand, the slave master. Their duel, shot in tight, tight close-ups with the camera right in their faces, is awkward and monotonous, with both men clanging their swords against each other with no particular skill. Some critics have suggested this is a mistake, but I find it fits in perfectly with what Stevens is going for. Again, as movie audiences, we define a swashbuckling sword fight by what we've been soaked in by hundreds of similar movies. We're used to 10-minute epic battles by virtuoso swordsmen like the dashing, debonair Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone. However, wasn't this hard-clanging, coarse, chopping fight in Hero's Island probably closer to what it was really like back then? Who says all pirates were masters of the deft blade back then? Oh, right...the movies do.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.