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Islands in the Stream

Islands in the Stream
1977 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 104 min. / Street Date March 29, 2005 / 14.99
Starring George C. Scott, David Hemmings, Gilbert Roland, Susan Tyrrell, Richard Evans, Claire Bloom, Julius Harris, Hart Bochner
Cinematography Fred J. Koenekamp
Production Designer William J. Creber
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Jerry Goldsmith
Written by Denne Bart Petitclerc from stories by Ernest Hemingway
Produced by Peter Bart, Max Palevsky, Ken Wales
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Islands in the Stream comes at the end of a string of adaptations of a story first filmed by Howard Hawks, after he boasted to the author that he could make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst book. To Have and Have Not became a smash hit, and was re-filmed several more times. This 70's effort by Franklin Schaffner is said to utilize a couple more Hemingway short stories. The production values are impressive and George C. Scott's central performance better than adequate, but the film's fractured storyline isn't as involving as it could be.


Several episodes are offered in the life of Thomas Hudson (George C. Scott), an artist living in the Bahamas in 1940. His three sons come for a visit, giving him a chance to win over a youngster and renew his familial bonds with his 19 year-old Andrew (Hart Bochner), who plans to join the Canadian RAF. Later, Thomas' ex-wife Audrey visits for mysterious reasons. Finally, Thomas volunteers to use his fishing boat Tortuga to help some refugees from Europe get to the safe haven of Cuba. Helping him are fellow captain Ralph (Gilbert Roland) and best buddies Joseph (Julius Harris) and Eddy (David Hemmings), an amusing alcoholic. But the Cuban coast guard catches them in shallow waters ...

Hawks' To Have and Have Not is now considered a classic, but coming in a close second is is Michael Curtiz' 1950 version called The Breaking Point with John Garfield. It relocates the action to Southern California and Mexico and transforms the original Vichy menace into a harsh economic system that forces its hero to smuggle not political refugees, but wanted criminals. Its tone is more in keeping with Cy Endfield's Try and Get Me!, a subversive masterpiece that needs airing on DVD.

Islands in the Stream is too diffuse and fuzzy-minded to be a good Hemingway adaptation, family drama, or action film. George C. Scott's vaguely alienated artist is given too many hats to wear. He's a cranky avant-garde artist, welding sculptures in the ocean breezes. He's a reluctant tough guy riding herd on his "rummy" pal Eddy, but also a sentimental pussycat. Celebrating the Queen's birthday in the harbor, he engages in more typical Hemingwayesqe irresponsibility, firing flares from his Very pistol at the governor's residence and a refueling dock.

But there's no real angst or conflict. Everyone is nice at heart, even Thomas' good-time girlfriend Lil (an underused Susan Tyrell) who tends to Eddy's wounds gathered in barfights we never see. His competitors Ralph and Willy (Richard Evans) are pals as well. When Thomas' boys show up, a few mean words and a pillowfight make everybody the best of buddies. Thomas is always at the sidelines, watching allied shipping sunk by U-boats burn on the horizon, and worrying about what may become of his kids in the war.

There aren't any pretentious speeches or author's messages being pushed in Denne Bart Petitclerc's script, but the beautiful scenery can't compensate for a lack of a point to the whole enterprise. In one handsome but truly wasted episode, Claire Bloom's Audrey drops in unannounced and the ex-marrieds make their way back to Thomas' beach house and dance around a number of subjects before he finally learns the sad news that has prompted her trip. It's a nicely realized short story adaptation that's missing the all-important author's narration to give depth and meaning to the dramatics. There's nothing at all wrong with the acting, but the audience is left in the position of just waiting for something to happen.

The final episode runs the familiar story of the earlier versions. This time Thomas' involvement is just accidental, as he's really on his way back to America when he rescues Ralph and Willy from a burning boat and inherits their cargo of desperate refugees. The random nature of this even again keeps Thomas from making any real moral decision or undergoing any crisis of character. The action is realistic but devoid of any drama higher than who gets shot and who doesn't.  1

The most lovable character in the movie, David Hemmings' rummy, is afforded more sympathy than the hero. We end up caring much more about his fate than we do of Thomas Hudson, the hero. The ending is all soft flashbacks to the faces of loved ones, etc., that don't mean all that much to us. We hardly knew any of them, and the movie asks us to identify with George C. Scott just because he has a caring face.

The only real excitement in the film comes early on when Eddy the Rummy becomes an unexpected hero, winding up a Jaws-like attack on Thomas' kids with a steady aim on a powerful weapon that miraculously happens to be right at hand. That's exactly the sort of flash of competency that earned old coots played by Walter Brennan permanent places in the male community in Howard Hawks' films. George C. Scott's soul-sick artist is the one who tries to ditch his pal and run away. The Hemingway he-man isn't worthy of his own alcoholic sidekick.

Paramount's DVD of Islands in the Stream is an almost perfect rendering of a movie that has many fans just by virtue of its relaxed atmosphere and Carribean setting. Even the location is off, however, as the film was reportedly shot in the Hawaiian Islands. The soundtrack is clear and Jerry Goldsmith's lovely music (he was at the height of his career at this time) is a pleasant accompaniment.

As is common with Paramount discs, the price is right but there are no extras. The package text stresses the Hemingway connection and Scott and Schaffner's previous association on Patton.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Islands in the Stream rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 26, 2005


1. Even the simple action story becomes frustrating when we never find out what happens to several characters who are left to fend for themselves in a dinghy.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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