A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA didn’t blow up any headwind with crowds on release in 1965, despite decent reviews and a pedigree from its influential 1929 source novel by Richard Hughes. I remember being quite bored with it, watching as a 10-year-old when it aired on ABCs Monday Night At The Movies, where it had been ignominiously dumped just a few months after a truncated theatrical release gathered only $2,200,000. Following that quick shuffle onto TV in cropped form, it faded into the movie void, another in a chest of fine adventure films that wallowed in the wake of Bond and the Beatles.*
Viewing 51 years later (room spins, mind reels), in its widescreen glory, reveals that the masses missed out and that I must have been preoccupied mooning over my 5th-grade crush (lifelong, my oldest pals can affectionately vouch) instead of concentrating on this superbly crafted period piece, a captivating escape which doesn’t spoil a serious underlay with silly cuteness or far-fetched action.
A hurricane hits Jamaica in 1870, devastating enough to convince a couple to send their children back to England for safety and proper schooling. En route, ship and kid-cargo are seized by a polyglot gang of pirates operating around the Caribbean. The quarrelsome hijackers can’t quite settle on what to do with the youngsters, who treat the excitement and novelty of the abduction as one big lark. Beyond mischief, danger and humor, through the greed and conniving, bonds both strong and fragile form and crack under a crisscross of emotions, loyalties and fate. The fickle nature of the children is at least the equal of their innocence, and the adults seeming command is undermined by their emotional immaturity.
Earlier attempts in the 50s by James Mason to get the property on screen met with screenplay nixing until it came under the sway of director Alexander MacKendrick, who insisted on a more faithful treatment of the novel’s somber tone. Admiring MacKendrick’s track record, star Anthony Quinn fought for the director’s vision and he headlines the 103-minute result along with rising light James Coburn.
Beautifully acted, it has Quinn and Coburn at key points in their careers. Quinn, 50, with 31 years of steady work, had just topped out with an Oscar nomination for Zorba The Greek. Here, the patented earthy Quinn zest fits just right: he respects the material and doesn’t go overboard. Post-1965, though continuing as a lead, his films declined in quality and success. Conversely, Coburn, 37, in his eighth year of striking supporting work, found himself finally taking off as a top-billed star following this assignment, which showed him as not just a sly scene-stealer, but as someone who could believably take charge. Unfazed by the veteran male leads, with a fresh appeal, prettiness, confidence and intelligence reminiscent of Hayley Mills (who had been considered for the role), remarkably effective 12-year-old newcomer Deborah Baxter (the leader of the kid contingent) solidly glues both sides of the plot together.**
Gert Frobe has a very brief cameo; also on hand are Nigel Davenport, Dennis Price, Lila Kedrova and Isabel Dean. The young ones include Viviane Ventura*** and future author Martin Amis. Douglas Slocombe did the rich cinematography (shot on location in Jamaica) and Larry Adler the handsome score, with a fittingly plaintive title tune sung by Mike LeRoy. Adler, among other talents, was a world-class harmonica virtuoso, exiled to England due to the blacklist. The assorted skill-sets of all concerned mesh under MacKendrick’s astute direction in a jewel of teachable adventure that lingers in your thoughts afterwards like a childhood memory of a never-to-be sweetheart.
* Audience expectations were not catered by the handling of the story. Sold as a ‘pirate movie’, it has energy but isn’t rollicking, the kids don’t ham or falter like typical Hollywood cringe-inducers and it has movement but no big action scenes, plus there is an unsettling resolution, so perhaps that tacking against the standard course accounts for its relative obscurity. Billowing some hot air and expanding a bit: just as traditional westerns like A Distant Trumpet, The Glory Guys and Cheyenne Autumn floundered among the new vibe in the mid 60s, the heady mix of change and confusion in the air also saw adult-minded adventures taking a beating. Like this feature, they most certainly didn’t lack for quality, yet surprisingly under-performing in 1965 were Lord Jim, The Naked Prey, Sands Of The Kalahari and The Flight Of The Phoenix. Revolutions may be necessary (forget the may be) but they do tend to leave collateral damage in their path. Time might not heal all wounds, but it can sometimes breathe life back into wounded art. I Have Spoken: back to your iPhones.
** Selected from 2,000 hopefuls for her role here, the talented and winning Deborah Baxter, for reasons of her own, to date has appeared in only one more picture, ten years on, but it was the magnificent The Wind And The Lion: she was daughter Alice Roosevelt to Brian Keith’s Theodore—“Growl again, father!” Her website indicates she’s up for a challenge.
*** Sultry English-Colombian beauty Vivienne Ventura, was not really such a tot at a pretty dang hot 18. She must have been paying attention as ‘coaching’ with the always-ready Mr.Quinn was followed by agile climbing up the jet-set rigging to date the Sultan of Brunei, billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (speaking of pirates) and King Hussein of Jordan. Oh, and Warren Beatty (well, duh…). She found time to do a bit in Help! as well as TV work (I Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and had enough chutzpah to write ” Guide To Social Climbing”—all 160 pages worth. Focus the gleam-in-eye and a little brush with buccaneers goes a long way (“to the top, if you want to rock and roll….”).