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Ice is civilisation! That's why I'm here! That's why I came!

The Mosquito Coast
(1986)

(SPOILERS) How different things might have been, had The Mosquito Coast been a hit. Its failure evidently chastened Harrison Ford, who was still opining half a decade later that it was his only film that hadn’t made its money back. For a spell there, with two phenomenal franchises to his name and his star power entrenched by the success of Witness, he felt confident enough to mix things up a little, to put his name to the Peter Weir project that had fallen through due to lack of funding/Jack Nicholson, to work with an out-of-favour European director (in Frantic for Polanski, now even more out of favour), try his hand as the supporting romantic interest in an unfamiliar genre (Working Girl) and work with one of the ‘70s most feted directors in a did-he-didn’t-he Jagged Edge-esque courtroom drama (Presumed Innocent, where more column inches ended up being devoted to his severe haircut than the quality of the picture). At least a couple of these paid off, and it would only really be with Regarding Henry that he seriously questioned how far he should steer his ship off course from the readily identifiable brand Harrison. Which is more the pity, as The Mosquito Coast may not be the best film Ford has starred in, but it’s easily his best performance.

Mr Polski: Your father is the worst kind of pain in the neck – a know it all who’s sometimes right.

Indeed, Ford disappears into Allie Fox in a manner that will probably shock anyone prone to accusing him – not unreasonably – of sleepwalking through the last twenty years of his career (and thus probably never having tried very hard in the first place). The genius inventor (nine patents, six pending) is charismatic in a manner simmering Ford performances usually just aren’t; he really is the embodiment of his initially awed and worshipful son Charlie’s (River Phoenix) assertion that “He grew up with the belief that the world belonged to him and everything he said was true”.

There’s a slightly nerdy, nasal quality that brings to mind Ford posing as a performing arts union rep in Blade Runner (when he visits Zhora), while his glasses suggest the professorial bent of his Doctor Jones alter-ego. But it’s the attitude that stands out, which initially seems as if it may merely be hubristic, packing his family off – not that much packing is involved – to Belize to escape impending nuclear holocaust and set up his own utopia, Eden in the jungle. As events proceed, however, it becomes clear that he is not merely self-involved but tending to the sociopathic. His relationship with his family is one whereby they must give him unfailing support no matter what he asks of them or he will remove attentions, become punitive and accuse them of plotting against him.

When his younger son Jerry (Jadrien Steele) repeatedly requests to go home, Allie responds by mocking him in the manner of a playground bully, and later puts Charlie and Jerry on a raft behind the main boat as punishment for being “traitors”. When Mother (Helen Mirren) objects, he accuses her of being in on it. And all of this occurs because of his restless, implacable mind. He achieves everything he set out to with the settlement – effectively an American coloniser, something he would despise in anyone else, and does in Andre Gregory’s missionary, Reverend Spellgood – but has to sabotage the life he has fashioned by dint of sheer will (and others’ graft); in order to inflate his own ego and mythology, he seeks out mythical natives untouched by western man, proposing to bring them ice, as rare as diamonds.

Weir was interested in Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel of the same name – Theroux denies Allie Fox was a surrogate of himself, no doubt a relief for all who know him, if that’s the case – on the basis thatthe challenge of the story was, for me, that it was a tragedy and very particularly an American tragedy”. He “wanted to present a story where you understood what happened to the man and felt something, not necessarily for him, but felt something at the end other than anger toward him, which people who read the book felt. It should be as if you are imagining your own father somehow, whom you believe in, and whose weaknesses you begin to see; this giant of a man only gets smaller and smaller as you grow. You have to find a new way to see this person. Then you see the weaknesses in yourself, and it's all wonderfully difficult”.

And that’s certainly a challenge. I’d say you do feel anger towards Allie at the end, but that isn’t all you feel, so to an extent Weir succeeded, but to have fully explored the parent-child idolisation aspect he would have needed to develop Charlie more fully; the level of empathy we have with him is almost entirely down to Phoenix’s sensitive, alert portrayal, rather than anything that seems to come from the screenplay.

Weir also commented of the difficulties inherent in the material “There's a tremendous amount of emotion in the story. Unless it is harnessed into some sort of framework by me, I'll be stirring the audience up and they'll wander out feeling uncomfortable because they were moved, but without understanding what to do with their emotion”. Much as I think this is one of his best US pictures (certainly his richest thematically), the weakness of The Mosquito Coast – as a movie at any rate, I can’t speak to the novel – is very much one of framework. It may fit with his character, but the “What will I do now?” Allie experiences after achieving his dream translates as a narrative weakness the picture can’t entirely overcome, such that it isn’t just a case of the characters not knowing where they are going but also a concern that the filmmakers may not. Which means, again, that it’s left to Ford to do the heavy lifting.

In an interview with Pat McGilligan, Weir discussed how he had gone through something of an epiphany and reframing of his aims and approaches, no longer so bent on artistic achievement, such that “When I returned to feature filmmaking, the emphasis for me was clearly on craft, and to forget about the artistic propaganda trip that I felt had been perpetuated”. It’s no coincidence that the spiritual themes of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave are much less overt in his post-70s work. And it doesn’t take a cod-psychologist to glimpse a reflection of Allie’s unchecked domineering questing in the filmmaker himself.

I do wonder, however, as much as this was a reaction against the filmmaker he was, that the same guy, the one with a foregrounded interest in the mythical and uncanny, wouldn’t have made the jungle milieu more fascinatingly psychedelic and strange, a true head trip. The Mosquito Coast is very “present”, very cool headed in the face of its deluded protagonist, and there’s thus no danger of Herzog or Coppola esque diving down the rabbit hole with him. Where before, Weir was along for the ride, now he is more detached, the clinical anthropologist; thematically, The Mosquito Coast has more in common with those earlier works than his other pictures during the 1980s, but via a more grounded filmmaker, one whose concerns are more tangible. Witness came after The Mosquito Coast in Weir’s process, but it’s easy to see why he fixed on it; the Amish community at its heart, while far from ideal (or idealised, despite naysayers), also represents an escape from the dangers and strife of the modern urbanised world.

Weir rejected any overt paralleling of Allie’s actions to those of America itself, but it’s pretty unavoidable. Denouncing the failure of his home country, where he’s beset by Japanese imports (“I want an American length of rubber seal” he tells Jason Alexander’s weary hardware store clerk), he foresees an imminent nuclear war that will obliterate the country. But his vision, which translates via Swiss Family Robinson meets Werner Herzog, a domestic-strife Apocalypse Now (in which Allie’s Colonel Kurtz must be ultimately be put down for the good of all), essentially relocates the colonial spirit with him, so becoming a personification of the country. Inevitably, he ends up polluting his paradise (“If we stay here we die”), and brings down his own personal apocalypse when he ignores the prophet of doom (if he isn’t prophesying, he doesn’t want to hear it) that his home will be swept away, Noah like.

Sean Mungers suggests Allie could be seen as an espouser of his own distinctive brand of libertarianism, which I can see, except that he wields this through the rod of an autocratic patriarch. In addition, any position Allie holds philosophically, morally or politically, only holds true to the point where his own capacity for free expression is not undermined. He professes sympathy for immigrants and rejects racial slurs, except, pointedly, when things aren’t going his way, whereupon he repeatedly refers to their greatest ally Mr Haddy (Conrad Roberts) as a savage.

Reverend Spellgood: There are many rooms in my father’s house, but I am the door.
Allie Fox: Well don’t slam it on your way out.

Most pronounced, and therefore unsubtle, is Allie’s mirror image in Reverend Hapgood. We find Allie railing against him from the first, and understandably so, since Gregory unforgivingly portrays Hapgood as a pronounced, weasily caricature you couldn’t possibly question being other than insincere; it’s an embarrassingly easy target for Theroux, right down to the proto-televangelising when he isn’t at home base. Hapgood arrives selling salvation, while Allie offers luxury goods (ice); both want to be proclaimed a saviour and worshipped for their actions.

It feels limiting and vaguely dissatisfying that the plot should wheel back round to a confrontation with Hapgood, though, an unworthy nemesis and a distraction from the meatier theme of the dissolution of the family unit. True, the vigour with which Allie attacks Hapgood’s camp offers a contrast in how we now respond to his self-righteousness (“Look, barbed wire. A Christian concentration camp”), having seen the unvarnished man, one whose methods indicate the height of hypocrisy (“Brainwashed!” he exclaims on witnessing the chapel full of devotees to a video of his gospel). The overall effect of the missionary plot is to plunge the picture into a retrograde commentary, At Play in the Fields of the Lord style, that hinders rather than advances its themes. By the point of Allie’s death bed “confession”, he has been reduced to quasi-biblical pronouncements, as if his whole ethos is actually a consequence of the conflict between spirit and science (“Man sprang from a faulty world, Charlie. It’s a bad design, the human body”).

Allie Fox: I’m doing this for all of us. I’m doing this for you.

Ford was aware that The Mosquito Coast didn’t quite succeed in its aspirations (“I’m still glad I did it. If there was a fault with the film, it was that it didn’t fully enough embrace the language of the book. It may have more properly been a literary rather than a cinematic exercise”). At least part of the problem is that, so dominant is Allie, Paul Schrader’s screenplay – or Weir’s choices in the editing suite: he commented that he rewrote Schrader to the point he was seeking arbitration, but then found himself retreating to the writer’s original – missteps by failing to give Charlie and Mother sufficiently prominent voices or perspective.

Allie needs an audience, and Mother – we don’t learn the actual name of Mirren’s character’s, but her title, as used by both Allie and Mr Haddy also, underlines the sense of a religious commune or sect – and the kids thus enable him. And we as an audience have no choice but to go along with it. Nominally, Charlie is the narrator, but in practice there’s very little narration, and one assumes Weir must have pared it down in favour of images over words. Phoenix was, of course, a first-rate actor and conveys much with a meaningful look, but there’s a sense there was more to explore in his father’s downfall as seen through his eyes, beyond what everyone else can also see.

Mirren, in a rare Hollywood excursion, does what she can with what she has, but there’s simply no room for her to embody a rounded character. There’s a moment, as Allie whisks the family off to Belize, when Mother glances back at the sink full of dishes and smiles, before closing the door after her; it’s a brief insight into what is she sees in her husband, but there’s precious little else. As a result, we’re more likely to align with the persistent whinging of Jerry; the twins, aside from being twins, are nonentities.

Allie Fox: Oh boy, when I make a mistake, I make a good one.

Since The Mosquito Coast lives or dies on Ford’s performance, and it’s a very good performance, it’s ironic that it was all but ignored (the Golden Globes nominated him, but what do they know?), whereas Witness gave him his best notices (and an Oscar nod) when he simply needed to show up to facilitate the action. It’s dangerous for a star – rather than a jobbing actor – to play against type. Invariably, they’ll complain about a lack of opportunities, but when they doget a chance to branch out and it’s rejected, they quickly fall into line. Ford gets to be funny in The Mosquito Coast (as does Weir; the hammer as gun, cowboy style shot – “State your business, Reverend” – is an attempt to find relief amid the oppressiveness of the main character), probably as funny as he’s been, but it’s an unsettling, on-edge humour; sadly, it’s a tenor of performance he has never revisited.

In another reality, this was a hit and Weir and Ford went on to make a string of pictures together, as a De Niro-Scorsese duo. In this one, neither would subsequently embark anything quite as interesting. Weir peaked with Fearless, though many would argue The Truman Show is his later period masterpiece; he followed The Mosquito Coast with Dead Poets Society, so preceding Green Card, a slight romcom he planned as a response to The Mosquito Coast being “a complete flop in all ways, with the public and the press, and I thought, well, I’ll do something that’s accessible”. Ford had a third Indy on the cards as insurance value, of course. The Mosquito Coast has undergone something of a re-evaluation since, but it hasn’t exactly experienced a rediscovery. I don’t think it’s quite an unfairly neglected classic, but it’s certainly unfairly neglected.


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