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A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica
(1965)

(SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

Zac: Look, I might die for you, but I’m not going to die with you. Not for a bunch of kids.

In the novel, there’s a point at which drunken Captain Jonsen makes a sexual advance on lead child Emily and she bites his thumb, so fending him off. There, “the children are revealed as considerably more amoral than the pirates…” something that doesn’t really survive in the movie version. But then, the movie version barely has time to depict any of the kids aside from the main one, Emily. A Guardian article (sorry to cite the rag) suggested that Hughes’ “erotic interest in… pre-pubescent girls is mirrored” in this scene.

In the film, Captain Jonsen becomes Chavez (Anthony Quinn), observing increasingly paternal feelings towards Emily (Deborah Baxter, later Alice Roosevelt in John Milius’ The Wind and the Lion). She also bites his thumb here, but this occurs when the sailors are attempting to attract the attention of fifteen-year-old Margaret (Viviane Ventura, who was nineteen at the time of the picture’s release). The focus on Margaret was presumably considered safer by Mackendrick, avoiding more overt intimations of piratical paedophile tendencies (however, at the conclusion, Dennis Price’s prosecutor Mathias questions the children on whether any “bad things” were done to them). There’s also an ambiguous scene in which Chavez grabs and Emily, to beat her, and stops himself. If Mackendrick avoids anything clear cut, the underlying tension is nevertheless evident. However, this feeds into a curious narrative inertia; frankly, it’s a relief when the crew are captured, as there are suddenly direct statements and lines of conflict.

The only other youngster of note in the proceedings is John, on account of his unfortunate demise in both the book and the adaptation (he is played by Martin Amis, who has experienced a resolutely wretched fate for all the adaptations of his novels, as well as penning the Saturn 3 screenplay). Roberta Tovey (the junior-league Susan in the following year’s Dr. Who and the Daleks and its 1966 sequel) is also one of the forgettable urchins.

Paul Taylor in Time Out referred to the film being received “uncomfortably” and compared its exploration of childhood “caught between primitivism and Victorianism” to Lord of the Flies (1963). I think that’s being overly charitable. A High Wind in Jamaica is at its most engaging, ironically, in the bookends, as reliable Nigel Davenport and Isabel Dean pack their children off to England, worried about the heathen influences of Jamaica (“It’s this place, Frederick. It’s turned them into savages”). This is the only point at which we witness a high wind, and it sets the scene for a more potent brew, perhaps along the clash-of values-lines later found in Children of Fire Mountain.

Unfortunately, A High Wind in Jamaica is, for the most part, too much of a sprawl for its themes to engage, with an insufficient narrative through line; it’s a gap the rambling attempts at characterisation are unable to plug. Chavez and his nondescript crew – even James Coburn, on the cusp of leading man roles, can’t do much with Chavez’ lieutenant Zac – have a tried-and-tested formula for high-seas looting, posing as a stricken ship and then taking over the one coming to their aid. They end up with more than they bargained for, however, when they inflict this on the vessel commanded by Captain Marpole (Kenneth J Warren, ZZ von Schnerk in The AvengersEpic), failing to notice they have made off with the kids as well as the boat. Chavez determines to drop the kids off with a brothel madam in Tampico, which is where John meets his unfortunate demise, falling from a window. This port of call proves a welcome respite from the seafaring, enlivened by the welcome presence of Lila Kedrova. And also, everyone’s favourite Welshman Philip Madoc. As a Mexican.

The rest, though. Set to a jaunty/rousing/annoying score by Larry Adler and Mike LeRoy, there’s too much of Quinn mugging – one could imagine Benicio Del Toro in the role, with much accompanying mumblecore shtick – and Coburn cackling, flashing those patented pearly whites. When an already injured Emily deliriously stabs a captured Dutch captain (Gert Frobe) to death, it’s as a prelude to the crew’s trial (at this point they have mutinied, disobeying the Chavez’ orders not to plunder the Dutch paddle steamer). We are informed piracy is no longer a hanging offence, unless accompanied by murder; Emily’s testimony is vital in this regard, but she bottles it. It’s to Mackendrick’s credit that he retains this brutal rite-of-passage ending, as with John’s death, but it carries little weight overall. The picture is too loose and uncoordinated.

Zac: I don’t want to die innocent.
Chavez: Zac, you must be guilty of something.

Indeed, I’m not really clear why the likes of Scorsese and Tarantino are so keen to boost this one, as aside from Mackendrick’s cred (which is all pre-60s, let’s face it) and admirably smooth-sailing sea legs, A High Wind in Jamaica is merely adequate. This was Mackendrick’s second successive film with child protagonists, following Sammy Going South (itself made after the director was thrown off The Guns of Navarone, where he first worked with Quinn). His next (1967’s Don’t Make Waves) would be his last feature, undoubtedly on Quentin’s faves list as it starred Sharon Tate (third-billed). A High Wind in Jamaica isn’t bad. It benefits from Douglas Slocombe’s fine photography and both Quinn and Baxter manage to sketch out a rapport, but this definitely lands on the side of derelict pirate movies. But then, few since Errol Flynn that aren’t the first Captain Jack outing have been otherwise.


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