Robert Rossen (1957)
Watching Island in the Sun took me back to childhood in more ways than one. The film’s pleasant title theme was one of Harry Belafonte’s biggest hits: it reached number three in the UK pop charts in 1957 and was played regularly on the radio for years after that. When I was growing up, cinema bills often featured a travelogue short before the main picture. Although the story’s setting is a fictional Caribbean island (called Santa Marta), Robert Rossen spends a good deal of time presenting the beautiful seascape of Barbados and Grenada, where he shot the movie: the effect is like having travelogue and feature film combined in a single entity. The lyrics of ‘Island in the Sun’, which Belafonte wrote with Irving Burgie and sings over the opening credits, have only a vague connection with what’s to follow but the song’s lulling melody foreshadows a piece of extraordinarily listless storytelling. The languor induced by bright blue skies and hot golden sands seems to have affected most of the movie’s cast and crew.
Island in the Sun, based on a best-selling novel of 1955 by Alec Waugh and with a screenplay by Alfred Hayes, describes several male-female relationships, including interracial ones. The proud young political activist David Boyeur (Belafonte) attracts Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine), who’s white, rich and a good bit older than him (though this age difference isn’t acknowledged). The island’s assistant governor (John Justin) courts a beautiful salesgirl (Dorothy Dandridge). The Fleury family are long-established plantation owners on Santa Marta. A visiting American journalist (Hartley Power, best known for his role as Michael Redgrave’s fellow-ventriloquist in Dead of Night) discovers that the Fleury paterfamilias Julian (Basil Sydney) has Afro-Caribbean blood in his veins. The news threatens his daughter Jocelyn (Joan Collins)’s prospects of marriage to Euan (Stephen Boyd), the son of the Santa Marta governor, Lord Templeton (Ronald Squire), until Mrs Fleury (Diana Wynyard) reveals another buried family secret – that Julian isn’t Jocelyn’s biological father.
The Fleurys’ son Maxwell (James Mason) looks about the same age as his mother but turns out to have different problems. Mistakenly convinced that his wife (Patricia Owens) is having an affair with ladies’-man war hero Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie), Maxwell accidentally-on-purpose kills this imagined rival. Maxwell also bids for election to the state legislature – a campaign that ends, thanks to David Boyeur’s intervention at a rally, in humiliating failure. It takes an age for any of these dramas to take shape: this isn’t the result of subtlety or complexity but of flat-footed direction. You could drive a fleet of trucks through some of the pauses in the dialogue, and there’s nothing going on between the actors during the intervening silences. It’s not unusual for a 1950s film to be blighted by an over-explanatory score: in this case, you’re often grateful to Malcolm Arnold’s music for telling you what emotions a scene is meant to produce. It would be kind to describe the various stories as interwoven. Maxwell is brought to justice by the local police chief (John Williams), whose invocations of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment worsen the killer’s guilty conscience: the Fleury parents don’t react at all to their son’s conviction.
It will be clear from the above that Island in the Sun draws on substantial racial and historical themes – miscegenation, the differing social acceptability of mixed marriages according to the gender of the non-white partner, the political scene in the twilight of British colonialism and before the dawn of Caribbean islands’ independence. For the most part, though, these themes aren’t thoroughly explored or dramatised: they’re either used as plot mechanisms or covered in one-off chunks of dialogue. James Mason, for reasons best known to himself, chooses this occasion to speak in his native West Yorkshire accent though it’s confused with posher notes; Stephen Boyd overlays his Country Antrim brogue with something similar. The bizarre result, in both cases, sounds rather West Indian – enough to make you wonder if miscegenation is going to turn out to be even more epidemic than you’d thought. The acting is mostly primitive – honourable exceptions include Diana Wynyard, Ronald Squire and, in a few bits, Joan Fontaine. Island in the Sun was both controversial and a considerable box-office success in 1957 but the film is nowadays probably more interesting to read about than to sit through. At one point, Euan and Jocelyn arrive back at the Fleurys’ mansion after an evening of nookie. Jocelyn’s going to pretend they’ve been to see The Red Shoes at the island picture house but is worried her mother may ask follow-up questions. ‘So what was the film like?’ she asks Euan. ‘A bit long,’ he replies. They giggle. It’s true The Red Shoes isn’t short but Island in the Sun making this joke at its expense brings pot and kettle to mind.
13 November 2016