Saturday, December 10, 2011

Peyton Place goes calypso

I don't quite know what to say about the sprawling drama Island in the Sun, which airing tomorrow morning at 10:00 AM on the Fox Movie Channel. It's not the greatest movie by a long shot, but it certainly bears one viewing.

The movie is set on the fictional island of Santa Maria in the Caribbean in the mid-1950s. Santa Maria is a British colony, but the mid-1950s was the beginning of the period when Britain was giving is colonies home rule. As such, there's a large black underclass on the island itching to take power, and a smaller wealthy class of whites running the place with a colonial governor still heading things. Indeed, one of the story lines in the movie is going to involve a black and a white character running against each other for the legislative assembly, but that's actually a relatively small storyline compared to what the box guides might say. We first see the whites, as the wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) and sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) of wealthy planter Max Fleury (James Mason) return home with a friend Hilary (Michael Rennie), a man who's rather drifted through life in the British Foreign Office. Hilary smokes Egyptian cigarettes, and when Max returns home, he notices one of those in the ash tray, which makes him think his wife is having an affair.

Meanwhile, the Governor is hosting a party where the Fleurys have been invited, as well as labor leader David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte). Boyeur brings a lovely cashier with him (Dorothy Dandridge), but she falls for the governor's white aide. The governor's son (Stephen Boyd), meanwhile, falls for Jocelyn. Along the way, David falls for Sylvia's sister Mavis (Joan Fontaine) -- or more accurately, she falls for him, not realizing what life is really like for the black people on Santa Maria.

If things sound less than exciting so far, keep watching; things happen that should theoretically make the action level pick up. The first of those big things is when Max finds Hilary and realizes he's the one who's left his cigarette in Max's ash tray. He confronts Hilary, who suggests that Max may have some black ancestors in his family tree, which causes Max to strangle Hilary to death. This causes us to get two more plot lines: a murder mystery that's much like Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment (and indeed, the police chief gives Max a copy of that novel to read); and, a discussion of racial heritage as both Max and Jocelyn discover the truth about their ancestry, which may or may not involve black ancestors.

Island in the Sun sprawls and meanders, but never quite goes anywhere. None of the romances is that intense, possibly in part due to two of them being interracial and the problems of depicting interracial relationships when you still had a Production Code that didn't like such stuff. Another big problem is Harry Belafonte. He was a more than capable singer, but not the best actor out there. The one big song he does get to sing is also problematic, in that it depicts the blacks as happy with their lot in life despite living a life of grinding poverty and no political power. (Compare this to the opening scenes of Hallelujah! from 1929, which has sharecroppers singing.) The revelations about characters' pasts seem contrived, only to make the plot work out neatly; in fact they also make you question the motivations of some of the characters earlier in the film. On the bright side, the movie was filmed on location in Barbados, and has a lot of lovely wide-screen color cinematography.

No comments: