What makes a good fairy story? Archetypes aside, I’d say darkness, loss, and death. These elements also lurk at the core of the best children’s stories – or at least the kinds of children’s stories that continue to hover in the mind once most such things have been put away.
A great many such stories involve that threadbare theme, the “loss of innocence”. But I have a particular fondness for those in which the supposed innocence is replaced by nothing at all – the kind of terrifying amorality that parents may find themselves catching glimpses of, but elect not to talk about. This is occasionally harnessed by lesser film-makers for the purposes of a hokey thriller, such as The Bad Seed or The Good Son, but to see it done well we need someone like Alexander Mackendrick.
Mackendrick made his name directing the best-loved of the Ealing comedies: Whiskey Galore, The Ladykillers, and The Man In The White Suit. His cynicism is particular keen in that one – Alec Guinness plays a perky scientist who invents a self-cleaning fabric, and is for his troubles crushed by a union of big capital and big labour, both fearful of the disruption it would bring. He also made Mandy, a real button-pusher of a movie about the struggle of a troubled family to raise a little deaf girl. Mandy is one of the few films that can make me cry. Honestly, it gets me every time. Anyway.
He then left for Hollywood, where he made what many regard as his masterpiece: The Sweet Smell of Success. His cynicism is back here, and in full force, in a tale of moral corruption and the corrosive effect of desperation in the world of New York gossip journalism. Ironically, Success turned out to be the peak of Mackendrick’s own box office fortunes. Falling out with the producers, he was almost immediately kicked off his next project for them. He managed to make three more films before difficulties in obtaining further financing caused him to abandon directing completely, and instead take tenure at the University of Southern California. Unlike the happy cocoon of Ealing, freelancing in Hollywood had depended on being a great “deal-maker,” he complained, and “I have no talent for that … I realised I was in the wrong business and got out.”
Fortunately, the second of those final three movies was A High Wind In Jamaica; it’s here that Mackendrick was able to to take Mandy’s touching sensitivity to the emotional world of children and crash it into the brutal darkness of Success. For, aside from children, who else is known for living outside of the moral conventions of mainstream society? The answer, of course, is pirates.
A High Wind In Jamaica is based on the book of the same name, and follows the adventures of a family of children who are believed dead, but in fact have stowed away with a pirate crew (lead by their captain Anthony Quinn and second in command James Coburn). In one type of story this would be a jaunty romp with lots of yo-ho-ho and a cheeky parrot. In another type, it would be a much grimmer, traumatic voyage. The film’s skill is in playing one possibility off against the other, never quite closing off the possibilities that it will resolve one way or the other. When the pirates make their first stop the kids roam around the port in a fun, high-spirited sort of way. Then the eldest boy sneaks upstairs in a brothel. Can you guess what happens next? If you guessed “he freaks out, jumps out of a third floor window, smashes his head in and dies,” then you are correct. This is only made more disorienting by the fact that he’s played by Martin Amis.
Without the relative maturity of their brother to anchor them, life for the remaining children takes on an increasingly unreal air. But it’s when Gert Frobe (aka Goldfinger) turns up as a Dutch Captain that things really take a turn for the savage. Suffice to say, the original novel is regarded as the primary inspiration for The Lord of The Flies.
The trailer tries to sell it as a salty Technicolor yarn, perfect perhaps for a Sunday matinee… but the menace oozes through the screen.
This is a story where the children learn the hard way the difference between right and wrong – and then learn that maybe they just don’t care. If children start their lives beyond good and evil then this is one story where, after a journey of growth and discovery, at least one decides to stay there.
“Hidden Treasure” is the W&P series on films we think are under-seen or under-appreciated…