Outcast of the Islands consistently managed to defy my expectations on what kind of film it was going to be, mostly because I never thought a 1952 British production would be so faithful to Joseph Conrad and his darker impulses. I haven’t read the book on which the film is based, but I’ve read enough of him to know his general obsessions.
Love of the sea and exotic locales would, of course, be there, but I suspected more in the form of a rousing adventure. I also expected marginalized natives just as part of the inherent prejudices of the film industry of the time. Instead, this was Conrad style “racism” where it’s unclear whether the prejudice originates from the filmmakers/author or is a reflection of the white character’s perceptions of their exotic surroundings, as Conrad generally has little sympathy for them either.
Carol Reed deserves credit for sticking with Conrad’s bleakness. The only likeable character (Ralph Richardson) is off screen for the majority of the running time. Trevor Howard, the ostensible lead, is never portrayed as anything less than loathsome and it’s some kind of accomplishment that Robert Morley’s character comes off even worse.
Then there’s the forbidden romance, shown about as frankly as one could expect in 1952. The native girl is silent, but described as fierce and brave and by the end, by Howard himself, as evil. She gives angry glaring looks, but we don’t know why. Until the last shot, she is a dehumanized caricature, but then comes that wonderful ending shot that makes Outcasts a better film than it would have been otherwise.