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Forgotten By Fox: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Children

A crew of latter-day pirates find themselves saddled with a bunch of kids in Alexander Mackendrick's dark drama.
David Cairns
As Disney quietly disappears huge swathes of film history into its vaults, I'm going to spend 2020 celebrating Twentieth Century Fox and the Fox Film Corporation's films, what one might call their output if only someone were putting it out.
***
"Like watching Shirley Temple pull the wings off a fly," was one critic's evocative summary of A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), Alexander Mackendrick's disturbingly faithful rendition of Richard Hughes' striking novel.
The book had been a passion project of Mackendrick for years, and he'd tried unsuccessfully to set it up at Ealing, the little British studio which had launched his career, but the story, in which a crew of anachronistic Victorian pirates find themselves inadvertent abductors of a family of schoolchildren, was much too strange and upsetting for producer Michael Balcon. You see, the children utterly destroy the pirates. It was a variation on the theme of "lethal innocence" which seems to have obsessed the director, finding expression in The Man in the White Suit (1951) (inventor Alec Guinness has no awareness of the harm he may be doing), The Ladykillers (1955) (old lady unwittingly destroys a bank heist gang) and even The Sweet Smell of Success (1957) (corrupt columnist's little sister uses her vulnerability to triumph over her brother and his stooge).
Hughes was a terrific writer who wrote slowly and seldom, and his life was full of adventures that kept him from the typewriter. But when he got there, he could create passages like this:
"Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term "human" a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies are of course not human--they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same in kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates."

"Possibly a case might be made out that children are not human either: but I should not accept it. Agreed that their minds are not just more ignorant and stupider than ours, but differ in kind of thinking (are mad, in fact): but one can, by an effort of will and imagination, think like a child, at least in a partial degree—and even if one’s success is infinitesimal it invalidates the case: while one can no more think like a baby, in the smallest respect, than one can think like a bee. How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar relics of the baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome? When swimming under water, it is a very sobering thing suddenly to look a large octopus in the face.”
Mackendrick got wind of the fact that Fox was developing the project as a vehicle for Terry-Thomas (insanely wrong). "This is a great family subject, the sort of thing Disney is doing so well," wrote Darryl Zanuck in a telegram. But Anthony Quinn was cast as first mate. He would do, thought Mackendrick, for the captain. Elbowing his way onto the film, he went to see Quinn, realized that he hadn't read the script yet, and gave him a copy of the book.
"Screw the producer," was Mackendrick's philosophy here, as told to Philip Kemp. He more or less single-handedly wrested the project back to the novel's original intentions, bringing in Ronald Harwood (later a Polanski collaborator on The Pianist [2002] and Oliver Twist [2005]) to craft an unsettling tale with no particular commercial prospects. They were building the pirate ship when studio boss Zanuck got wind of what was up, and tried to shut the film down, but so much money had been spent it was by now cheaper to make the film than to cancel it.
The trailer gives a strong idea of how confused Fox were as to how to sell this movie. Most of it sticks with the Disney approach shunned by the actual movie, but then it takes a terrifying turn into Lolita territory. Rest assured, the movie handles its tonal shifts with considerably more skill.
Shooting went comparatively well... Mackendrick had a bit of a drink problem by this time, and a few early scenes, including a spectacular hurricane, show signs of confusion either in the shooting or the cutting. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe threw his light meter at Mackendrick during one row, and lost it over the side of the ship. He completed the film, and the next twenty-four years of his career, using the shadow of his thumb on the palm of his hand to gauge the light level. The mast of the ship fell down and nearly squashed the children. But apart from that, it was smooth sailing.
The film Mackendrick turned in was so strikingly peculiar that all Fox could think to do was wreck it in the edit, which they attempted. They couldn't change the fact that one child dies (happily, it's the one played by a young Martin Amis), but they moved his death further back in the story (he's unaccountably missing in several scenes) so that the scene where the children play at funerals, outraging the pirate captain's sense of propriety (!) has less sting, because nobody's dead yet. But when Captain Quinn's grabs the eldest girl and falls on top of her, Quinn's horrified reaction when she struggles beneath him tells us something unthinkable, surely, in 1965: he's got an inadvertent erection. Her disgusted reaction then confirms this, and first mate James Coburn's wicked smirk underlines everything in red. I suppose all this got past the studio and the censor because they couldn't believe what they were seeing.
Even with Fox's interference, this is a remarkable film. John Milius was obsessed with it ("I kinda lived in that film for a few years") and his The Wind and the Lion (1975), which casts lead girl Deborah Baxter in an adult role, is a kind of part-remake. Unsettling is a very good word for it. Drawn in by the rich Deluxe color, I stared uncomprehendingly at it as a kid, slowly freaking out. If Fox had lost their way in the sixties, which I think is true (and true of the other major studios equally), this movie, director-led and setting out into uncharted waters, suggests the new direction Hollywood would shortly take, while also embodying the white elephantine nature of many of the big movies of the day: Dr. Doolittle with a body count, Shirley Temple with an erection.
***
Forgotten by Fox is a regular fortnightly series by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

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