Hero's Island (1962) dir. Leslie Stevens
Starring: James Mason, Kate Manx, Warren Oates, Rip Torn, Harry Dean Stanton, Neville Brand, Robert Sampson and Brendan Dillon
By Greg Klymkiw
"Revenge. Revenge. REVENGE!!! I am the devil! Oh yes I am. I have lived in Hell. I've wrecked and burned a hundred ships. I don't pull a plough!" - James Mason as Blackbeard the Pirate in Hero's IslandWhat's not to love about James Mason?
He was, without question, one of the most versatile screen actors of all time. It's impossible to take one's eyes off the guy and that distinctive mellifluous voice worked perfectly whether he played a hero, villain or everything in between. Who will ever forget him in any number of roles that he might as well have patented: Johnny McQueen in Odd Man Out, Carol Reed's classic crime thriller about "the troubles"; the ill-fated Hendrik van der Zee in Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman; the two-faced Roman turn-coat Brutus in Julius Caesar, the doomed boozer Mr. Norman Maine in A Star is Born; the suave villain VanDamm in Hitchcock's North By Northwest; the lecherous pedophile Humber Humbert in Kubrick's Lolita; the heavenly bureaucrat Mr. Jordan in Warren Beatty's Heaven Can Wait; his stunning supporting turn as Paul Newman's nemesis, the sleazy, slimy powerful lawyer Concannon in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict.
Of course, my favourite Mason performance is that of the breeding plantation owner Warren Maxwell in the best movie of all time, Richard Fleischer's Mandingo where, sporting a first-rate accent of the Deep South, Mason reeled off one great line after another - the best being advice he imparts to his son: "Your wife craves you has wenches. She wants for you to have wenches. Keeps her from havin' to submit."
Oh, and have I mentioned yet that he played Captain Nemo in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Captain FUCKING Nemo!!!
The above are some of his quintessential roles, but as a producer, he also generated a handful of extremely interesting films - Michael Powell's deleriously sexy Age of Consent where he played the middle aged artist who falls in love with a mostly nude 22-year-old Helen Mirren and most notably as the prescription-drug-addicted Ed Avery in Nicholas Ray's astonishing Bigger Than Life.
One of the pictures Mason produced was, however, completely unknown to me until recently. It's a corker of an 18th century boys' adventure story called Hero's Island.
Written and directed by Leslie Stevens (who would go on to direct William Shatner in Incubus, the only feature film made entirely in Esperanto), we follow the adventures of Devon and Thomas Mainwaring (Kate Manx and Brendan Dillon respectively), their two children and their loyal friend Wayte (Warren Oates) - indentured servants who have recently been given their freedom and bequeathed an entire island in the Carolinas. Here they look forward to a new life of freedom and as landowners no less. Alas, the Gates family - inbred fishermen led by Enoch (Robert Sampson) and his knotheaded brothers Nicky (Rip Torn) and Dixie (Harry Dean Stanton) are laying claim to the island and order the settlers out. In an altercation, they murder Devon's husband. She's devastated, to be sure, but she orders Wayte not to seek vengeance through violence. As an indentured servant, she was raised in the (I kid you not!!!) Quaker Christian tradition.
Things change when a bearded sailor who goes by the name of Jacob (James Mason) is washed ashore, tied to a plank and bearing a sign that reads: "Dead Man". Clearly there is more to him than meets the eye. He's cultured, well-versed in the seafaring tradition and still has his fancy sabre strapped to him. Wayte immediately suspects Jacob is someone rather notorious who has been the victim of a mutiny. This would be true. He is Blackbeard the Pirate.
Well, this is a pretty good deal for all concerned. Blackbeard can handle these yahoos no problem.
When the Gates brothers bribe the evil governor, Kingstree (Neville Brand) and his henchmen on a neighbouring island to take back the land by force, Blackbeard decides he's not about to risk his freedom (being a wanted man and all) for the sake of a piece of rock in the open water.
This, is clearly NOT a good deal for all concerned. How is a Quaker woman and her children going to handle this one?
Well, she IS a gorgeous Quaker woman, her kids are blonde cherubim and when Blackbeard witnesses Kingstree committing a horrific, merciless act of murder (no, I won't spoil it and tell you who it is), he clearly must leap into action.
Carnage ensues and, happily, the Quaker woman discovers the value of firearms. This IS America after all.
Okay, I'll be honest here and say that Hero's Island is clearly no undiscovered cinematic diamond mine, but as far as swashbuckling adventures go, it's a solid vein of Amethyst. First off, we've got James Mason. 'Nuff said. Secondly, take a look at that supporting cast - Warren Oates, Harry Dead Stanton, Rip Torn and Neville Brand! 'Nuff said. Thirdly, Kate Manx (the director's real-life wifey) is mighty babe-o-licious!
From a directorial standpoint, Stevens handles the proceedings with solid craft and even attempts a few daring approaches to the material - one of which is a terrific, long single take where Manx and Mason each reveal their innermost turmoil to each other. There are also a couple of tremendous POV shots from behind Neville Brand (a really great villainous turn, by the way), one of which has his tall black hat in the foreground and James Mason walking towards him - arms outstretched like Christ. Finally, there's a really well-choregraphed sabre duel between Mason and Brand that puts many contemporary herky-jerky action scenes to shame.
Stevens eventually made his mark in American television as the creator, writer, producer and occasionally director of such excellent series as the original The Outer Limits, McCloud, The Virginian and the original Battlestar Galactica.
And, of course, lest we forget Stevens's most notorious achievement - the only feature shot completely in Esperanto - with Bill Shatner, no less.
Hero's Island is a recent release from the MGM Archives. Like many studios we'll be seeing more and more of these on-demand DVDs. The problem is that it delivers movie fans a whole mess of films for premium prices and straight-up transfers to DVD-R. The widescreen transfer for Hero's Island looks just fine on a laptop, but leaves a bit to be desired on a bigger monitor. It's also hard to get them. Only a few retailers stock any titles at all (in Toronto, Canada the Yonge-Dundas Sunrise Records carries a huge number of them as does the old Starstruck Video located at Dundas and Tomken) and the only other option is online ordering which not only costs the premium price but shipping and handling. This is well and good for titles people are willing to buy at any cost, but given that something like Hero's Island was unknown even to me (someone who has psychotically seen over 30,000 movies), it seems a shame that a decent James Mason swashbuckler isn't available at a more reasonable price point.