A High Wind in Jamaica

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) movie poster

(1965) dir. Alexander Mackendrick
viewed: 06/12/09

I rented the 1965 film A High Wind in Jamaica after having only just recently finished reading the novel from which it was adapted, published in 1929 by Richard Hughes.  The novel struck me immensely.  It’s probably one of the greatest novels that I’ve ever read, a vivid, Surreal horror comedy about a group of children who are sent back to England after their families survive a massive hurricane in Jamaica where their father is stationed.  But their sailing vessel is captured by pirates and they end up in the hands of strange, not wholly viscious men who don’t really know what to do with the children and let them run amok on the ship.  There is death and suggestions of child molestation, and moments of beauty both genuine and bizarre.

The film is directed by Alexander Mackendrick, a directer affiliated with the Ealing studios and their comedies and who has to his credit some of the notable films from there including The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) as well as the notable American film Sweet Smell of Success (1957).  The film also features such strong leads as Anthony Quinn as the captain of the pirate ship and James Coburn as his roustabout first mate.

The film is a fine adaptation in many ways, sticking with the comedic nature of the story and keeping some of the emotional tone of the relationship of the eldest of the girls, Emily, and Quinn’s captain Chavez.  And while a good adaptation, one not altogether skirting some of the more darkened aspects of the book, it loses in its actualization of the characters and story the remarkable strangeness that the book entails.  For in the book, the voice is omnipotent yet flitting within the perspectives of various characters, keeping a tonality of naivite and unrealness.  In fact, the strangest scene in the book isn’t attempted in the film at all, when the sailors capture a ship full of sea-sick circus animals and attempt to get a tiger and a lion to fight to the death.  Of course, it would have been a difficult, problematic thing to film.

But it’s part of the nature of film to an extent.  The visions are much more actualized, more information is given, you have your own reaction to the reality of the actor’s faces and the film’s settings and in a story so powerfully evocative of both Jamaica’s jungle and the sea’s open power, there is so much more in the book than the film could ever have attempted.  That perhaps is an aspect of the nature of such adaptation, some source material lending itself more easily to the translation.  And yet, it’s not a bad film.

The book is brilliant, and I have been recommending it left and right.  Republished by New York Review Books (my favorite publishing company), it’s just a wonder to read.

The film, as I’ve said, is a good one.  Not a classic, not a waste.  Perhaps less diminished if seen prior to having read the book, but still it’s something so different, outside of the heart of the actual narrative events, it’s hard to say exactly that it is in any real way alike it.  And I have no idea what a child might think of it, though it could perhaps be seen like a children’s film.

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