Re-released to mark its 50th anniversary, Carol Reeds’ adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, Outcast of the Islands, raises the question whether films about empire, made during the period of empire, can last through time. On the back of this film, it would appear the answer is no.
Re-released to mark its 50th anniversary, Carol Reeds’
adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel, Outcast of the Islands, raises the
question whether films about empire, made during the period of empire, can last
through time. On the back of this film, it would appear the answer is no.
Peter Willems (Trevor Howard), a morally compromised
man, is on the run from a scandal in Makassar, Indonesia, when he is rescued by
his trusting friend Captain Lingard (Ralph
Richardon), who whisks him away to a remote Indian Ocean trading outpost.
Housed with the only other Westerners in town, the sneering Almayer (Robert Morley) and his whimpering wife (Wendy Hiller), he has little to do with
his time aside from drink. He is captivated, however, by the daughter of a
local chieftain, Aissa (Kerima), and
he pursues her ruthlessly. He finds time, however, to double cross his saviour,
Captain Lingard, by helping the native, Babalatchi (George Coulouris) break open Lingard’s monopoly of the region by
teaching an Arab trader, Ali (Dharma Emmanuel), how to navigate up the
river. We witness Willems’ gradual
decline from devious rogue to obsessed fool to power mad villain, while his
intrigues brings destruction to those around him.
Joseph Conrad splits audiences. Some say he casts suspicion on
claims of European superiority and empathizes with colonized and subjugated
people; others, like writer Chinua
Achebe, think him a ‘thoroughgoing racist’. Certainly this film leaves an unpleasant taste in your mouth
on many occasions. If you have the subtitles on, anytime the indigenous people
are speaking in the background, it just says, ‘native chatter’. Aissa, the only major ‘native’ female
character is played by the Algerian-born Kerima, which implies the assumption
that all non-Westerners look the same. She is almost completely silent in the
film, with the viewer apparently intended to contemplate her beauty, rather
than her personality. Babalatchi, the English-speaking representative of Aissa’s
tribe is inexplicably played by George Coulouris, an English actor in ‘black-face’. The only native with any developed
personality, Babalatchi is portrayed as a typical crafty native, ready to trade
Aissa for the economic opportunity that Willems could enable.
Conrad, of course, cannot be
blamed for Carol Reeds’ decision to employ an Algerian to play an Indonesian,
or refusal to cast anyone but a white person for speaking roles. Certainly, the
colonizers come out looking the worst in the film: Willems is a self-indulgent
and self-destructive anti-hero who refuses to take anything into consideration
aside from his own interests. Robert Morley plays Almayer as a snide buffoon,
who gets what he deserves, as typified by the moment when his own daughter
chants ‘pig, pig, pig’ at him, in a repeat of the insult he taught her to shout
at Willems. The natives, however, don’t come off much better, slotted as they
are into the two imperial stereotypes of violent and conniving, or else pliable
and simple. Captain Lingard brings some semblance of humility to the European
characters of the films, concerned as he is about the troubles Willems has
brought to the natives, however, one can’t help but think he has his own
profits in the back of his mind.
Outcast of the Islands, then, is
a difficult film to evaluate. Howard provides an outstanding performance as the
unlikeable Willems, and defenders of the film will argue that his punishment
for his abuse of his power shows that Conrad was condemning the European colonial
endeavour. This is a more
sustainable argument in the book, where Kerima eventually kills Willems. In the
film, they are forced to live unhappily together, so perhaps the blame should
come down upon Reed instead. The film was not particularly popular on its first
release, and it will be interesting to see the response to this re-release. Can
we overlook the blatantly Orientalist portrayal of natives in order to see the
story of one man’s self-destruction? Or perhaps should this film just be
consigned to the dustbin of Empire history?