Trevor Hogg continues his Peter Weir retrospective with a look at the director’s seventh feature…
The Mosquito Coast, 1986.
Directed by Peter Weir.
Starring Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Andre Gregory, Conrad Roberts, Martha Plimpton and Dick O’Neill.
Inventor Allie Fox uproots his wife and children from the comfort of their New England home to start anew in the vast jungle wilderness of Honduras. Fox’s dream of getting away from civilization turns into a very real nightmare.
Returning to the project which was meant to be his Hollywood debut, well-respected Australian director Peter Weir reunited with his Witness star, Harrison Ford, to shoot his 1986 film adaptation of Paul Theroux’s book The Mosquito Coast.
While the filming was taking place in Belize, a small agricultural country of 148,000 people, local residents were all abuzz about the movie. Jungle roads were built and over three hundred Belizeans were employed to aid in the movie’s production. Overall, The Mosquito Coast location shooting poured eight million dollars into the nation’s economy making it the third largest industry in the country at the time.
Weir had high hopes for his second Hollywood picture. “There’s a tremendous amount of emotion in the story.” He explained. “Unless it is harnessed into some sort of framework for me, I’ll be stirring the audience up and they’ll wander out feeling uncomfortable because they were moved, but without understanding what to do with their emotion. I think I’ve got the framework in this operatic feeling. In opera, many times you start with everything wonderful, the songs bright and positive, and then the complexities arise and you end with tragedy.”
For Weir a completed script is just the beginning of the storytelling. “I like to open the door to chance. That implies enormous risks. You presume on the muse visiting you, but at the same time you don’t count on it. Driving to work you see street scenes – a face, a hat, a detail – that you often end up putting into the film that very day. I saw a man with a plastic bag on his head with just his face part cut out and a straw hat on top of that and said, ‘Lets do that.’ But it won’t help the drama itself. You’ve got to have good acting and good thinking.”
Narrated by teenager Charlie Fox, The Mosquito Coast is a story about his father Allie whose frustration with commercialism causes him to resettle his family in the jungles of Central America. Once in his unadulterated paradise the elder Fox cannot entirely let go of the modern conveniences he has left behind. As a result, the eccentric proceeds to construct an ice machine with a religious fervor matched only by that of a Christian missionary who is determined to convert the local inhabitants. A showdown with armed bandits causes the massive mechanical creation to go up in flames. The destruction of the invention lays claim to what remains of Fox’s sanity and utopian ideals.
In regards to portraying Allie Fox, Harrison Ford welcomed the creative challenge. “I had none of the difficulties that other people had expressed with the character being too irascible, too unconventional. I found him more often right than wrong in what he was saying. There is also the complexity of the family story, the relationship between a father and a son and between a husband and a wife. There is humour and pathos, a real range from antic comedy to gut-wrenching stuff.”
Peter Weir believes that the character Ford plays in the movie is very much grounded in reality. “Central America is full of Allie Foxes. I’ve heard of four of them since I’ve been here in Belize. May came down in the late sixties. Belize is one of the last places in the world where you’ll find the drifters, the travelers. No one is down here just on a holiday. If someone says they’re here on vacation, you know they’re C.I.A. or they’re drugs.”
Immersing himself in a setting situated faraway from urban life, the esteemed filmmaker found it to be a welcomed change. “On location in the jungle you don’t have the nine-to-five mentality that you have in city shooting.” Weir remarked. “I like the concentration that results from everybody being at hand and the ideas that abound in the surroundings. The atmosphere of the film is within the setting all around you. You disappear into the film.”
As with many novels adapted for the big screen, modifications needed to be made to the source material. The Mosquito Coast was no different explained Harrison Ford. “Both Peter Weir and I thought we shouldn’t be slavish to the book. We needed a different Allie Fox. In the book Fox is crazy from the beginning. If audiences thought that he were crazy, they’d given up on him.”
Sadly, Ford’s character proved to be so unlikable that the film was universally panned by critics and moviegoers from the test screenings onwards.
The Mosquito Coast trailer…
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Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada.