Outcast of the Islands, 1951.
Directed by Carol Reed.
Starring Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Wendy Hiller.
Escaping scandal in Makassar, a morally compromised man finds himself on a remote Indian Ocean trading outpost, where his malign influence soon spreads to all around him.
The name Joseph Conrad might not immediately ring any bells. Try Heart of Darkness. Then try Apocalypse Now, one of cinema’s bravest and best adaptations of that very work, deeply rooted in the stark power of Conrad’s doom-laden prose. The man wrote a great many other books exploring the depths a human soul can sink to, given time, trust and every chance to escape. Add to that the directorial genius of Carol Reed, who brought Graham Greene’s The Third Man to the screen with such dark flair and menace, and you have Outcast of the Islands, a true gem of a story hidden away for sixty years.
“I can understand your dirty pride” says Captain Lingard, early on in this story.
Truth be told, he doesn’t really understand anything about Peter Willems at the time he speaks these words to him. Ralph Richardson’s character is a man who habitually takes on waifs and strays, trying to be the bigger man, trying to instil trust and a sense of decency in men who invariably let him down.
Willems (Trevor Howard) was one of Lingard’s many Good Samaritan deeds; he hoisted him out of the gutter and gave him a chance to make something of himself in his own thriving business. Some ten years later, he finds his protégé on the run again, ready to drown himself before he’ll let the police take him. Willems is a liar and a cheat, but seeing him fished out of the bay, you half believe he might be redeemed, given a second chance to prove himself to his old mentor.
So Lingard finds Willems refuge from the law. He teaches him the secrets of his lucrative trade route. He sets him up in an idyllic river bank village, tucked away down a perilously rocky river mouth. Lingards all but hands over the keys to the kingdom, and expects Willems to behave himself until he gets back. The interesting thing is, he almost manages it. Almost.
Left in the care of Lingard’s son-in-law Elmer Almayer (Robert Morley) and his family, Willems spends his first few days soaking in the atmosphere of the place, relaxing, fishing, leering at a local beauty. Almayer takes an instant and instinctive loathing to Willems, projecting a certain bitterness and jealousy toward this cool, laid-back character who simply sails in and lounges about the place.
Given a role with a depth and validity far exceeding his usual Jolly Old Englishman screen persona, Morley rises and meets the challenge of sharing a screen with the splendidly electric Trevor Howard. The acting standard for this cast is set high, as even newcomer Kerima (in her debut film appearance) commands the screen as Aissa, the predatory local beauty with a hungry, merciless look in her eye. Kerima and Howard are hardly playing star-crossed lovers here, but the mutual lust that draws them together feels nothing less than inevitable the way they play their scenes together.
Up until his liaison with Aissa, Willems’ presence in the village hasn’t counted so much on what he does; it’s more the idea of what he is, being where he is, that raises tensions. When he finally crosses a line and starts an affair with the local chieftain’s daughter, there’s no going back. Almayer gladly casts him out, into the hands of the piratical natives across the river, led by the sly, manipulative Babalatchi (George Colouris).
Events escalate, as Willems finally gives into the natives’ demands to show them the way to get a ship down the river – just as Lingard showed him. He betrays his old mentor yet again, biting the hand that feeds for the sake of humiliating the infuriating Almayer and winning over a woman he doesn’t even understand.
Outcast of the Islands proves itself a compelling story time and again, pulling off richly detailed characters with the slightest revealing figure of speech. Reed shapes and re-defines Conrad’s tale of moral compromise into a stark, profoundly satisfying film, full of offbeat charm and understated mysticism. He handles his cast expertly, framing their darkest moments with a clarity and simplicity that transcends the mere exposition many directors wouldn’t hesitate to clog up this film with.
A climactic final confrontation between Willems and Lingard casts something the older man said earlier on in a whole new light, without the tedious need to repeat the line like a cheap insult. Willems finds himself exiled from society, trapped with the embittered and spiteful Aissa far from help. He’s denied execution for his crimes or retribution for his pride. As he watches the boat row slowly away down the river for the last time, you can’t help but think he’s mulling over Lingard’s words, spoken what seems like a lifetime ago: “You’re young yet, and life is long.”
Flickering Myth Rating: Film ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Simon Moore is a budding screenwriter, passionate about films both current and classic. He has a strong comedy leaning with an inexplicable affection for 80s montages and movies that you can’t quite work out on the first viewing.