Image Entertainment // 1976 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // June 1st, 2004
He gave his soul to the sea and his heart to a woman.
But actually, it's a lot cooler than that.
The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is a film of contradictions. Beautiful and disturbing, erotic and psychotic, this melodramatic thriller is a film of unsettling dichotic elements. Quite an infamous film in its day (due to its shocking subject matter and modestly explicit sexuality), it has been transferred lovingly to DVD in beautiful anamorphic widescreen. Just be prepared to file it in the "oddest films I've ever seen" category of your mind.
Anne Osbourne (Sarah Miles) lives on the coast of England near the sea with her son, Jonathan. Anne is a widow, and together she and Jonathan live something of an isolated life, even from each other. In fact, Jonathan has taken up sneaking out at night to a rocky outcrop of caves, where he meets up with a group of young boys, to talk about how stupid adults are, and to browse over pictures of naked women having sex. This faux-fascist secret society is led by "The Chief," a particularly jaded and persuasive boy who rouses his cohorts with feelings of animosity towards the adults. The Chief has ideas about the nature of the world, of the pure and perfect order of the universe, where only the strong survive -- and where adults are merely broken-down and weak failures, shadows of their potential.
One day, a rugged and handsome American sailor ships into town. Jim (Kris Kristofferson) and Anne take to one another as pieces of a puzzle long missing, copulating their relationship with great fervor. Jonathan, meanwhile, is taken somewhat aback by this strange development in their life. On the one hand, here is a man, an adult, who by nature cannot be trusted; but on the other hand, he finds himself instinctively liking Jim. In a way, Jim is the father figure Jonathan never had. With his gruff exterior, scars and rugged beard, here is someone who fits perfectly into the perfect order of things, thinks Jonathan. Jim, he is sure, is destined for great things.
On the other hand, Jim does the things he does to Jonathan's mother, things that the boy watches, secretly, through a peephole into their bedroom. When Jim ships out to sea, Jonathan is disappointed, but secretly relieved, glad to return to the normalcy, the perfect equation of his life...that is, until Jim's ship comes back into town.
Suddenly, Jonathan's life is threatened in a real and profound way. Disturbed, he calls upon The Chief for assistance in dealing with this invasion into his existence, and together, they formulate a plan to "address" the issue. After all, to find truth, to find the center of reality, rules must be taken apart...
There is something distinctively Lord of the Flies about The Sailor Who Fell From Grace From The Sea, both literary and cinematically, and if you have seen the film, you know all about what I mean. Having read the original novel by Yukio Mishima (translated from the Japanese, of course, as my hiragana is rusty), I can testify that the film stays reasonably faithful to the tone and subject of the novel, though the story has been altered slightly, being transferred from the Japanese coast to the English seaside.
Mishima, as a writer, is something of an oddity. After much critical success and acclaim, he publicly declared that he would fulfill his life's work and write his masterpiece -- the epic Sea of Fertility tetralogy -- and then he would die. He sat to work, and six years later, when he completed the last page of the last novel, he mailed it to his publisher, grabbed a megaphone, and took control of a military installation. There, he proceeded to shout political ideology to the world, while at the same time, ritualistically disemboweling himself. Not surprisingly, the disconcerting undertones of this film (and the book) are downright troubling.
Though taken from a point earlier in his career, the same themes penetrate Mishima's work in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea as with his later, more infamous work -- the decay of life, the thin shell of contentment that surrounds a poisoned and rotted existence, the decline of Japanese society, and the death of old traditions that shall lead into an apocalyptic nightmare; things like that. Obviously, some of these images get lost in this particular cinematic adaptation. You would have to be pretty astute, or drunk, or both, to pull out the decline of traditional Japanese life from this film. But very little of this has anything to do with the movie itself, so enough about the book then; now on to the film.
This is a bizarre film, even in the most conservative sense. The oddly ambiguous and Oedipal sexuality combined with social allegory creates something particularly elegant and nasty at the same time, like a Todd Solondz or David Lynch film, or even a Stanley Kubrick film. Upon first glance, the images of family life, happiness, and contentment are pure and clean, until you scratch away the veneer to find the underscore rotted away entirely. The Sailor moves at its own pace, deliberately, and chooses to keep its pace rather than stop and explain the motivations of its characters. This, I feel, is probably the weakest element of the film. Having read the book, I know all about the things that motivate The Chief, and Jonathan, and so on, but this information is more or less absent from the film. Like many literary adaptations, the back-story and motivations often get left behind from the characters. This does change the tone somewhat, but traces of the big picture remain behind, enough to get a glimpse of something profound and disturbing. Though it never once explains the motivations behind their actions, it is more difficult than you may think to come away from the film dismissing the children as psychotics. It may not be palatable, but there is a sense of greater disharmony in the film, as if the entire world is psychotic along with them.
The metaphors are pretty out on the open. The most amusing of which is the ship, as a pulsing thing of sexuality, almost Cronenbergian in its reverence by the widow (and eerily, by the kid, too). This film, like the sea itself, is something that appears to be nothing but a never-ending panorama of scenic beauty, but is in fact merely the window-dressing for a brutal and powerful force of nature that can tear any ship or man asunder. The ending to this film is so decayed; so rotten (in the pejorative sense, thank you) that it leaves an acrid taste in your mouth for days. The Sailor is a film that, by its very nature, punishes sentimentality and weakness, and yet, through its form, almost dares you to feel that way about the film. Do so at your own risk.
The transfer is quite stunning. Restored from the original archival elements, the anamorphic transfer is a thing of beauty, showing off the beautiful cinematography. Some noticeable spots and dust occasionally crop up, but considering the age of the film, this is excusable. This beautiful new restoration shows off the fantastic widescreen composition and cinematography by Douglas Slocombe (who would go on to shoot another obscure film called Raiders of the Lost Ark). His panoramic shots of the English seacoast and countryside, and his subtle use of color, are mesmerizing, and some amazing compositions take place within the depth of field.
The music is simply mono, and is quite functional. No dialogue is distorted, and this DVD manages to avoid the nasty mono pitfall of having all sound emanating from the speakers in an indistinct blur. The score, dreamily composed by Johnny Mandel (M*A*S*H) harmonizes perfectly with the timbre and tone of the film, and sounds quite effective. This DVD is bare-boned; there is no extra content, supplementary features, or even subtitles to speak of. Given the relative obscurity of the title, it is hardly surprising.
This is the first DVD I have ever seen that actually featured DVD directions. At the bottom, in plain sight, it suggests storing the DVD in cool, dry conditions. Amusing, yes -- unless you have heard vicious tell of a horrible condition known as "DVD rot." I shan't go into the details here and frighten away our readership, but suffice it to say, it is best to follow the directions as written.
Is this a premonition of things to come? We'll see.
As a film, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea is utterly unclassifiable. Far too romantic and moving to be a psychological thriller, but far too disturbing and upsetting to ever be a love film, the movie exists in the uncomfortable shadows between both genres, a seldom-occupied location. The sheer brutality of the film is as uncompromising as its sentimentality.
You can see the outcome from miles away, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Like life, it simply happens. It cannot be avoided. This makes The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea an uncompromising, spellbinding, frustrating and profoundly disturbing film.
Man, those kids give me the creeps. Not guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Image Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R