Shout! Factory // 1976 // 104 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // July 18th, 2012
He gave his soul to the sea...and his heart to a woman.
Some movies are inexorably locked into their era of release. They cannot transcend the times and seem permanently lost among the latter entries mining similar territory. A perfect example of this ersatz Billy Pilgrim problem is Lewis John Carlino 's oddball erotica The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Derided as "shocking" and "scandalous" 36 years ago, it's now buried deep within the basics of that pretension postmodern movement. More or less a cautionary tale about teenage boys and their inability to deal with raging hormonal changes, this addled allegory is based on a book by Japanese agent provocateur Yukio Mishima. Unfortunately, the overreaching directness of the subtext struggles against the naked writhing of co-stars Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson to turn everything into a softcore screed about little young boys bonding over misplaced libido and animal abuse.
Anne Osborne (Miles, Ryan's Daughter) is a widow in a small harbor town. Desperately lonely -- she lost her husband years before -- she needs a man to fulfill her many needs. As luck would have it, a ship gets stranded in her village, and while it is being examined, our heroine runs into the sinewy, strong Jim Cameron (Kristofferson, A Star is Born). Almost immediately, they begin a torrid love affair. This makes Anne's adolescent son Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) jealous. It also fuels his affinity for a group of rebellious teen boys lead by the evil and enigmatic Chief (Earl Rhodes, Young Sherlock Holmes). Referencing each other by number only and using their skewed view of the world as a reason to "punish" the unworthy and undesirable, the gang wants to make Cameron pay for his proposed "crimes" against nature. How these two stories resolve themselves becomes the fuel for a controversial finale.
Three plus decades ago, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea would have been considered "art." It would get the critical community in a fall-over-themselves froth about its slightly above average adult themes while erudite lovers of cinema melt, praising its "profound" perspective on life, love, and loss. The graphic, if tame by today's standards, sexuality would be celebrated as a proper portrayal of interpersonal carnality while the entire Lord of the Flies feel to the boy gang material would offer insights into the still simmering plight of juvenile delinquency in these United States. Toss is a pair of potent onscreen guides (Miles and Kristofferson), add in a bit of shock value (animal cruelty), and you've got the makings of a cause celeb, a must-see missive for anyone sick and tired of the tepid motion picture mainstream.
Of course, the only problem with such an assessment is that it is 36 years too late -- and by 2012 standards, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea is nothing more than a trifling bore. Yes, it presents its adult cast members in carefully choreographed and captured bare bodkin repast, their lovemaking supposedly symbolizing the coming together of two distinct natures -- man's and the planet's -- and Mishima's Asian influence, all centering on good, evil and the balance between, comes across in a cat blood obviousness. While the acting is excellent and the overall tone dark and foreboding, the film just feels overly familiar, and far less racy than it would have back in 1976. Heck, you can come across more salacious material on an average post-midnight perusal of Cinemax.
As one of only three films directed by screenwriter Lewis John Carlino (the others being The Great Santini and Class), Sailor looks lovely. There's no sweat and stink in the sex scenes, just perfectly prone bodies captured in Vasoline-veiled etherea. We don't get seduced by the lovemaking so much as marvel at the artistic filmmaking involved. Similarly, the kid's story is swamped by players both dull (sorry, Mr. Kahn, but your short career in front of the lens indicates your level of accomplishment here) and far too hysterical for words (Chief chews more scenery than a dose of Dover termites). They come across as one of those sniggling little sects that needs a good slap in the face, not stardom in a figurative fairy tale focusing on the battle between decent and decadent. One imagines Mishima's philosophy being more insightful than what we get here. It could also be a question of culture and tradition.
In some ways, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea is a primer for David Lynch's run of '80s/'90s dream fevers. You can see a lot of Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart and even a bit of Lost Highway here. As the man who made Eraserhead and Dune, Lynch loves to play with expectations. You assume a crazy criminal with a penchant for nitrous and Roy Orbison would be about as bugnuts as bat feces, but we don't expect the borderline B&D between our hero and his torch singer obsession. Similarly, Chief and his chums are clearly headed for a date with fatal destiny. But there are hints at something more esoteric in their motives versus unrequited lust, Oedipal complexes, and boredom by the sea shore. If handled properly, this material would make a fascinating character study. We'd buy both the sex and the snuff. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea falters, however, because of its approach and its attitude. This movie was made for the Me Decade, not the far more subversive flash of the pre-Aught Teens.
In some ways, Shout! Factory does a disservice to this film. The 2.35:1/1080p Blu-ray presentation is just not that good. The film looks old and dated, dust and other debris masking what is clearly a mediocre transfer. The colors appear muted, the soft focus comes across as too much so, and the overall appearance just doesn't do a high definition, detail-oriented format justice. It's not awful, it's just not very good. For DVD, it's fine, but for the added aspect of Blu-ray, well...
On the sound side, we are treated to a Dolby Digital Stereo mix that is all over the map. Sometimes the dialogue is crystal clear. At other times it seems over-modulated. Locational ambience destroys some moments while serving others and the entire source seems left over from a mid '70s auditory experiment. Sadly, Shout! also avoids any added content, challenging their cover art proclamations of classicism and import.
As with most things marred by time, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea would have much more impact, aesthetically and artistically, had you been able to sit in a theater circa 1976 and soak in its shocking sensuality. While offering material more inferred than explicit, it still pushes buttons and makes its points in proud, preaching visuals. While some will see all the avant-aardvarking and swoon in psycho-sexual appease, most will just be bored. Sometimes, you can overcome your dated dynamics. The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea tries, but can't compete with a 2012 tendency toward openness and honesty. Consider it a curiosity; nothing more and a whole lot less.
Guilty. Mediocre movie, shoddy Blu-ray release.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 104 Minutes
Release Year: 1976
MPAA Rating: Rated R