Judge Bill Treadway dons an eye patch and a peg leg for his review of this unusual pirate film.
Adventure and intrigue on the high seas!
Father Thornton (Nigel Davenport, Chariots of Fire) fears that his children have been growing up too attached to an uncivilized life in lush Jamaica. He decides to uproot his family and return to England. While on route to the United Kingdom, their ship is raided by a Spanish pirate ship captained by Chavez (Anthony Quinn, Zorba the Greek). After looting the ship, Chavez and first mate Zac (James Coburn, Our Man Flint) are startled to discover that the Thornton children have stowed away on their pirate ship.
If you think you know where this pirate story is heading, you're going to be surprised. A High Wind in Jamaica is a pirate movie like no other. While there are the exciting action set pieces we have come to expect in such a film, A High Wind in Jamaica offers so much more. It is a warm film filled with human qualities. For instance, the pirates are not the bloodthirsty savages characterized by most films in this genre. Rather, they are three-dimensional human beings with good qualities, even though they loot ships for a living.
Working from a popular bestseller by Richard Hughes, director Alexander Mackendrick (The Ladykillers, Sweet Smell of Success) shows that he is more than capable of making a lush, lavish widescreen adventure. However, what sets A High Wind in Jamaica apart from most films is one of Mackendrick's greatest strengths: eliciting natural, strong performances from his cast. Anthony Quinn follows up his Oscar-nominated work in Zorba the Greek with another passionate, layered performance. He fills Chavez with real humanity. Quinn wisely realizes that anyone can play a bloodthirsty savage, but a far greater challenge lies in making his character a sympathetic, even likable, man who happens to be a pirate. James Coburn is every bit Quinn's equal as Zac; most associate Coburn with his roles in breezy entertainments such as the Flint pictures and are surprised when they see that he can act with the best of them. Zac is a bit less scrupulous than Chavez when it comes to protecting himself, but Coburn still takes every chance he gets to make him a three-dimensional character. The rest of the cast is equally fine, especially Deborah Baxter in one of the most remarkable performances I have seen by a child actor.
Fox presents A High Wind in Jamaica in both widescreen and full frame formats. Since the film was shot in CinemaScope, it would be wise to stick with the widescreen version. Located on Side B, the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer should be much better than it is here. It starts with a particularly filthy CinemaScope logo, loaded with blemishes. The rest of the film is a mix of clean, crisp scenes alternating with faded, dirty-looking scenes. The colors aren't as bright and bold as a CinemaScope picture shot in color by DeLuxe should be. Grain is a bit thick at times. However, even this flawed transfer is far superior to the full frame version located on Side A. With over half of the original image missing, the panning and scanning only manages to magnify the weaknesses of the widescreen version. Grain goes from being a bit thick to almost unbearable. Yes, dear reader, stick with widescreen. It's better for you.
Fox offers a choice of sound mixes: Dolby Digital 2.0 surround stereo or 2.0 mono. The stereo mix is the better option, as it is juicier and punchier than the flat, tinny mono mix. Most CinemaScope films featured stereophonic sound, so the stereo gives you a more organic sound than the remixed-for-mono option does. The stereo mix wraps you up in the sounds of the open seas, whereas the mono mix makes you feel as if you're sitting in the nosebleed section of a stadium.
The sole extra content Fox offers is some theatrical trailers. Both the English and Spanish-language trailers for A High Wind in Jamaica are featured here. Also featured are trailers for several related Fox films, most notably Pirates of Tortuga. All trailers are presented in anamorphic widescreen. The quality is uneven, but the fact that we even have these trailers is cause for celebration. Columbia often forgets to include trailers for the featured film, and Fox deserves credit for digging up both versions for inclusion.
A High Wind in Jamaica is selling for $14.95 or less in most stores. Why spend $29.99 for a sub-par, half-baked film like Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl when you can own a more intelligent, humanistic film such as High Wind for a fraction of the price? While it is true that the transfer could use some restoration, the film features such strong acting and storytelling that I still recommend making the disc a part of your library.
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