After watching this film, Judge George Hatch felt the urge to contemplate his navel—or, better yet, that of someone else.
"I still don't understand how we could have been such good friends and had such a lovely time, and then have it all turn out so badly."—Audrey
Islands in the Stream is a lopsided triptych of a film barely held together by a few rusty hinges and two stronger ones: Fred J. Koenekamp's Oscar-nominated cinematography and Jerry Goldsmith's vibrant, yet melancholy, score. Based on Ernest Hemingway's semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, the book remained unfinished at the time of his suicide. It was hastily edited by the publisher with the help of Mary (Welsh Monks) Hemingway, the author's fourth wife, and these patchwork elements are evident in the film version as well.
Islands in the Stream is divided into three episodes in the life of painter-turned-sculptor Thomas Hudson (George C. Scott, Patton, Anatomy of a Murder), living in self-imposed isolation in the Bahamas during the early years of World War II. His only cronies are Eddy (David Hemmings, Blow-Up), whom he's known since their days of rum-running out of Cuba, and Joseph (Julius Harris, Live and Let Die), his lifetime and loyal majordomo.
In "The Boys," Thomas tries to reconcile relationships with his three sons. At 19, Tom (Hart Bochner, Apartment Zero), his oldest and namesake, is the most compassionate and understanding of his father's foibles, and he's mature enough to accept his father's preference for his two younger siblings. "I know you love Davy the best." By way of consolation, Thomas notes, "But I loved you the longest, Tom." (Thanks, Papa, you ungrateful bastard. That's really what I wanted to hear.) After watching a harmless freighter get torpedoed by a U-Boat in neutral waters, Tom tells his father that he's going to Canada to join the RAF and fight the Germans.
During this segment, which lasts almost an hour, Thomas does, indeed, devote most of his time to Davy (Michael-James Wixted), watching him struggle through a rite of passage as the boy tries to hook and land a marlin. Not surprisingly, it's Eddy who is by Davy's side throughout the entire ordeal, giving him pointers and encouragement. Once the fish is lost, however, Thomas steps in to carry his exhausted son below deck, praising the kid's dedication, but paying little attention to his bloodied hands and feet.
"The Woman" awkwardly reunites Thomas with his estranged first wife, Audrey (Claire Bloom The Haunting (1963)). Like a bad penny, Audrey always seems to turn up out of nowhere, usually bearing only bad news. She announces that she's getting remarried. "How much do you love him?" asks Thomas. "I didn't say I loved him. I said I was in love with him. And I won't be in love with him today or tomorrow if you don't want it. But I'm going to marry him anyway." Jeez! Talk about circuitous dialogue.
In another clumsily written scene, Thomas asks Audrey about their son, Tom. "He's dead, isn't he?" Audrey's reply: "Sure." Sure? Come on, Audrey! Didn't you have any feelings for the boy, either? I realize Hemingway wrote terse, unsentimental dialogue, but I found Audrey's indifferent, cold-hearted answer—and Bloom's delivery—chilling. Audrey sounds like she's been invited to a movie she really doesn't want to see, but reluctantly agrees to go anyway.
In Hemingway's novel, the last section, "At Sea," recounts Thomas Hudson's exploits as a Nazi U-Boat tracker. On film, this segment has been re-titled "The Journey," and tackles his noble, but no less adventurous, task of rescuing a small group of Jewish escapees and helping them find their way to Cuba. The threat here is pursuit by Cuban coast guard vessels. With Eddy's knowledge of the reefs and in-land channels, Thomas manages to outwit and elude the Cubans, even managing to destroy some of their vessels.
Islands in the Stream disappoints on several levels. The episodic structure fails to generate any emotional involvement with the characters. Yes, Thomas, Eddy, and Joseph each have their "manly" Hemingway moments, but they are few and far between, and they are so disjointed that they don't really create enough of a psychological portrait to engage the viewer.
Other seemingly important characters barely register. Lil (Susan Tyrrell, Fat City) deserves more attention than what amounts to an occasional apparition in the background. If she's just a barfly, why is she so important to Thomas? It's almost appropriate that Tyrrell is so heavily made-up that she looks like a replicant from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum. Captain Ralph (Gilbert Roland Barbarosa) is introduced early on, only to conveniently turn up again at the end of the film with a boatload of Jewish émigrés that Thomas rescues. I'd liked to have seen some backstory about these two characters.
Perhaps, the 104-minute running time is to blame. Director Franklin J. Schaffner is best known for his epic films, Papillon, Nicholas and Alexandra and Patton, each pushing a two-and-a-half-hour running time. After that, he was relegated to the fairly decent The Boys from Brazil, and fodder like Sphinx and the abominable Yes, Giorgio. I assume Hollywood had lost faith in this talented director. Islands in the Stream plays out like a detailed treatment for a film much larger in scope. Too bad it wasn't developed into something more substantial.
Paramount's transfer is virtually faultless, one of the best I've seen. You can make a screen capture of almost any outdoor shot and turn it into a picture postcard. The Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack is also impressive, enhancing one of Jerry Goldsmith's most haunting and atmospheric scores. There are no Extras, but Islands in the Stream is a love-it or hate-it film. Frankly, I hated it, but I must take into consideration the talents involved in the project. George C. Scott as the "Papa" Hemingway mainstay is superb, and the rest of the cast follows suit. It's only the trite dialogue that undermines their performances.
I think the best way to view this film is to put it in your DVD player and look at it in the same way as one of those holiday Yule logs burning in a fireplace you don't have. I'd love to be in the Bahamas, and if this is as close as I can get, then I'll take it. But as a drama, I'll pass.
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