Home Video Reviews
A news writer named Bradshaw (Hartley Power) arrives on the island of Santa Marta in the British West Indies just in time to cover rising racial tensions as an election approaches. The election has taken on a new significance with the emergence of a charismatic black leader David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), who intends to oppose well-respected white landowner Maxwell Fleury (James Mason).
As the political situation simmers in the background, the prominent islanders become involved in a variety of inter-racial relationships. Boyeur's friend Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) accompanies him to a reception for the newly arrived son of the Governor, where she comes to the attention of the Governor's aide Dennis Archer (John Justin). The reception also brings together Boyeur and Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine), whose family once owned one of the island's largest plantations. And the Governor's son Euan Templeton (Stephen Boyd) unexpectedly finds a potential for romance in Fleury's sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins).
Boyeur and Mavis have a few memories of each other from childhood, though at the time race would keep them separated. Now that they are adults, Mavis finds herself captivated by the dynamic Boyeur, who sets out to show her the Santa Marta that she could not have known in her rarified upbringing. They visit the cane fields together, and landmarks of the black community, as well as the plantation that was once owned by Mavis' family. Eventually they develop a mutual understanding and respect for the lives that they have led, and for the people they have become. At the same time, Dennis Archer finds himself hopelessly enamored with Margot Seaton, whose straight-forward attitude and observations come as a breath of fresh air: in direct opposition to convention, they strike up a romance with each other (though neither of them seem particularly aware of the potential for disaster). Templeton and Jocelyn appear to form the most traditional relationship. They immediately begin keeping company, the only snag coming when one of Fleury's political rivals sees to it that the two are trapped in Fleury's deserted house during a local celebration, hoping to engender a scandal.
But any potential discredit that might've been caused by the incident is completely forgotten when Bradshaw publishes an article exposing the most guilty secret of the Fleury family: an inter-racial relationship in Maxwell's lineage that means he is one-sixteenth black, which was enough to cause him to be ostracized, threatening to destroy his political career. The "disgrace" causes Jocelyn to reconsider her decision to marry Templeton, until he convinces her that her heritage doesn't make any difference to him (or to his father, the Governor, whose political future may now be affected by the union). But there will be even more shocking revelations in the Fleury family, which will destroy lives while at the same time healing some wounds
Island in the Sun is a turgid film that is as fascinating for what it attempts as it is for the limitations that censorship at the time would impose on it, making it difficult for the film to succeed. Young audiences viewing the film now would probably find it "much ado about nothing," but in its historical context Island in the Sun is an audacious, courageous film. Made at a time when the African-American Civil Rights Movement was just beginning to make strides, the idea of an interracial relationship was still considered shocking: to give an idea of just how shocking, eleven years after this film was released, Belafonte would be involved in a nationwide scandal when, while doing a duet with Petula Clarke on an NBC special, Clarke laid her hand on his arm. This innocent, innocuous act created a racial firestorm in the United States.
So for a 1957 film to present interracial couples was particularly daring. Unfortunately, with the Production Code's rules about interracial relationships still in tact, the actors are allowed to profess their love for each other, but one is painfully aware of the taboo against any expressions of physical affection, taking some of the bite out of the story. The film also suffers from a screenplay (by Alfred Hayes) that at times sounds like a political tract rather than a drama. Hayes' best work for the film comes in the handling of the murder investigation that enlivens the film's second half. The exchanges between investigator Colonel Whittingham (John Williams) and his chief suspect are deftly handled and particularly involving.
Despite its flaws, Island in the Sun still has a lot going for it, beginning with the sure-handed direction by Robert Rossen (The Hustler, All the King's Men) who keeps the film moving at a smooth pace while giving the film what little edge that remains today. And the cast is flawless. James Mason turns in another outstanding performance as the privileged white landowner who finds his life falling apart. Belafonte is particularly strong as the charismatic leader, and Joan Fontaine (who is saddled with some of the film's worst dialogue) manages to give one of her most textured performances. With this film Dorothy Dandridge proved once again that she was a fine actress, playing the role of Mavis with humor and depth. Even Joan Collins, under Rossen's guidance, gives a strong performance. The cast also includes Michael Rennie (The Day the Earth Stood Still) as an old friend of Fleury's wife, who innocently drives Fleury to a jealous rage.
Another of the film's assets is the cinematography. The gorgeous location scenery (shot in Barbados and Grenada) is lovingly photographed by the great Freddie Francis. He also makes the most of the wide-screen image in capturing the vast interiors of the white characters' home, a stark contrast to the humble abodes of the islands' black population (and a mute condemnation as well). And the film is punctuated by an engaging calypso score, with Belafonte getting a chance to croon a couple of tunes.
Fox's new Cinema Classics Collection edition of the film does full justice to Francis' work: the source is showing no signs of deterioration, and the colors are beautifully rendered, vibrant and natural. The black level is absolute, and the image if perfectly contrasted throughout with excellent shadow detail. The audio is in equally fine shape (though there are a couple of brief spots where a tiny bit of deterioration is evident. The bass is particularly resonant, and both the dialogue and vocals are crystal clear.
The disc includes an audio commentary by Film Writer and Historian John Stanley, as well as the A&E Network documentary "Dorothy Dandridge: Little Girl Lost," as seen on Biography.
For more information about Island in the Sun, visit Fox Home Entertainment. To order Island in the Sky, go to TCM Shopping.
by Fred Hunter