The Cult of a Pirate’s Rites of Passage in The Island (1980)

*contains spoilers

The Island (1980) is a misunderstood film with a possible demographic that was unable to view it, which is why it failed so miserably at the box office upon its initial release. This tale of a twelve-year-old boy adopted by murderous modern-day pirates of the Caribbean is also one of the great father-son adventure movies of all time.

The Island (1980) poster

Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, who sold the film rights for a reported $2.16 million, and also wrote the screenplay, it is a no-nonsense and unapologetically violent tale where the widescreen is used to great effect. It would have looked great on a big screen.

It tells of a New York based British journalist who takes his young son with him to Florida to investigate the disappearance of 600 boats over three years in and around the area of the Bermuda Triangle. He is seeking answers and what he discovers is perhaps far more disturbing than alien abductions.

Michael Caine (1933-) stars as the journalist and Jeffrey Frank (1965-) is his son named Justin. For Caine The Island was regarded as one of his ‘pay-check movies’ or films that he did only for the money which also included The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) among others during this period. It is reported he never talks about The Island. This is a shame because the film is definitely a cult movie.

Father and son: Michael Caine and Jeffrey Frank in The Island (1980)

The history behind the story is clever as Caine’s character is named Blair Maynard. As the film progresses to the hidden island where the pirates in the film have lived in isolation for hundreds of years, plundering yachts and ships for booty… his name takes on meaning.

It begins with the true-life pirate Blackbeard (c.1680-1718 killed in action) who operated around the West Indies. His ship Queen Anne’s Revenge was a captured French slave ship equipped with forty guns and over 300 men. After a colourful career Blackbeard received a royal pardon and was a landlubber for a spell before the call of the sea and further violence became too much and he went back to his old ways. You see, he was then killed by a small force of sailors led by Lieutenant Robert Maynard (1864-1751).

A depiction of Blackbeard the Pirate in battle with fuses tied to his hair

Blackbeard and Maynard fought to the death in hand to hand combat and it is reported that Blackbeard’s body upon his death had five bullet wounds and 20 blade cuts. There’s a lot in a name and for having such a glorious ancestor Caine’s Maynard is not immediately murdered by the pirates who usually kill all those except preteens. They have plans for his son Justin to become the brainwashed adopted son of the lead buccaneer on the island played by David Warner (1941-).

Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) promotional advertisement

Once more, there is a lot in a name, and Warner’s is Jean-David Nau, who is a descendant of the French pirate of the same name who was otherwise known as Francois l’Ollonais (1630-69 torn to pieces alive by natives). Nau was an expert torturer whose techniques included slicing portions of flesh off a victim, burning them alive or tying knotted “woolding”, which was the rope bound around a mast used to strengthen it, around the victim’s head until their eyes were forced out. One character wants to woold Maynard for killing her husband when Maynard and his son were captured.

Legendary pirate Jean-David Nau

Just so we know that Justin isn’t in danger of being molested and passed round like cabin boys of yore, the pirate Nau wrote his own version of the Bible which enforced the notion that the pirates had to maintain a heterosexual society because “homosexuality was like scurvy” as it “broke out on long voyages and wrecked the efficiency of the crew” to quote the novel. Winston Churchill, however, was quoted as saying: “Don’t talk to me about naval tradition. It is nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.” Discipline comes in odd forms or so it would seem for differing maritime societies. Nau’s Bible is called the Covenant in The Island.

The Pogues album named after Winston Churchill’s quote

The pirates in The Island, despite their murdering ways, use this Covenant as some sort of constitution which they refer to with its heavy content of pirate lore. A covenant in the Bible is the agreement between God and the ancient Israelites in which God promised to protect them if they kept his law and were faithful to him.

“… it is so written in the Covenant,” says one of the pirates after reading a quote from the book which saves Maynard’s from a good old-fashioned woolding.

Biblically, Nau wants Justin to be his son so he will eventually be the new leader and messiah for the pirate community and the Biblical reference in the movie points also to the child being an Anti-Christ in the eyes of Maynard if he doesn’t save his son from the dark side. Justin is caught between two worlds – one where he can shoot guns at people and the other where you cannot!

Author Peter Benchley appears in Jaws (1975)

I read Peter Benchley’s Ocean Trilogy which consists of Jaws, The Deep and The Island when I was around twelve to fourteen years of age. I loved the first two movies Jaws (1975) which terrified me and The Deep (1977) which awakened my desire for Jacqueline Bisset in a wet t-shirt as my first pin-up. But despite reading novels filled with sex and violence, I was still immature and tended to live in my head. I had been brought up on Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94 cerebral haemorrhage) novel Treasure Island (1883) which was the first novel read to me by my grandfather while I sat beside him as a child. Pirates were a part of my consciousness as they fascinated me and the book of Treasure Island was a rite of passage, just like the racy novels I read from age twelve were also a part of growing into adulthood.

Jacqueline Bisset in The Deep (1977)

The Island is a rite of passage tale as well and at fourteen when I first saw the movie on VHS tape a couple of years after its cinema release, I thought I was Justin in The Island as the actor playing Justin was also fourteen at the time the film was made. Further, my father really was a bespectacled work-obsessed British born journalist and I was the neglected son who he takes on the adventure of a lifetime. As a result, The Island became one of my father and I’s favourite films over the ensuing years.

“The son of a bitch has propellers,” says Justin upon being taken aboard a plane by his father to the outskirts of civilisation somewhere near the Bermuda Triangle. Justin in the movie is seen reading a Playboy in his father’s office while in the book it is a copy of American Rifleman magazine. A Walther PPK handgun features prominently in both the film and book and while I was never really a gun nut, I’d been shooting with my best friend Scott, who was. I understood the obsession and Justin in The Island is a crack shot which is central to the story rather than just the guns themselves.

Michael Caine and Angela Punch McGregor in The Island (1980)

The Biblical references at the beginning of the film start with the fictional island of Navidad where the propeller plane crashes. Navidad is Spanish for Happy Christmas and its name is related to the nativity. So, Justin as some Christ-like or Anti-Christ figure is established, or at least the names of the surroundings are indicative of this mixture of myth and reality.

“Fine robust bitch,” says Warner’s Nau of a masted ship as the pirates stalk it out to sea later in the movie. The name of the ship is the St. Croix. It’s also the name of a Caribbean Island and its meaning derives from island of the holy cross. Thus, the ship has an unholy link to the island of the pirates and Justin because it is aboard the St. Croix where Justin is ‘blooded’ following his brainwashing at the hands of the pirates. Justin commits murder for his adopted father Nau after he has been indoctrinated by the pirates into believing his name is Tue-Barb and that he is the descendant of the killer of Blackbeard. It is then that he will be prepared to kill his father… The beauty of it all is that it is not at all Freudian.

Jeffrey Frank is handy with a gun in The Island (1980)

The film is peppered with good character actors and familiar faces, starting with William G. Schilling (1939-1019) who sells the Maynard’s the handgun at a gun shop. Then there’s the pilot played by Brad Sullivan (1931-2008 cancer), while the local cop on the island where the plane crashes is Zakes Mokae (1934-2009 complications of stroke).

“It’s the asshole of the Western World,” says Sullivan who wonders why the pair would want to visit such a place.

Other actors include Frank Middlemass (1919-2006) who plays Dr Windsor, a local on Navidad who rents a fishing boat to Maynard and Justin which leads to their kidnapping and adventure on the island.

Universal studios didn’t learn from The Island’s failure and made the flop Waterworld (1995)

It is noted that Middlemass is reading Carl Sagan’s (1934-96 bone marrow cancer and pneumonia) The Dragons of Eden: Speculation of the Evolution of Human Intelligence which we have spotted earlier on a yacht which was taken by the pirates. While the pirates have their own Book of Genesis in the Covenant, their evolution is doomed due to inbreeding and they must find new blood in pre-teens. The evolution of the pirates and their Covenant is not wholesome and their intelligence has stalled as a result and become one of basic survival through violence. Oh, and they like to party till they drop!

Dudley Sutton (left) as Doctor Brazil makes a diagnosis

Just a mention that Blackbeard used to attach lit fuses to his head to terrify his intended victims and that one of the pirates also does so in accordance with that legend as he raids one of the yachts.

The Island also has a list of character actors as the pirates which include Dudley Sutton (1933-2018 cancer) as Doctor Brazil and Aussie Reg Evans (1928-2009 killed by bushfire) as Jack the Bat.

Shoehorned into the proceedings is a kind of romance between a dim-witted but cunning pirate village woman on the island played by Angela Punch McGregor (1953-). She is one of several Australians in the cast and it is surprising that the film wasn’t shot in Northern Queensland but in Antigua where the pirate village was created in mangroves on that island.

There are lashings of black humour in the movie such as when Justin shoots his first victim who is high up on a mast and plummets onto the deck below. Toothless Doctor Brazil says upon examining the body: “Don’t come near… He has the falling sickness…” much to the delight of the scalawags within the crowd: “… A bad case of the dropsy!”

Caine with another gun which are almost fetishistic in the movie The Island (1980)

Meanwhile as Maynard laments his son becoming a killer, Dr Windsor tells him: “These are the world’s great survivors… What other father can die knowing his son will mature into a true pure natural man, a classical buccaneer.”

The film also contains a few gory set-pieces which include the double climax of the raid on a Coast Guard ship and then Maynard’s slaughter of all the pirates by a mounted machine gun as they stand on the helicopter landing deck sorting their booty. Make that a triple climax, as Warner survives the melee, and Maynard must save his son from his clutches within the dark bowels of the ship.

The pirates are nothing more than vicious cutthroats out for booty in The Island (1980)

Add an at times rousing score by Ennio Morricone (1928-2020 result of fall) who must have produced nearly ten music scores that year and you have a touch of class amid the garrotting and general blood-letting.

Made at a time when interest in the Bermuda Triangle was at its peak, director Michael Ritchie (1938-2001 prostate cancer) has filled his anamorphic screen richly with the help of cinematographer Henri Decae (1915-87). There is a definite nautical flavour and he captured a natural and charming performance from Jeffrey Frank as Justin who would never make another theatrical feature. As terrifying as the Bermuda Triangle was to me as a kid, this demystification story has an amusing premise to say the least. You just don’t hear about the Bermuda Triangle anymore.

Pre-release promotional material for The Island (1980)

The gore and violence of The Island seemed to be an aberration for Ritchie who would go on to do comedies such as Fletch (1985) starring Chevy Chase (1943-) and its sequel. Ritchie started off with the lauded political comedy drama The Candidate (1972) and he continued to do satire with The Bad News Bears (1976), but the director’s comedy was never so black as it was in The Island. One critic in Entertainment Weekly said of Ritchie: “It’s difficult to think of any director, ever, who had a more consistently uneven career.”

Director Michael Ritchie

The Island was loathed by critics and the film grossed an estimated $16 million worldwide compared to its budget of $22 million. None of the paying crowd seemed interested despite the critics anyway and the film is avoided to this day for its reputation alone.

I’ll say it again and that is the movie was further misunderstood because it’s not strictly an adult piece but basically a father and son boys own adventure with sex and violence that is kind of inspired by the pirates of Treasure Island and their relationship with a child and yet it also turns that book on its head!

Long John Silver uses Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island (1950)

Jim Hawkins can look back with a sense of nostalgia about his relationship with the pirate Long John Silver in Treasure Island despite the fact that Long John ultimately used Jim to get the treasure. There is a kind of mutual respect or love in that story. Justin Maynard in The Island will have no recollections if he has any at all and they will be of once belonging to a gang of cutthroats whose father-leader will betray him because the purer love of Justin’s father prevails. It is far more complex and nightmarish for Justin but as a rites of passage story it is the truer tale and may produce a stronger man who will know the real difference between good and evil as well as revering one’s father and the resultant bond with a son. But there is also a possibility, hinted at the end of the movie, that Justin will mentally never be the same again.

Justin is feeling the ultimate in peer group pressure in The Island (1980)

It’s perfect fodder for concerned fathers, and especially teenage boys already seeking vicarious thrills through adult fiction who may relate to Justin’s struggle over his natural upbringing and his ensuing brainwashing to choose either good or evil. While a child’s decision should come naturally, it is often made due to his or her environment and its conditioning… Under the influence of evil, a good adolescent may still struggle and make the wrong decision due to peer pressure or the teaching or behaviour of others which may forever alter his or her fate. Will Justin be irrevocably lost to his father by his decision to shoot and kill another human being? I don’t think The Island is particularly as deep as the waters which surround it but its secret is profane and the plight of father and son fascinating.

The Island (1980) trailer

Sadly, by its very nature, with a child committing murder, The Island received a Restricted rating and so its natural teen audience couldn’t go and see it which contributed to its flop status. Fathers also couldn’t take their sons. As a result, The Island was the magnificent failure it is… Just as the pirate leader Nau’s plans for his adopted son Tue-Barb to lead the buccaneers into a new era was also doomed to failure on that island of the unholy cross under the flag of skull and crossbones!

For me, it is screenwriter Peter Benchley’s masterpiece.

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