BR: Blue Lagoon, The (1980)

July 20, 2013 | By

Film: Very Good

BR Transfer: Excellent

BR Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time

Region: All

Released: December 11, 2012

Genre: Drama / Romance

Synopsis: Two kids must survive on their own and deal with blazing sexual attractions after being shipwrecked on a tropical island.

Special Features: 1999 Audio commentary #1: director Randal Kleiser, writer Douglas Day Stewart, and actress Brooke Shields / 1999 Audio commentary #2: director Randal Kleiser, actor Christopher Atkins / 1980 featurette: “An Adventure in Filmmaking: The Making of The Blue Lagoon” (11:02) / Theatrical Trailer and 3 Teaser Trailers / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

 

 

Review:

A dream project of director Randall Kleiser, Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s Victorian novel was given a third and more faithful treatment featuring an attractive couple, rampant nudity, and spectacular location cinematography which helped Columbia’s film become a top grosser in 1980.

23 years later it’s mostly remembered with a little bit of a snicker, partially due to the scenes which cynical critics would argue as being mere contrivances to show the private areas of a cast that didn’t have the greatest dramatic skill. Brooke Shields had yet to develop a slightly broader master thespian range, and Christopher Atkins – then a sailing instructor with aspirations for a career in medicine – had never acted before, but when placed beside the 1949 version, a film steeped in British politesse, Kleiser’s attempt to create the ‘ultimate south seas’ adventure holds up surprisingly well.

The cast’s inexperience in hard drama works because they’re supposed to play a pair of naïve kids whose development and need to learn basic survival skills slowly blurs memories of their prior civilized lives – language, music, culture, and mores remain simplistic, if not fade into impressions – and with teen passions brewing under the covers, it’s inevitable sex takes over.

The provocative nature of the 1980 film remains pretty surprisingly, especially since it was sanctioned / financed by a major Hollywood studio, and Kleiser’s film is very much a reflection of the permissiveness and frankness explored by directors during the seventies that reached near acceptance before the studios realized more money could be made by tailoring a film to the PG crowd. The Blue Lagoon, and Kleiser’s naked twentysomething Grecian frolic Summer Lovers (1982), would’ve received NC-17 ratings today, assuming a studio would’ve been perfectly fine with the steamy material in BL.

There’s also a naivete to the filmmaker’s stances because it was made in a time when nudity of various ages could be justified onscreen, but after a flurry of contemporary dreadful crimes and scandals, it makes any display of non-adult nudity almost taboo in American cinema (unless there’s a recognizable European influence: in financing, to permit an old-style European release version; or in the direction from a European filmmaker with a pre-existing body of frank / controversial work).

With most critical focus still hovering around the naughty material decades later, it’s easy to wholly miss the film’s genuine virtues: screenwriter Douglas Day Stewart stayed much closer to the novel and delved deeper into the pubescent petty conflicts of the two kids once they’re wholly alone in the wilds of their island paradise, clumsily discovering their respective gender biology, and later the birth and rearing of a child.

Kleiser’s direction is often inspired, and while transgressing into artiness in terms of lengthy montages of sexual discovery, swimming in the buff, and the ennui of being on an isle with plenty of time to ponder Life in the shade, it all completely suits the film, and lends the production a European veneer. His device of using Victorian stereoscopic stills of kids, adults, lovers, a married couple, and parents is very effective in framing scenes that do, on occasional, run on purely for the sake of exploiting Nestor Almendros’ beautiful visuals, as well as montages that allowed Basil Poledouris’ to write a rich, classical-styled orchestral score, and lush main theme.

The integration of natives and a blood sacrifice is a minor diversion to break up the kids otherwise monotonous lives and juvenile behaviour, and it’s more successful than the pearl thieves implanted by the screenwriters in the 1949 version which was also not in Stacpoole’s novel. Unlike the prior version, Stewart stuck with the novel’s original ending, even keeping the fate of the couple and their son vague in the final shot (and making it easy for the studio to produce a follow-up story).

Also retained are the original qualities of Paddy Button, the ship’s surly cook who whisks the annoying kids off the sinking boat and teaches them life and survival skills on the isle before dying in a drunken binge. Leo McKern gives a solid performance as the grumpy drunkard who genuinely cares for the kids’ welfare, and both Elva Josephspn and Glenn Kohan are fine as the young Emmeline and Richard – the stranded cousins who were re-Christened as unrelated kids Emmeline and Michael in the ’49 version.

BL is still an easy (and kind of deserving) target for satire and ridicule because there are moments where Kleiser’s efforts to display frankness also edge into the ridiculous – the narration in Columbia’s original trailers is hysterically funny, selling the film like a mainstream Radley Metzger tale of magical discovery – but this is a handsome production with authentic locations, great period and location detail, and while fanciful and contrived to showcase two hot stars and their bare bodkins in heat, it’s also a time capsule for a level of cinematic and narrative permissiveness of a bygone era.

 

The Home Video Releases

Popular in cinemas and home video, Sony’s 1999 DVD featured dual commentary tracks that provide solid details of the film’s casting, filming, and release. The first track has director Kleiser with writer Steward, and the pair is later joined by Shields once her scenes begin. Kleiser returns with Atkins on the second track, and in both commentaries the discussions are steady, with each member clearly having a soft spot for an experience that went beyond mere picture-making.

Kleiser emphasizes the uniqueness of the production, which is essentially two teens on an island going through laborious growing pains instead of big screen action; and one can understand why initially every studio passed on the project during the director’s first shopping effort. Kleiser doesn’t detail whether the film was planned to be as ripe with nudity from the get-go, but it is surprising that Columbia said yes, given the film’s inherently controversial material.

To Kleiser’s credit – and the careful lighting of Almendros (Days of Heaven) – nudity becomes less of an issue after the first set of scenes; part of the actors’ comfort likely stemmed from the shoot itself, where the small crew of U.S. and Aussie technicians (led by co-producer / Martin director Richard Franklin) took advantage of the isolation and comfort zones to be nude themselves. (Atkins describes being made up by a topless artist, while the production’s dolphin trainer / cook also doubled as Shields for the nude scenes.)

Kleiser also confirms the film was shot with a safety zone for TV, matting the film for theatrical exhibition, but opening up the frame for TV (which sometimes yielded some unintentional material, like the tape used to block Shields otherwise bare chest).

Both Sony’s DVD and TT’s BR have the same slight blur in the scene where Atkins’ attempts to sail off solo on his poorly built raft, so presumably the flaw lay in the original camera negative. The film’s visuals are otherwise sumptuous, and the HD transfer brings out the gorgeous natural lighting employed by Almendros, whom Kleiser called ‘the greatest artist’ with whom he’s ever worked.

The BR’s sound mix is fine, but there is one flaw not present (at least so severely) on the Sony DVD which only offered a Dolby 2.0 surround mix. Whereas the 2.0 mix featured a fairly clean main title sequence with music and directional sound effects of the sail ship, the 5.1 remix for the BR is noticeably over-processed, causing a discernible drainpipe effect in the score. This flaw is only present during the title sequence, but it’s very prominent when Poledouris’ low and mid-level strings play the main title’s melody as the last main credits unfold.

One can only assume the flaw existed in the 2.0 mix but became prominent when the sound stems were spread out for a 5.1 environment, or Sony simply added too much processing to simulate more directional effects for the title sequence to ensure the film begins with an enveloping sound design.

Twilight Time’s ported over the same DVD extras – minus Brooke Shield’s photo diary of the shoot, perhaps due to rights issues – and added more trailers and an isolated stereo score track of Poledouris’ gorgeous score, heard in uncompressed DTS.

Columbia’s original trailer is brilliant work of P.R. nonsense, selling the film as an erotic experience (and perhaps using the same narrator as for Radley Metzger’s The Lickerish Quartet), yet it’s a clear indication of the studio not shying away from the film’s R-rated matter. Instead of treating it with caution, the studio acknowledged its hot content, and sold it to its rated audience. Even the promotional making-of featurette features the frank full-frontal shots of Atkins, and Shields’ body double (who’s also named in a screen caption to ensure What You See Was Performed by an Adult). Note: although Stewart mentions in his commentary that he was charged with filing some making-of footage on Super 8, that featurette wasn’t ultimately included on the DVD nor BR.)

Today’s ratings system would’ve mandated edits to avoid a NC-17 rating, saving a franker ‘director’s cut’ for the inevitable unrated home video release, but in 1980, Kleiser, based on his success with Grease (1978) and the adult climate of the era, was able to deliver his version. In the end Columbia received a top-grossing film of the year, and a cult film that continues to remain in print on video.

 

Postscript

Exploiting the good fame and fortune of BL, Randall Kleiser, who began his career in TV, followed up with the bubbleheaded box office success Summer Lovers before aiming his sights on dramatic (Grandview, U.S.A.) and comedic fare (Big Top Pee Wee). His subsequent work has included rather banal family fodder during the early nineties – White Fang (1991), Honey I Blew Up the Kid (1992) – and a mere two films in the prior decade, Lovewrecked (2005) and Red Riding Hood (2006).

Douglas Day Stewart, who had previously worked with Kleiser in TV on The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976), managed to parlay the success of BL and his Oscar-nominated script for An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) into a brief directorial career with the cult film Thief of Hearts (1984) and Listen to Me (1989).

Whereas Brooke Shields’ next film, Endless Love (1981), furthered her career as a box office star of oversexed teen romances, few subsequent efforts offered any parts with challenging dimensions. Her immediate work tended to hover in the adventure / comic book terrain – Sahara (1983) attempted to evoke vintage movie serials after the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) – and she’s largely alternated between the odd feature film, TV movies (the cultish teleplay Wet Gold, a re-imagining of  Treasure of the Sierra Madre followed in 1984), and TV series.

After co-starring in a pair of cult movies – The Pirate Movie (1982), A Night in Heaven (1983) – Christopher Atkins’ career sort of faltered. An appearance in Dallas (1983-1984) failed to interest critics and fans, and his character was written out of the series, leaving Atkins with mostly direct-to-video productions that have continued with prodigious results.

In the disc’s first commentary track, Kleiser recalls his original cast – Willie Aames and Diane Lane – who chose to bail on the project at the last minute due to the heavy nudity. Seeing the success of BL, Aames soon agreed to appear in the rip-off film Paradise (1982) with Phoebe Cates, but its failure (and critical ridicule) sent him back to TV from whence he came.

As for the BL franchise, after going through several scripts – one idea recalled by Kleiser featured Em and Richard surviving their sea voyage, and attempting a life in Boston – Columbia delivered a cash-in sequel ten years later. Kleiser wasn’t happy with the final results and Stewart avoided any involvement with Return to the Blue Lagoon (1991), based on Stacpoole’s own sequel, the novel The Garden of God. Sony’s last effort to rekindle the franchise was the TV movie Blue Lagoon: The Awakening (2012), set in the present day, which featured a small part for Atkins.

 

 

© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

 

External References:

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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