Film: Blue Lagoon, The (1949)

July 20, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / B


Film: Very Good/ DVD Transfer:  n/a / DVD Extras: n/a

Label: n/a/ Region: n/a / Released: Xn/aX

Genre: Drama / Romance

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

Special Features: n/a




The Blue Lagoon, Henry De Vere Stacpoole’s tall tale about two stranded cousins surviving on a tropical island after a terrible ship fire, was first turned into a film in 1923, and perhaps sensing a great project to exploit Technicolor, the story was revisited by Frank Launder, one of Britain’s important writer / producer / directors whose career spanned more than 50 years.

Launder and his co-writers made some notable deletions and modifications to the story: the fire that sends the kids into a dinghy was still retained, but the blood relations between the pair was stretched much farther; and rather than a surly cook whisking the children safely off the boat, it was a coarse but benevolent crewman charged to look after the kids when the boy’s father was cremated at sea. (In the novel and 1980 remake [M], the father remains very much alive.)

The death of the father may have been an effort to contemporize the ostensibly Victorian characters for postwar audiences: orphaned kids, surrogate parents, using one’s wits to survive by exploiting raw natural resources after a stable, civilized infrastructure has all but vanished.

There’s also the retention of specific English values – manners, diction, and maintenance of a civil life – which in the film certainly prevent the kids and their guardian from going completely feral; granted they’re of an age where some formal civil behaviour from the modern world has left an impression, but “Em” / Emmeline (Susan Stranks) and Michael (Peter Rudolph Jones) maintain an active dinner routine into their teen / nascent adult years, and fashion practical wardrobe to shield themselves from ‘wild’ influences.

In fact the only aberrant behaviour the kids initially encounter is the emerging drunkenness of their guardian Paddy (Noel Purcell), but it’s still a recognized, civilized form of recklessness: Paddy’s binge drinking is understandable and acceptable because, well, he’s alone on an isle with snotty kids and can only dream of life’s simple pleasures. Instead of lusting for women, there’s booze and Em reading passages of rich food from a cookbook that survived the ship’s fire.

Paddy’s drinking eventually leads to a nasty hallucination and lethal stumble – his tumble from a cave ledge remains a particularly haunting sequence for its stark finality – but the kids never take on his taste for the sauce because their first taste of the stuff was an immediate turn-off.

Armed with Paddy’s valuable practical teachings – ship-building, house construction, fishing, cooking – the kids manage to create their own little home, and use the cave as an emergency refuge from tropical storms that to postwar audiences, may also have recalled bomb shelters where many Brits laid low in subway tunnels as the shrill assault of German bombers attempted to obliterate their civic infrastructure.

Director Launder follows the essence of Stacpoole’s novel, but the major changes also include less nudity (although Em is more liberal than Michael, the kids eventually realize full body clothing is the way to go); the inclusion of a preposterous octopus attack; and the integration of characters reportedly from the author’s third novel in his tropical tales series: a pair of ruthless thieves who con Michael into diving for more “beads” (valuable pearls).

Longing for a rescue, Michael and Em are strategically separated by the thieves: Doctor Murdoch (creepy James Hayter) exploits the boy’s naivete to dive for pearls, while his assistant Cater (a wiry, greasy Cyril Cusack) attempts to take advantage of Em by taking her back to the boat. Greed ultimately leads to each man improbably canceling the other out, and it’s the kids’ near-death encounter which Launder uses to finally bring the two young adults together, and consummate their relationship after an ongoing exchanges of quick glimpses, suspicions, peculiar longings, and petty bickering.

The seduction scene is extremely well-played – literally relying on minimal dialogue and the charisma chiefly from luscious Jean Simmons – after which the couple quickly ‘wed’ themselves using directions from a book on social etiquette that survived their flight. Reportedly a conceit designed to appease U.S. censors, the filmmakers also maintained their own odd allegiance to the Brits’ censorial preference for showing the couple – now ‘married’ – still sleeping in separate beds.

When a child emerges in the film, it’s purely by stealth: a storm sends Michael to the cave where a distanct Em beckons him to enter the dark cavern, and after an infant’s shriek breaks the silence, we see a shadow of Michael lifting his newborn son – the film’s second-most potent image, in terms of its fusion of light, sound, and dramatic context as Em and Michael have become full adults.

Whether by book or by instinct, the two apparently knew enough to raise their son Paddy, because the next scene has a mobile toddler running to the edge of a sandy hill. Dressed in wreaths and caps made of leaves and other natural accessories, the trio are mistaken by a passing vessel as mere ‘locals’ and they remain alone.

Unlike the novel and the 1980 remake, Launder has their departure from the isle stem from design: realizing they don’t want to raise their son in a primal landscape where he may grow old alone, they decide to restore the dinghy and take their chances on the sea, hoping someone will find them as they aspire to reach civilization after a 10 year stay on the isle.

When a passing shipping vessel sees them, the trio are approached by a rescue party, but in a strange quirk due to market tastes, apparently BL was released with two endings: in one version, Em’s voice is heard wanting to remember the isle as it was – a kind of paradise – before the trio are seen again lying in the boat. As the child screams, Michael wakes up, and leans over with his arm to comfort the boy just as the end credits start.

In the alternate ending – which is more faithful to the novel’s rather ambiguous finale – the titles appear before Michael wakes, leaving the impression both parents are likely dead, with Paddy left as an orphan.

Like the 1923 version, Frank Launder’s film has virtually vanished from circulation, available nowhere on DVD, let alone Blu-ray, which makes no sense given the box office success of the 1980 remake which continues to be in print on video. (In fact the only way to see a somewhat clean example of the film is in the 1980 making-of featurette that’s included on Sony’s DVD and Twilight Time’s Blu-ray: Columbia clearly bought the rights for the ‘seduction’ clip, so at least as late as 1980, the film was still in distribution.)

Whether it’s a classic case of Hollywood suppressing an original work in favour of its own version, or a case of rights hell that’s prevented the ’49 film from seeing light after being on TV for decades, fans of the film – especially those who caught it during its original theatrical run – have no decent source beyond beat-up versions floating around online, such as YouTube, which features a copy taped off a Hawaiian TV station (KITV Channel 4) with the happy ending, but lacking the birthing scene (due to objections?).

Launder’s film has dated – Simmons (aged 19, fresh from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) almost pulls off the naïve Em, whereas Donald Houston (then 25, making his film debut) is ridiculously too old for the role – and the interruptive thieves is clearly filler material since Launder wasn’t able to dramatize the sexual friction and child-rearing as in the 1980 film.

The 1949 version, however, has a genuinely haunting quality, largely due to Geoffrey Unsworth’s cinematography and Clifton Parker’s rich score. Parker’s music makes the drama unfold like an eerie dream (his use of dissonance and pinched high notes is especially striking during Paddy’s death and the birth scenes), whereas Unsworth’s visuals are stunning (or would be if the film was properly transferred for home video distribution). The Fijian locations, sunsets, and compositions are gorgeous, and auger the stagy boat scenes, and Simmons and Houston’s close-ups.

One hopes the release of the 1980 on Blu-ray in 2013 might push the bickering parties to settle and permit a BR release, but it is bizarre how this version, once forgotten and little-known in the U.S., has now vanished from sight. If a decent producer handles the release, there should be an archive of any alternate scenes, publicity materials, and a proper commentary track that provides needed info on Stacpoole, the novel’s popularity, and the ‘tropical island’ sub-genre both Hollywood and Britain occasionally revisited between the 30s and 50s.



© 2013 Mark R. Hasan


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