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Outcast Of The Islands

Outcast Of The Islands

By Ben Nicholson • August 28th, 2012
Static Mass Rating: 5/5
London Films

Original release: November 15th, 1951
Running time: 102 minutes

Director: Carol Reed
Writers: William Fairchild, Joseph Conrad (novel)

Cast: Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson, Robert Morley, George Coulouris, Kerima

Outcasts Of The Islands

In 1979 Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was released, based on the 1902 novel by Joseph Conrad and featuring a trip up a river, it would go on to be described as one of the most famous films about savagery and madness.

While the film shifted from Conrad’s colonial traders in the heart of Africa to a mission during the Vietnam War to find the mysterious Colonel Kurtz, it swapped the madness of colonial settlers and their interaction with the ‘savage’ populace with the madness of war. The film is one of the best examples of investigating the latter but it does this in favour of ditching the former.

If you’re after a Conrad adaptation about a white man travelling up river to a trading post and the ensuing insanity and bloodshed, then you can always take a look at Outcast Of The Islands, adapted from Conrad’s novel of the same name in 1951.

After ‘borrowing’ money from his employer, being thrown out by his wife and pursued by the police in a colonial port in Singapore, Dutchman Peter Willems (Trevor Howard) is spirited away by Captain Lingard (Ralph Richardson), the man who brought him to Singapore in the first place.

Little does the captain know Willems plans to learn of his saviour’s secret trading route and use his newfound knowledge to make a fortune for himself. Lingard leaves Willems with his partner, Almayer (Robert Morley), in the remote village to hide out until his troubles pass, much to both of their annoyance.

Bored, lonely and with no company but his own failings, Willems grows restless in the village where Almayer will give him no real work for fear that he will usurp him as Lingard’s partner. Tensions grow between the men as Willems becomes infatuated with a local girl, Aissa (Kerima). This lends itself nicely to an incidental look at the power struggles that consumed such places during the colonial era.

Outcast Of The Islands

Aissa is part of the Badavi tribe and the daughter of its chief. Willems desire for her is used by the only English-speaking Badavi, Babalatchi (George Coulouris) who is keen to open the trading post to more than just Lingard. He has contact with an Arab trader who’s offered the Badavi a good deal if they can help him navigate his ship up the river. This is a feat only Lingard has been able to manage, but which Willems is now also able to do.

These double-crossings, the politics of the different tribes and the colonial traders are of interest throughout but Outcast Of The Islands isn’t really about any of those things – it’s about the outcast.

Willems is a troubled man, having cheated, stolen and charmed his way into trouble in Singapore, his only motivation for accompanying Lingard is to learn his secrets and betray him. We then see Willems deteriorate considerably as he goes from extremely dapper upon his arrival at the village to a complete mess towards the film’s end.

As the heat and lust overcome the Dutch colonial he becomes a lot more savage than any of the indigenous people who inhabit the village. In one scene he joins in with the Outcast Of The Islandsbarbaric treatment of another man along with many of the village’s inhabitants.

Trevor Howard, as the slowly maddening Willems, steals the show, cutting a sad figure at beginning and end although little deserving of anyone’s pity. He’s cursed by the old head of the Badavi for his disrespect and although he dismisses it, we are already aware that Willems story is unlikely to end happily.

Like Reed’s more famous The Third Man (1949), it’s not the story and setting that drives the film, but the characters.

As with Coppola’s Conrad film, the setting is less important than its psychological effect on the characters and Reed once again captures wonderfully the effect the situation has on them. It may not be war, but it’s hell – at least for Peter Willems.

Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson

Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.

His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.

Ben has his own film site, ACHILLES AND THE TORTOISE, and you can follow him on Twitter @BRNicholson.

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