Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976) Film Review
British cinema in the Seventies was deadly dull, wasn’t it? Nothing but adaptations of books by nutjob Japanese authors, featuring schoolboy death cults and a scene where an American singer-songwriter and a theatrical grande dame famous for drinking her own urine get down to it in a Dartmouth tearoom.
Such an intro doesn’t even begin to get across the strangeness of The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea, which relocates the action of one of Yukio Mishima’s most famous novels to the Devon coast, throws in lashings of soft-focus rumpy-pumpy and coaxes wonderfully sinister performances from two child actors who don’t seem to have done anything else since.
It’s one of those films that were no doubt ‘forbidden fruit’ for Seventies and Eighties schoolboys – occasionally to be seen very late at night in the TV listings, or on at a local fleapit with the ever so enticing ‘X’ at the bottom of the poster. Like Equus and (on a slightly lower plane!) The Stud, the sort of thing that wasn’t exactly porn, but your older mates reliably informed you had lots of ... you know, in it.
But I never managed to see it, so it remained a vague blip on the outer reaches of my movie radar (and a fiendishly difficult round in a game of charades once, but that’s another story). Watching it now after all these years, I’m sure the teenage me would have been bored stiff (no pun intended) by it; it’s a wordy, self-important piece, stronger on mood and atmosphere than plot and incident, and not altogether sure if it wants to be a serious drama, a psychological thriller or an ‘intimate love story’.
The whole approach to sex in the film – a bizarre mixture of would-be daring and ‘tasteful’ eroticism – renders it very much of its time. But like The Wicker Man, Equus and (though with a less political agenda) If.... there is a sense of trying to explore stranger and darker areas than mainstream British (or American) cinema was trying at the time. And if it doesn’t do so all that successfully, it at least deserves some marks for trying.
It opens with the young protagonist Johnno (Jonathan Kahn) sneaking out late one night for a secret rendezvous with his gang – five boys led by ‘The Chief’ (Earl Rhodes). As in Mishima’s book he’s never named, but he’s the local doctor’s son and the proximity to death and disease has left him with some very unhealthy obsessions.
Convinced that ‘all adults are corrupt’ and that purity only lies in breaking as many rules as possible, he dominates and manipulates the boys into minor acts of cruelty (dissecting a cat, throwing a firework wrapped in bread to a very obviously model seagull) , humiliating them verbally and physically if they show any signs of independent thought.
Rather than giving this dreadful little squit a Chinese burn and sticking his head down the loo, the acolytes embrace his philosophy with gusto – particularly Johnno. Living a solitary life on a clifftop house with his widowed antiques dealer mother (Sarah Miles), he’s experienced his taste of adult corruption by discovering a hole in the wall between their rooms and spending his nights watching her undress and (on one occasion) cope with loneliness in the time-honoured fashion.
So far so weird, pervy and faintly ridiculous. But the somewhat languid narrative goes full steam ahead when an American merchant vessel sails into port. Mum arranges to take Johnno on a tour of the vessel, conducted by dashing second officer Jim Cameron (Kris Kristofferson). Johnno is captivated by this glimpse of the nautical life and doesn’t mind too much when mum invites Jim back for more than dinner. Jim (A Kansas farm boy who has gone to sea because he feels it to be his destiny) fills the dad-shaped hole in Johnno’s life, falls in love with his mum and writes to them both when he resumes his voyage.
Seeing a rival role model, The Chief is pathologically jealous, constantly pouring scorn on Jim’s exploits and predicting that he’ll eventually betray Johnno. When Jim returns and announces he wants to marry mum (prompting that tearoom scene) and move in with them Johnno does indeed feel betrayed; from being a conveniently distant romantic hero embracing a pure life the sailor has turned into another of the boring, corrupt adults he sees all around him. But The Chief has an answer for that – why not take the gang’s quest to find ‘the core of life’ through death to another level....
It all builds to a climax that should be ludicrous but instead manages to be satisfyingly strange and sinister. I’ve a feeling that Mishima - an extreme nationalist who launched a failed coup against the Japanese government in 1970 then committed ritual suicide - would have thoroughly approved of the finale, and all the actions of The Chief, but the film resists the temptation to moralise. Its matter-of-fact, non-judgmental depiction of the boys’ twisted morality and devilish cunning makes their actions all the more chilling, with Kahn and Rhodes particularly conveying a strange, other-worldly blankness that slowly develops into genuine evil.
The adult performances are terrific, too – Miles is radiant as she transforms herself from respectable, buttoned-up village stalwart to free-loving free spirit, and Kristofferson is perfectly cast – rugged but poetic, giving depth and reality to a role that could have stayed very two-dimensional.
The landscape – beautiful but wild, remote and vaguely sinister – is beautifully shot by the ever-reliable Douglas Slocombe. And if some of the imagery – pistons pounding during the tour of the ship, chasing the doomed cat through a jungle-like conservatory – is screamingly obvious that only adds to the fun. You will never have seen anything quite like this – so see it now, before Hollywood decides to do a rubbish remake.Reviewed on: 03 Jun 2008
If you like this, try:Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters