Please join us in congratulating Horror Editor Angela on the birth of her daughter and in welcoming said daughter to the Cultural Gutter family! Obviously, Angela will not be posting an article today, because we are not complete monsters. She will return in June. This month, Guest Star Jessica Ritchey begins her series on the artier side of Cannon films, “Cahiers du Cannon,” with Castaway (1986).
The wonderful thing about a producing ethos of “we’ll make anything” is when you prove as good as your word. Cannon Films was that studio in the 1980s. And so it was that a company that had films like Missing in Action 3 and America 3000 on its slate also had this beguiling, elliptically told Nicholas Roeg film about what happens when two Westerners try to engineer a private paradise.
1986’s Castaway is the inaugural entry in Cahiers du Cannon, a look at the artier, prestige fare the exploitation powerhouse put out side by side with their Death Wish sequels. At first glance what looks like a more adult riff on The Blue Lagoon is instead a canny deconstruction of those kinds of cinematic fantasies. While also maintaining a sympathetic eye for the urge to escape from it all that drives them.
The film is based on the true story of Lucy Irvine and Gerald Kingsland, drawing heavily from Irvine’s memoir of the experience. Kingsland was a self styled adventurer who wished to spend a year on a South Pacific island with only a “wife” for company. Irvine was the bored Londoner looking for a change in routine who answered his ad in Time Out. What followed was a year of mishaps and disasters and infected bug bites.
The film treats the initial setup with a deliberate detachment. Using a few carefully selected scenes to establish the two personalities we’ll be spending the bulk of the film with. Gerald (Oliver Reed) scratching out his actual age for more appealing “35 +” when writing his ad, Lucy’s (Amanda Donohoe) disconnect from her roommate as she circles the ad in red marker. The film doesn’t portray London as a bleak hellhole, despite a news broadcast heard in Lucy’s apartment reporting on violent world affairs. Instead Roeg’s London is a bustling metropolis it’s easy to feel lost in. It’s this keenly felt melancholy that pushes Lucy and Gerald to attempt such a foolhardy venture.
The island Lucy and Gerald go to is shot by Roeg and his cinematographer Harvey Harrison as a gorgeous blue-skied Eden with wide white sand beaches. And even after the struggle for basic survival starts there are still cutaways to the radiant beauty of the island and the surrounding ocean. Schools of fish in shimmering colors flick and twist through sparkling water, palm trees are verdant green in the sun. These shots never become mocking of the malnutrition and illnesses suffered by Lucy and Gerald. They are simply a piquant reminder that paradise takes work. That to simply observe nature though the safety of a magazine picture or a tour bus window is not be part of it. That the day to day living in the wild is one of discovering the vast amount of things that can sting or poison you. That the very nature of living someplace is for that place’s allure and mystery to gradually fade.
That fading of novelty is more sharply felt in the ebb and flow of Lucy and Gerald’s relationship. A wrinkle in Australian immigration policy meant Lucy and Gerald had to legally marry before they could go to their hideaway. An idyll meant to be free of societal conventions started off hampered by one of the biggest. Further rifts develop when it becomes clear Gerald is more in love with the idea of being some modern day Robinson Crusoe than expanding any actual effort at shelter building, crop planting, and the dozens of daily tasks living off the grid requires. But admirably the film never makes Lucy the scolding wife. Rather it’s her desire to truly make this work that drives her to want to build more than a lean-to, and not put off the drudgery of daily chores. Their relationship both fractures and repairs stronger than before over the course of their stay. And much like the nature around them, they come to understand each other profoundly while recognizing there will always be something alien and out of reach in both of them. Gerald’s parting words to Lucy are “be kind to my mistakes.” An excellent bit of advice for how to navigate life and relationships, wherever you are.
Reed and Donohoe are fantastic in their roles. Reed is bluster and male ego that avoids Hemingway-esque self parody by being anchored to a genuine vulnerability and affection for Lucy. Donohoe is the young woman who gets a severe baptism by fire into a deeper, richer maturity through her experiences. They play off each other beautifully. Sparking the chemistry of a couple too volatile to work in the long run, but one that was a necessary relationship for them to make through the year on the island.
That same volatility fittingly enough can be seen in Cannon Films itself. If it had been run with a steadier hand it might have lasted longer and turned out the sizeable blockbuster sized hits head honchos Golan and Globus were looking for. But it’s the same “damn the torpedoes” brio that created the conditions where a thoughtful film about the limits of fantasies could be made alongside The Delta Force.
Jessica Ritchey is a freelance writer based in Maryland.