The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

I Escaped from Devil's Island

Just a few days ago I reviewed 1973's Papillon starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman, a story about one man's continuing desperate attempts to escape from the French Guiana penal system in South America.  It's a big movie with its two Hollywood stars and generally has a polished, professional look to it.  It has the feel that you're watching what a movie should be.  So what if you took out the good acting, music, script and general sense of talent with a similar story?  That's 1973's I Escaped From Devil's Island.

Director/producer extraordinaire Roger Corman was one smart cookie, making a career out of one-upping the major studios. So when news hit Hollywood that Papillon with McQueen and Hoffman was being released, Corman and his studio raced to film and finish this epically bad B-movie and get it in theaters first.  Well, he accomplished his goal, 'Devil's Island' reaching theaters a month before Papillon.  But you know what?  Timing only means so much.  Quality helps too regardless of the date released.  This is an awful movie with the lowest of production values, a story that meanders around like it's confused, and a general feel of extreme boredom.  Enough for you?

It's in the 1910s in French Guiana on Devil's Island, and prisoner Lebras (Jim Brown) is about to be sentenced to death via the guillotine.  But right as the blade is about to fall, Lebras is saved as his death sentence is commuted to life in prison.  For this man, it means the same thing, and he goes about preparing his escape.  Everything is stacked against him because no one has ever successfully escaped from Devil's Island.  But with help from a trio of fellow prisoners, Devert (Christopher George), a Socialist, Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), a gay pickpocket, and Dazzas (James Luisi), Lebras puts his plan into effect. Battling everything the jungle has to offer, the quartet desperately runs, hoping to reach freedom before vicious guards and trackers catch them, or worse, Mother Nature dispatches them.

I feel kind of stupid even writing that much about the plot from a movie where the title gives everything away.  Some reviews I've read point to the movie being pure entertainment, no pretensions about being anything else.  Maybe I was watching the wrong movie, but I was bored to tears.  Filmed on an extremely low budget, 'Devil's Island' is certainly mimicking the much better Papillon with everything from story and sub-plots to the clothes the prisoners and guards wear.  But shot on location in Acapulco, this one reeks of cheapness.  I've said in the past low budget isn't a bad thing, and I stand by that statement, but when a movie is this bad it's hard to defend.

So with a B-movie and its lower standards, Corman and director William Witney basically get away with murder.  This movie has it all...excessive cursing, graphic violence with bright red fake blood included, gratuitous nudity, and a feel of out and out nastiness from start to finish.  The guards are sadistically evil with no redeeming qualities (Richard Rust and Eduardo Rosas Lopez play the worst offenders of guards), half the prisoners are flamboyantly gay and still manage to find lipstick in the South American jungle, and each and every prisoner is ready to turn on the other at any moment.  Even with an exploitation movie, I was somewhat surprised by the content that made it through the censors.  This is a coarse, never subtle B-movie that if nothing else certainly pushes the limits of decency.

Browsing through movies you can watch through Netflix's site, I stopped on this one because I liked the two stars, former NFL star Jim Brown and Rat Patrol star Christopher George.  Both actors are certainly slumming it here.  Brown was never an actor's actor, never in a whole lot of "classic" movies.  He made movies that fans liked and kept them entertained.  This part at least tries to be entertaining, but with a lack of any coherent script to unite things, Brown's character, Ledras, is not given any sort of background or back story.  He growls a lot and does his fair share of fighting and bedding down the ladies.  George has the more interesting of the parts, a leader of a Socialist group of prisoners, but that sub-plot is dropped almost as soon as it's brought up.  The only other name actor I recognized was Paul Richards who plays the one-armed prison commandant who mumbles his way through his part.

So if you're still reading, hopefully by now you've figured out this is an awful excuse of a movie.  There are no real redeeming qualities anywhere in sight, and nothing really to recommend at all.  The music by composer Les Baxter is laughably bad and out of place, mixing cliched action sounds with a smooth, cool jazz score. I think the weirdest thing I can say about this movie is a unique form of a torture I'm familiar with, but have never seen in a movie.  A guard goes after a prisoner and gives him a tittie twister, and not a quick one. We're probably talking a minute or two, on-screen and in sight all the time.  Yes, that's all I can recommend.

I Escaped from Devil's Island <---clip (1973): */****    

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