Outcast of the Islands (1951)

Outcast of the Islands (1951)

“Does the white man know what is best for us?”

Synopsis:
A petty thief (Trevor Howard) seeks refuge with a charitable captain (Ralph Richardson) who takes him to an island outpost where Richardson’s son-in-law (Robert Morley) lives with his wife (Wendy Hiller) and child (Annabel Morley). Howard soon falls for the beautiful daughter (Kerima) of the village chief (A.V. Bramble), and schemes to offer them secret navigation tips — but can Howard find loyalty and safety with the natives?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Carol Reed Films
  • Femmes Fatales
  • Ralph Richardson Films
  • Native Peoples
  • Robert Morley Films
  • Trevor Howard Films
  • Wendy Hiller Films

Review:
Following his success with Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948), and The Third Man (1949), Carol Reed directed this action-packed adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s 1896 novel. While it’s lauded by some (DVD Savant, for instance, refers to it as “exceptional”, and notes that it was “an intense experience that floored” him when he first saw it), I find its storyline of an unrepentent anti-hero to be less than satisfying.

We understand that Richardson — who first took Howard under his wing at the age of 12 — hopes Howard will redeem himself, but it’s not really clear how. Yes, Howard helps Richardson navigate his boat through undeniably tricky channels:

… but expecting Howard to simply “stay put” at the trading post seems disastrously naive.

There’s plenty of tension and atmosphere in Morley’s household, and the casting of Morley’s real-life look-alike daughter Annabel seems inspired:

But whenever Reed’s wandering camera pans across the locals looking with bemusement, wonder, or disdain at the whites around them (who can blame them?), we’re reminded this is primarily a tale of a self-created “outcast” who really can’t (won’t) fit in anywhere.

We also know right away that Howard’s obsession with sultry, wild-eyed Kerima (giving a one-note performance) will inevitably lead him down a path of ruin:

The problem is, we don’t really care what happens to him, and are equally unsure how to feel about the troubles obnoxious Morley gets himself into:

In the film’s favor are beautiful cinematography and fine location shooting in Sri Lanka (matched with studio footage done back in England); however, only fans of Reed’s work should consider this must-see.

Notable Performances, Qualities, and Moments:

  • Trevor Howard as Willems
  • Fine supporting performances


  • Atmospheric sets

  • Excellent location shooting and cinematography

Must See?
No, though Carol Reed fans will certainly want to check it out.

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One thought on “Outcast of the Islands (1951)

  1. First viewing. A once-must, for Reed’s direction and Howard’s atypical performance.

    Yes, this is a fairly unpleasant tale – but that’s its power. I started watching it late last night – which can be the start of a true test of a film; if the viewer is beginning to feel tired, he/she may be less likely to be pulled in. But pulled in I was, from start to finish.

    My interest was also tentative at first because (to me) a Conrad tale can be daunting. However, Reed’s direction was easily noticeable as precise and he seemed to be swiftly moving through his story with admirable economy. It seemed to fly by.

    Howard’s Willems is clearly detestable (and pointlessly smug) from his first scene – and it was fascinating watching the actor not shy from that. I don’t recall seeing the actor being quite this slimy before (if he has been, it’s just not coming to mind) and his control in his portrait of self-service is thorough and often subtle.

    It’s true that Richardson’s character is na├»ve – and even sentimental; he will ultimately take himself to task for those flaws.

    While I didn’t particularly care what happened to Willems, I cared about the valuable story’s resolution… while simultaneously being conscious of an omnipresent tension which brought to mind Reed’s work on ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Odd Man Out’ in particular.

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