The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea (1976)

Based on a short novel by Japanese enigma Yukio Mishima and transplanted to Dartmouth, Devonshire in England where it was shot, screenwriter-director Lewis John Carlino himself refers to this as an odd film. I would agree for a whole host of reasons, namely that it appears to be one thing (a torrid romance) while instead being something entirely different (a moral horror movie). It was Carlino‘s first feature film and is the first attempt to translate Mishima for Western film audiences; with all that considered, it’s amazing that so much went right for the production. Even the weather fully co-operated throughout the shoot. 

Weather aside, much of this success is certainly down to the crew, which Carlino credits producer Martin Poll as assembling: music by John (Johnny) Mandel; cinematography by Douglas Slocombe; editing by Anthony Gibbs. These were first-class professionals and Carlino is gracious with his praise for their steady assistance and ability. The cinematography in particular is absolutely first-rate, replete with many beautiful shots of the seas roiling and crashing against the shore, and of atmospheric Dartmouth and its surrounding countryside.

The story is fairly simple: a 13 year old boy named Jonathan (Jonathan Kahn) and his widowed mother Anne (Sarah Miles) live by the sea. She is desperately lonely and he is privy to this, along with a then-groundbreaking masturbation scene by Miles, through a hole in the wall between their rooms. The boy is certainly at an awkward stage, as they say, and pals around with a group of other lads his age who use numbers instead of names for ‘security reasons’ and who are led by a boy called “The Chief” (Earl Rhodes). 

This is the group’s little führer, a nasty sort studied in his sadistic tendencies and happy to lord his superior intelligence and confidence over the group. He reminded me of nothing so much as a budding Ian Brady, reading Sade and convincing himself this is the way the world works, desperate to involve others in his schemes and depravities. The Chief’s really quite an incredible character, especially for such a young actor to pull off. The first time I saw the film many years ago, this was probably my main takeaway.

When a sailor named Jim (Kris Kristofferson) enters his mother’s life, Johnathan is initially thrilled by what he sees of the couple through his peephole, and seems to be much in awe of Jim. He’s forming his ideas about life and is impressed not only by Jim’s “muscles and scars”, but with his romantic relationship with the sea – much to The Chief’s disgust. The Chief has convinced his gang that adults only use morality as a selfish tool, and the whole business of right and wrong is really a lie. 

He ties such thinking to several bouts of animal mutilation and killing with the boys, efforts to get at the ‘pure core of things’, sequences which are nauseating more in concept than execution. That is to say, this isn’t Cannibal Holocaust and no animals actually die onscreen. In the infamous cat dissection scene, close-ups of internal organs are overlaid with a pan across the boy’s staring faces. The implication is enough, and though I would hope this wouldn’t put someone off seeing the film, it’s certainly worth mentioning in case that’s too much for you.

One thing I think the book managed better than the film was the change in Jonathan’s attitude towards Jim once Jim resolves to marry his mother, and return no more to the sea. Jonathan decides Jim is a pernicious, impure influence and must be punished. Of course The Chief would go further still, and so a plan comes to fruition that results in perhaps the creepiest zoom-out ending shot I can think of (Kingdom of the Spiders had a good one too, come to think of it).

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