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Outcast of the Islands (1951)

Courtesy of Canal+ Image UK ltd

Main image of Outcast of the Islands (1951)
35mm, 102 minutes, black & white
Director/ProducerCarol Reed
Production CompanyLondon Films
ScreenplayW.E.C. Fairchild
Original NovelJoseph Conrad
CinematographerJohn Wilcox
EditorBert Bates
MusicBrian Easdale

Cast: Trevor Howard (Peter Willems); Ralph Richardson (Captain Lingard); Robert Morley (Almayer); Wendy Hiller (Mrs. Almayer); Kerima (Aissa); George Coulouris (Babalatchi)

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Willems, driven by his passion for Aissa, is manipulated by her father and his counsellor, former Malay pirates, to betray to a rival Arab trader the secret trading route of his benefactor, Captain Lingard, who condemns him to be an outcast.

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Overshadowed by Carol Reed's acclaimed three-film run of Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949) which immediately preceded it, this adaptation of Joseph Conrad's 1896 novel is an atmospheric, if flawed, tour de force. Like the earlier films, it masterfully uses light and shadow to develop character, and its tight dramatic structure always holds in deep focus the story's social context. Its themes - betrayal, relationships with fathers natural and adopted, and a protagonist driven by unremitting passion and "warring emotions" - are eminently suited to Reed's talents. Reed adds giggling children as ironic comment on the adults' delusions, and a homeless canoe boy who 'adopts' Trevor Howard's increasingly isolated Willems.

In a period of colonial struggle for emancipation, Outcast, produced by Alexander Korda, had the chance to sever the link between the Kordas and Empire, as had Zoltan Korda's Cry, the Beloved Country (also 1951). Political realities dictated that Ceylon had to substitute for Borneo thanks to insurance obstacles arising, presumably, from nearby Malaya's State of Emergency.

The characterisation of the film's women, however, undermines its potential to match Conrad's just claim that the work was 'tropical' and not 'exotic'. To Reed's credit, Aissa, half-Baghdadi, half-Sulu pirate, is played by the half-Algerian, half-French newcomer Kerima - not a Hollywood star. But while in the novel she has a rich inner life - part of Conrad's modernist exploration of multiple viewpoints, here giving natives and colonials equal space - the film gives her no dialogue. Thus, despite a beguiling performance conveying erotic power and ruthlessness, she cannot express her own "warring emotions", her struggle to understand Willems, whose disgrace she mistakes for rebelliousness and a willingness to become one with her people.

A subtle but important point is lost as we see Aissa in a sarong but never in the Moslem veil that so troubles Willems in the novel. Her simplified 'otherness' is reinforced as the film replaces the Malayan Mrs Almayer and the half-Dutch, half-Malay Mrs Willems with genteel Englishwomen - appropriate actors could not be found in 1951, nor was the US public ready to accept mixed marriages on screen. And yet the last image of Aissa, in a visualisation of Conrad's words, "Her hands clasped her ankles; she rested her head on her drawn-up knees, and remained still, very still, under the streaming mourning of her hair", bears witness to the film's haunting power of suggestion.

Ilona Halberstadt

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Video Clips
1. A request (3:07)
2. The pursuit of Aissa (5:31)
3. Betrayal (4:39)
Production stills
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Easdale, Brian (1909-1995)
Hawkesworth, John (1920-2003)
Howard, Trevor (1913-1988)
Hyde-White, Wilfrid (1903-1991)
Morley, Robert (1908-1992)
Reed, Carol (1906-1976)
Richardson, Ralph (1902-1983)