A High Wind in Jamaica Review

This review contains mild plot spoilers.

The Caribbean, the nineteenth century. Sent home from Jamaica by their parents, the five Thornton children are captured when their ship is boarded by pirates led by Chavez (Anthony Quinn) and his first mate Zac (James Coburn). The children are largely ignored as they play on deck and below. But soon a bond forms between Chavez and ten-year-old Emily (Deborah Baxter)...

William Golding was in part inspired to write Lord of the Flies as a reaction to the over-sentimentalisation of children and the sanitising of their natures – and as a schoolteacher at the time, he was in a position to know. But he certainly had a forebear in Richard Hughes (1900-1976), whose 1929 novel is anything but the harmless children's adventure it may seem to be. For its film adaptation (script by Stanley Mann, Ronald Harwood and Dennis Cannan), it found the ideal director in Alexander Mackendrick.

Mackendrick had previously displayed a dark view of human nature and a blackly comic sensibility in his Ealing films, Whisky Galore!, The Man in the White Suit, The Maggie and especially The Ladykillers. This he carried over to Hollywood in his masterpiece Sweet Smell of Success. But he had also shown his clear-eyed view of children as early as his third feature, 1952's Mandy and had again in Sammy Going South, his film immediately preceding A High Wind in Jamaica. Consider this: when one of the children is killed, it's by accidentally falling from a window where he has been watching a cockfight. When his siblings are told that he won't be coming back, one of his brothers asks if he can have his blanket. How this all ends I'll leave you to find out, but it's an unsettling thing to find in an ostensibly harmless family film.

As you can gather, A High Wind in Jamaica is an odd, and compellingly odd, film, and not at all the family adventure with pirates it may seem. Even the theme song, sung by Mike LeRoy, is not as schmaltzy as it first seems: listen to it as it is reprised over the end credits and let the import of the lyrics sink in. Much of the film is played for black comedy rather than thrills and spills and the only battle is offscreen, as the children, locked in the hold, hear it but don't see it. The novel is told mostly from Emily's viewpoint, who doesn't fully understand what's going on. As much as is possible, the film follows the same strategy, with some parts of the story left to us to interpret. (For example, the older Spanish girl Margaret Fernandez (Viviane Ventura) and the effect she has on the pirates and vice versa.) This would also be the reason why dialogue in Spanish and (briefly) Dutch is left untranslated: even so, the storyline is clear enough without the need for subtitles. Shot at Pinewood studios, A High Wind in Jamaica is a handsome production, shot in CinemaScope by Douglas Slocombe (still alive as of this writing, at age 98) and with rich art direction by John Hoesli.

While the pirates, Chavez especially, seem friendly – as they would be – you can always tell that they could just as easily be quite ruthless when necessary. Quinn (toning down the flamboyance in a well-pitched performance) and Coburn (solid in support) get top billing but the other adults have small roles: Nigel Davenport and Isabel Dean as the children's parents at the beginning and the end, Lila Kedrova (who would win an Oscar in Zorba the Greek the same year, playing opposite Quinn again) as a Tampico brothel madam and friend of Chavez about two thirds of the way through, Gert Frobe as a Dutch sea captain and Dennis Price as a barrister both towards the end. The film belongs to the children, especially Deborah Baxter. Ten years old at the time, she has appeared in some television drama and two other widely-spaced films: The Wind and the Lion in 1975 (cast by John Milius because of her role in A High Wind in Jamaica) and the little-seen 2000 horror film The Calling. As the oldest child, John, is fifteen-year-old Martin Amis in his only acting role. I wonder what happened to him...?

This DVD release means that all but one of Mackendrick's features are now available on DVD in the UK. All we need now is his last film, 1967's Don't Make Waves (rights owned by Warners and released by them in the USA as a burn-on-demand disc in their Warner Archive line) and we'll be set.


Licensed from Twentieth Century Fox, Eureka's single-layered DVD of A High Wind in Jamaica is in NTSC format and encoded for Region 2 only.

The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 2.35:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. This is a richly-coloured film and the transfer is faithful to it, with filmlike grain. Shadow detail is lacking in some of the darker scenes, though I suspect that's down to the original.

The soundtrack mixed quite low, so I had to turn it up quite some way. Although scenes like the opening storm sequence would be a 5.1 extravaganza in a new film, mono is how it always was and should be. Even so, my subwoofer did pick up some redirected bass. Dialogue, music and effects are well balanced. There are English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. These don't translate any of the non-English dialogue: instead you get “(speaking Spanish)”.

Extras comprise two trailers. The first is American (2:25), which calls James Coburn “the screen's rugged new romantic star” It also oversells the pubescent sexuality: “Emily – just growing up. The Fernandez girl – old enough already.” The Spanish trailer for Vendaval en Jamaica (2:26) is much the same with a Spanish voiceover. This has fixed English subtitles, and the English dialogue in the trailer has burned-in ones in Spanish.

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