Harry Belafonte stars as an ambitious young politician, who refuses to fear the white majority that holds a foothold over his island home, in Island in the Sun. Along the way, he strikes up a romance with Joan Fontaine. Incidentally, we are supposed to believe Ms. Fontaine’s character is younger than Belafonte’s, despite the fact that she looks ten years older. Dorothy Dandridge also stars as a pharmacy clerk, who falls in love with the white aide to the island’s governor. If this seems like it’s all over the …lace, that’s because it is. While the film was ahead of its time in factors such as race relations (with the two interracial romances above to speak of), it took a huge leap back when it came to the old standbys of narrative logic and a well-developed plot. But while I clearly did not enjoy this film, I will admit it has its values when viewed in the proper context.
The role of Island in the Sun as a classic is largely dependent on its subject matter and the time period in which it was released. A drama tackling interracial love in 1957 was hardly something that would go unnoticed, or be easily forgotten. However, when dissected by today’s audiences, the film proves to be pretty lightweight. For one, affection between interracial couples was limited to only the occasional embrace. In no way could the couples share an on-screen kiss, even if it were simply a peck on the cheek. Secondly, the story wanders about with no real plot to speak of. It’s as if the filmmakers had some ideas of what they wanted and forged ahead without the security of a well-constructed script – truly disappointing for a motion picture considered so groundbreaking. You can tell this film had Oscar aspirations. It simply didn’t realize how important a story was to achieve such lofty goals. Of course, today such omissions would not disqualify it, so long as it had an Academy-friendly agenda to support. However, there were higher standards in those days, and producer Darryl Zanuck relied on his message – and an admittedly incredible cast – to do all the work for him. The results are mediocre at best.
Though the film itself is bogged down by poor character and plot development, the visuals are indeed breathtaking. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the three and a half minute opening credits, where the camera takes us on a tour of this beautiful location. Colors are rich and sumptuous, and do a terrific job bringing out the beauty of each frame. The transfer is in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and eliminates any signs of grain or age. Fox certainly put a lot of care into the restoration.
Island in the Sun is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. The soundtrack is a strong one, though if I had to point out any issues, I could make note of the noticeable low-end rendering for dialogue. Background noise actually rises above expectations to counteract this. The chirping of birds and smooth hissing of waves on beach can be heard with a surprising degree of clarity. It really supplements the refreshing visuals, and makes the viewer wish there were a better film to accompany the experience. Lastly, Belafonte sounds terrific, and his opening number goes perfectly with the spectacular cinematography, which starts the film. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.
The audio commentary by film historian John Stanley is worth a listen. He has a great knowledge of the film and the actors, and is able to give a few additional insights not featured on the excellent A&E Biography Dorothy Dandridge: Little Girl Lost, which is also included on the disc. There are also some trailers to round out the package.
Today’s audiences will find little interesting about Island in the Sun. Visually, it’s a stunning film with gorgeous locations and even more gorgeous women (including the aforementioned Dandridge and a young Joan Collins). Belafonte’s excursions into song also offer a worthwhile release from the meandering story. However, its message has been honed and crafted since 1957 by other far superior films. Check those out instead. As for bonus materials, while the documentary on Dororthy Dandridge is worth noting, it’s too short to recommend a purchase.
Special Features List
- Audio Commentary by film writer and historian John Stanley
- Documentary – “Dorothy Dandridge: Little Girl Lost” as seen on Biography® on the A&E Network
- Original Theatrical Trailer