Outcast of the Islands: Poetic Orientalism

By Vivaan Shah
A Still from Outcast of the Islands, Carol Reed
A Still from Outcast of the Islands
The curious case of Sir Carol Reed is something that can perhaps be attributed at least in part to what Michael Atkinson refers to as the 'casualties of the auteur theory'. Although he has more than a discernible style to his work he is never quite regarded in the same fashion as his lauded contemporaries like Hitchcock, John Ford, Howard Hawks et al. His practical craftsmanship was always conflated with a workmanlike approach. Michael Powell said he could put together a film the way a watchmaker puts together a watch. He is perhaps mostly known in most circles as the director of 'The Third Man', a film whose excellence has erroneously been credited to Orson Welles. It has been mistakenly said that Welles directed part of the film. Nothing could be further from the truth, and what is less spoken of is the fact that Welles himself considered Carol Reed to be something of an idol, and by studying both their work in close comparison, one can see where Welles' jagged fish eye aesthetic comes from. Carol Reed must have been a huge influence, yet he is never regarded in the same breath of veneration that has been bestowed upon Welles over the ages. Carol Reed's body of work is singular and at times startling. He was a true craftsman almost implementing cinema as a means for handicraft. There seemed something handmade about his films and there was a workmanlike approach which never ever bordered on the mechanical. Reed even at his most frivolous moments was fiercely idiosyncratic. The lack of recognition of his style is perhaps because it wasn't quite the invisible style of say someone like Hawks or the one like Hitchcock where the technique deliberately calls attention to itself, but where Reed excelled was at finding the poetry between the lines, both visually and aurally. His experimentation with sound for one, the way he composes the junior artists, the framing of movement, the faces he uses, the native call of a passing hawker or peddler prancing the marketplace, the cackling complaint of an elderly aunt leaning on a window frame. The jingle of familiar jargon and a laser sharp eye for vernacular. The soundscape of Carol Reed's films was unique, there was something sonically disorienting in the way he employed sound and casual speech. Just look at the opening credits of 'A Kid for Two Farthings', the sound editing is way ahead of its time as he mishmashes a radio broadcaster's monotoned voice, aggressively ambient Cockney sounds, and a big band jazz standard. One of the key Carol Reed moments for me is the opening of 'Our Man in Havana' which sees a street sharp gaze in bewilderment at a prostitute across the road standing forlornly on a verandah. He gets up contemplatively and walks over to her as the camera slowly tilts and a finger plucked Cuban ballad furnishes the soundtrack slowly evaporating into atmospheric sounds. She gives him an apple she has just taken a bite out of. There is a no dramatic, logical or coherent reason for this scene to be there--yet it is, and it is one of the most lyrical of moments, with an air of melancholy and tenderness--cinema doing things that cinema alone can do. 

Carol Reed really evoked the fabric of all his exotic locales, and was probably most at home on his own turf in Mother England. His films like 'A Kid for Two Farthings' or even 'Oliver!' display a Dickensian understanding of the underbelly. 'Odd man out' starring James Mason and Robert Newton, one of his more acclaimed films is set in grand old Ireland and his dissection of the Irish soil is worthy of Joyce, or Seamus Heaney. Give Carol Reed a street and see the wonders he can do with it. If I were to recommend how to approach his oeuvre, I would say start with his Grahame Greene trilogy i.e. The Third Man, The Fallen Idol and Our Man in Havana. It was said that Grahame Greene refused to give the film rights of 'Our Man in Havana' to Hitchcock in favour of Reed. Then one should progress to his study of faces--carving the same canvas with a crease or a wrinkle, the essence of a Boticelli or a Hogarth. Outcast of the Islands, Odd Man Out, the extremely hard to find 'Ballad of the Running man', even lesser films like 'The Man Between' set in post war Berlin, and 'Trapeze' and last but not least, one of his most astonishing films--'A Kid for Two farthings'. The impressions these pictures have on the heart and soul is difficult to accurately express. There is realism far exceeding even the furthest depths of Flaherty's documentary approach. Just see some of the faces in Outcasts of the Islands. The film was shot in Sri Lanka in the early 50s and it is my honest opinion that this film features some of the most interesting faces ever put on film competing perhaps only with a Leone or an Eisenstein. Although we have seen these kinds of native Dravidian faces before in Ray we've never quite seen them deployed in this fashion. 
A Still from Oliver!
A Still from Oliver!
The early part of Reed's career was spent in service to her majesty's command- London films, which was at the time run by Alexander Korda. The Hungarian Kordas--Alex, Vincent and Zoltan were a director /designer / producer trio. They manned some of the most far flung outposts of the colonial empire, such as the Sudan in 'The Four Feathers', The North West frontier province of Afghanistan in 1938's 'The Drum' starring Sabu, Corbett's forests in 1942's ‘Jungle Book’, and even the Himalayas in the enchanting 'Black Narcissus'. As a matter of fact it is my honest belief that Powell and Pressburger yielded some of their finest output under them... even someone like David Lean's more modest initial period. According to Andrew Sarris the Korda Brothers helped bring a certain kind of gentility to the cinema and virtually invented the tradition of quality in British cinema.  
A Still from The Third Man
A Still from The Third Man
Outcast of the Islands is an extremely hard to find film, but it is one of those jewels you chance upon while sifting through the online airwaves, or end up reading about by an investigation of the said person's filmography. It's a truly splendid and comprehensive examination of the civilized man vs savage dilemma. It also happens to be one of my favourite novels of all time. I read Conrad's Outcast of the Islands whenever I am in need of imminent transportation elsewhere. It's a book of travel, of lust and greed, of adventures on the high seas, and also a fierce examination of what constitutes a moral compass. It's one of the first truly uncompromising accounts of an unscrupulous protagonist. Our protagonist Willems has been fired from his company Hudig and co. for financial fraud and misappropriation. He ditches his wife and family and is intercepted en route to committing suicide by his benefactor and mentor, the elusive Captain Lingard, who spends his time sailing the high seas and profiting off of a mysterious trading post, whose latitudinal and longitudinal specification on the map is not known to anyone but him. He takes Willems into confidence, being a sort of father figure to him. It is simply a sight to behold two old salt thespian lions like Trevor Howard and Ralph Richardson do wonders with Conrad's heroic rhetoric, entrancing into it a sort of semi-Shakespearean delivery. There is poetry between the lines too in the way Willems glances sideways at his savage princess Aissa. One of the film's VHS covers proclaimed--'He dared to love a cannibal empress,' followed by a litany of exclamation marks. It is impossible to not address the racio-political aspects when talking of Conrad, or Kipling or any of the old giants and masters of literature. These men for me were larger than life and stood beyond good and evil, and it is impossible for me to make a moral judgment. I tend to regard them as one of their outlaw protagonists and even though they probably wouldn't think much of me, I think the world of them. This is the inherent dilemma one faces when dealing with art: the fact that I viscerally agree with their themes and storytelling although I may morally have apprehensions regarding some of their ideologies and prejudices. I however don't find it as malicious as most people do. It's not that they thought of us as a subhuman race it's just that they were intrigued and baffled at our ways with a sort of quasi-scientific sense of wonder. Like a dreary child lost in casual contemplation of the oppressive overhead sun and blaming it on nature's inherent malevolence. I may get clobbered for saying this but their racism doesn't bother me anymore than a schoolyard bully's antagonism might. I tend to look at them as characters and as archetypes bordering on the mythic. Guys like Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P Lovecraft may have been racist but their racism has yielded far more interesting work than many a man's sanctimony. The Korda Brothers and Carol Reed always shot these exotic locales with a great deal of care and delicacy and captured their dwellings and denizens with immense affection. There is an implicit pastoralism in images of cows ploughing dried up paddy fields and distant tracts of vegetation, long shots of terrace farming and other forms of indigenous cultivation, but there is also at work an almost abstract ambivalence. There was love as well as loathing in their gaze. Same probably goes for the people that wrote about these subjects. A sensitive guy like Reed probably got that about these adventure story tellers. Interest in something may be stimulated by ulterior reasons but when it culminates in something constructive it is a different matter altogether from casual racism, the sort inflicted upon a street corner or at a restaurant, and qualifies in my estimation as a subject for contemplation. It's all very well for me to be saying this sitting amongst my own folk and kin where I don't experience racism on a day to day basis. I might feel differently sitting on foreign shores amidst white folk, but I have to recognise that an obscure masterpiece like Outcast of the Islands may have been orientalism, but in my view this was poetic orientalism. Never before had the white man's burden found such an elaborate showcase. When Conrad writes about or Reed shoots these savage dwellings, they are as enchanted by them as Adam might have been by the Garden of Eden. The spirit of adventure and the constant quest for discovery and inquiry fuels their imagery. When Ralph Richardson proclaims--'To the North wind my boy! To the North wind' before casting sail and setting oars to steer into the abyss of foaming waves and crashing gusts, it is a heroic moment and a transcendent one too, and one that fits nicely in with Conrad's own peculiar heroism. The sea is a place of karmic significance… a hazy twilight floating into the grimy shores of the cosmos. Orbiting mankind and casting a severe spell as well as passing judgment. The old sailors were all her slaves and she their willful master. And they lay forever at the mercy of her whims and fancies. 'The sea of old' as Conrad used to put. I am always deeply stirred with Ralph Richardson's mournful recitation--'Life she is fowl. Fowl as a tangled rigging on a netted night', having acknowledged his mistake of having given the irredeemable a second chance. 'But you are young yet,' he says, 'and life is very long, let this be a lesson to ya.'

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.

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