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A High Wind in Jamaica (Alexander Mackendrick, 1965)
Wise beyond its years, Alexander Mackendrick’s A High Wind in Jamaica appears, at first glance at least, to tell a tame children’s adventure story. Before the end of its first act, however, it becomes apparent that High Wind is not the toothless variation on Treasure Island or The Swiss Family Robinson that it might initially appear to be. Opening in Jamaica, at the onset of a hurricane, Mackendrick immediately establishes that the Caribbean is no place for children. Forced by the high winds to head under their house, the children swig alcohol and bear witness to a voodoo ritual at the hands of the family’s slaves. This savagery is all too much for their mother to bear and before long they are swept on board a ship headed for a British boarding school.
That ship is beset by pirates headed by Captain Chavez and his First Mate, Zac (Anthony Quinn and James Coburn, respectively), who take on the stowaway children, only to begin a slow process of softening in the face of the kids’ softer constitutions. While A High Wind in Jamaica might seem to be first and foremost an adventure tale, what it actually is in practice is more ambitious, offering an examination of the taming power of innocence on evil. Mackendrick certainly establishes that the pirate ship is even more dangerous than life on the plantation was. Almost immediately after boarding the vessel, the children are distracted by a playful monkey, which quickly falls to its death. Still, the revelation that these children are not doomed by their collective fate surprises. The film thoughtfully examines how, through mutual interactions, the children mature and the pirates open up. That this relationship never becomes sentimental treacle nor a fundamental betrayal of either party’s nature is a testament to the sensitive complexity with which Mackendrick has handled this material.
A High Wind in Jamaica offers quality family entertainment that doesn’t feel the need to dumb itself down because it features children as protagonists. Deborah Baxter, as the little girl who most identifies with the pirates, gives a strong performance here, as do Quinn and Coburn as the pirate captain and first mate. The production values are high, especially considering that the majority of the film was shot at Pinewood Studios. In sum, A High Wind in Jamaica is a criminally underappreciated movie that may be seen through the eyes of a child but is not scared to see the world as the cruel and confusing place it sometimes is.