Long before James Mason was cast in the role of Stodgy Old Man in every movie ever, he once played Young Hunk in Hero’s Island. This somehow has nothing to do with his age – Mason was 53 when he played the island-bound Jacob Weber, which is far older than today’s Young Hunk standards – and instead has everything to do with Mason being one hell of an actor. In fact, he appeared as Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s Lolita in the same year, a role which definitely leans more toward Stodgy Old Man than toward Young Hunk. One can imagine a remake of Hero’s Island casting Chris Hemsworth or Chris Evans or Chris Pratt – basically any of the Marvel Superhero Chrises – in the role of the brawny Jacob, sandy hair and strategically tattered shirt and all. This would be an entirely different kind of film (Superhero’s Island) because Mason’s Jacob is hunky, sure – but is he a hero?
Set on Bull Island in 1719, we meet the Mainwaring Family as they arrive on their new waterlocked home. The deed in Father Mainwaring’s hand entitles him to ownership of Bull Island, but standing on the dirt for the first time he states with a sense of wonder that “it doesn’t feel that I own this”. Ownership, of course, is entirely a matter of opinion – and in the opinion of the fisherman who’ve lounged around the island for years, the “right” of the Mainwaring Family’s presence is no right at all. They’re essentially Crusoe’s savages in the context of Hero’s Island, though their depiction in the opening scenes hews closer to this comparison than their actual function once the film is fully fleshed out. One of the first things the Mainwaring Family sees to is the construction of a large cross, which they kneel and pray in front of once it stands tall. The “savage” fisherman watch from afar, and before we hear them say anything more than a few words we see them bless themselves with the sign of the cross upon seeing the Christian symbol rising from their dirt.
So they’re not “savages”, really, not in the Crusoe sense, but the imagery is provoking nonetheless. They do provide the fuel for the main conflict of the film after one of them, the unhinged leader Enoch, kills Father Mainwaring and leaves Mother Mainwaring alone with her two young boys and her helpful hand. Mason’s Jacob Weber arrives on the island strapped to wooden planks with a sign around his neck that reads Dead Man, and eventually – surprise! – he finds himself in the middle of the Mainwaring-fisherman land dispute. Weber chooses the peaceful route for as long as he can, but when the fishermen get aggressive Weber reveals he has skills with a sword. This revelation, along with Weber’s eventual admission and even insistence that he is not an honest man, will play into the discussion of whether he’s a “hero” or not – and it wasn’t a dissimilar conversation about Bogart’s Marlowe in The Big Sleep.
There are two points at which we’re obviously meant to question Weber’s status as
Hero of Muscle Beach an actual “hero”, and both come after the reveal that – surprise again! – Weber’s name isn’t even Weber, and he’s actually a pirate named Stede Bonner. Once this silliness is out in broad daylight, Weber/Bonner launches into a soliloquy about what a shitty guy he really is: “Revenge, revenge, revenge! I am the devil! Oh yes I am – I have lived in Hell. I’ve wrecked and burned a hundred ships. I don’t pull a plough!” Mason delivers this speech as if it’s his last, fire and brimstone galore, but it doesn’t actually say as much about Weber (f*ck it, we’re just calling him Weber) as another line. Weber and the Mainwarings are lined up and all ready to attack the fisherman when Weber suddenly decides he’s not going. “I’ve got more to my life than to throw it away for Bull Island,” he says, and indeed he does. He participates in the climactic battle and ultimately regains control of the island for the Mainwarings, sure – but then he leaves, hopping into a dinghy and steering out into the open ocean.
The context of the definition of “hero” (again, as mentioned with regards to The Big Sleep) is everything – it’s not a matter of whether Jacob Weber fits the definition so much as whether he fits the definition on that island at that time. One is probably inclined to say he does, but the difference between Weber and most who call themselves “hero” in today’s films is that he does have an outer life, a “real” life that has nothing to do with the island, and he’s not sticking around just to be able to say he did some good for somebody. Weber’s character – who’s very nearly an island icon in his sleeveless, unfinished black coat – is the best thing about Hero’s Island, and he’s the only reason you’d give such a beautifully gaudy title to a film that’s “serious”.
What bad things could we have to say about Hero’s Island, you ask? Well, if you mean besides the geographical impossibility of this beautiful cliff-diving spot “off the coast of Carolina”, the plodding pace, the stark shift in tone/quality once Mason’s Weber arrives, the laughable dialogue of a solid 60% of the film, the laughably infuriating dialogue of a solid 100% of Mother Mainwaring’s portion of the script, the inescapable fact that Mother Mainwaring’s Kate Manx can’t act worth a damn (made all the more cringeworthy when you discover Manx was – ahem – married to the director), and the inevitable deterioration in sound and picture quality – besides that Hero’s Island is a freakin’ masterpiece.
Really, though, Mason makes Hero’s Island worth watching. You might be able to spot the likes of Warren Oates (who most know from Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia), Harry Dean Stanton and Rip Torn along the way as bit parts in Hero’s Island, which also might make it worth watching. At a certain point the “hero” question becomes moot – for better or worse, there aren’t many characters like Jacob Weber anymore.