DATELINE: 1973 Blaxploitation Movie
Jim Brown’s prison movie about the 1917 French island prison came before the prestige movie with McQueen, titled Papillion. They had overlapped during filming, but the speed of Roger Corman could not be matched. He was not interested in “art.” He wanted a product that might titillate audiences
I Escaped from Devil’s Island had all those ingredients.
The film began on a high note: Jim Brown is dragged from his cell in the tropical prison to a makeshift guillotine. He is about to be beheaded before the credits even roll. No flashback was required because the sado-masochistic guards had set this up, knowing a general amnesty for all French prisoners had arrived and no one would be executed. It was cruel kindness.
Of course, this Roger Corman quickie was called a blaxploitation film, geared toward making black audiences approve of a black hero. It’s hard to realize Brown was really doing trail-blazing work, and perhaps the other shocking part of the movie was the open homosexual relationships in the movie. The gay characters are in eye-makeup and are called “fancy boys,” who have boyfriends like James Luisi and Chris George. Rick Ely played the pretty boy who has his nipples tortured in one scene.
Jan Merlin, in eyeglasses, played the leader of the political prisoners—and a communist, which was a true work of performance since Jan was a Republican. For him it was another character unlike his cultured, soft-spoken self, playing at abrasive, uncouth villains. We must confess to be transparent that Jan co-authored many books with Ossurworld.
The “F” word is used surprisingly often for the first time in movies here, often just to discuss homosexual relations. And nearly every male to male encounter is fraught with both sexual and sadistic overtones.
Once the escape plan takes hold, the movie seems to peter out. Yet, films like this paved the way for leading men of the future like Denzel Washington.
The film deteriorates toward the end with a chaotic fireworks display in a city to help the escapees flee authority.
The best performance in this movie was given by Acapulco, the Mexican resort town, playing Devil’s Island.