Classic Movie Review: Island in the Sun (1957)

Title: Island in the Sun
Release Date: June 12, 1957
Director: Robert Rossen
Production Company: Darryl F. Zanuck Productions

Island in the Sun is a film with a large ensemble cast set on the fictional Caribbean island of Santa Marta that is groundbreaking-for-the-time in its attempt to deal with issues of inequality due to colonialism and racism.  Unfortunately it’s also a bit of a bloated mess.

The main plot, if there really is one, deals with Maxwell Fleury (James Mason, cast on type as a super-creepy dude), the son of a plantation owner with an inferiority complex who decides to run for office against David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), a politician who is a man of the people.  The election sets the colonial planter caste directly against the descendants of enslaved Africans and Indians on the island. In a pivotal scene at a public meeting, Boyeur calls of Fleury for his privilege and attempts at cultural appropriation that is a stand-out performance for Belafonte (Belafonte also sings in this movie, which is a treat).

While the story of the election may have been enough for a compelling drama, there are several parallel subplots running through the movie as well:

  • Fleury is insanely jealous of his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens) possibly having an affair with military veteran Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie).
  • Boyeur has a romance with a prosperous white woman, Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine).
  • Boyeur’s friend Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge) has a romance with aide to the governor Denis Archer (John Justin).
  • Fleury’s younger sister Jocelyn (Joan Collins) has a romance with visiting aristocrat Euan Templeton (Stephen Boyd)

The movie shines when Belafonte and Dandridge are on the screen, and devolves into soap opera melodrama when it focuses on the Fleury family.  Unfortunately, there’s more of the latter than the former.  I suspect that director Robert Rossen – who had been blacklisted by Hollywood earlier in the decade – intended to make a bolder social drama but ended up having to emphasize the Fleury family drama.  Of course, due to the level of racism in the United States, the movie ended up being very controversial despite it seeming very anodyne today.

Rating: **