It’s an island. Full of brutes. That’s the plot they went with. No, I’m not sure who greenlighted it either. In any case, this is a directing effort from Harry Carey, who soon switched back to just acting. A good career move, as it happens. It’s all about some guy from Harvard who goes to the South Seas and nurses his broken heart by looting and torturing. It’s a living.
No. Just no.
Harry Carey’s silent career is generally summarized with three broad strokes. One, his time with D.W. Griffith (he was famously featured in close-up and then gunned down in The Musketeers of Pig Alley). Two, his status as John Ford’s very first leading man. Three, his rollicking westerns from the mid-twenties to the coming of sound.
In between parts one and two, though, there is another chapter: Harry Carey, director. Carey directed four films between 1914 and 1916. Of these four, two are considered lost. A complete copy of Love’s Lariat is held by the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam but it has never been released on home media. Brute Island remains the sole example of Carey’s directing that is available to the general public.
South Seas tales were popular in the silent era because they allowed the ladies and gentlemen of the cast to show more flesh than would normally be tolerated and the idea of “savage” vs. civilization fit nicely into the attitudes of the time. Throw in a native uprising, some buried treasure, pearls, a missionary or two and you had yourself a movie. (Obviously, I am referring to films that revel in the exotic locales and indulge in both adventure and hokum. Well-made dramas that happen to have an island setting are quite different.)
I have to confess I am not a big fan of the genre. More than nearly any other popular silent film sub-genre, the South Sea tales have aged badly. These films gained more nuances and subtlety in the late twenties but the early entries are often, frankly, painful. Basically, they all seemed to be in competition to see which title could fit more sexism, racism, colonialism and any other -ism into the story.
I am sorry to report that Brute Island is not going to change my mind about movies in this milieu. In fact, it cemented my dislike of them.
The movie opened with some promise. There is a storm at sea and a small group in a lifeboat are the only survivors from a wrecked passenger ship. Nancy Darrell (Kathleen Butler) is one of the lifeboat’s occupants and she is not sure why no one is rowing toward the nearby islands. The sailors who accompany her refuse to make for shore. They are terrified as this part of the ocean is ruled by Captain McVeagh (Harry Carey) and he is one unpleasant customer.
McVeagh’s full title is Cyrill Bruce McVeah and he was, we are informed, Harvard class of ’05. If that is true, it does not say much for Harvard. He is introduced in the middle of swigging gin whilst torturing one of his native servants. McVeagh has all but enslaved the island’s citizens to work at pearl harvesting. He keeps power with guns and by bribing the local chieftains with gin and beads. Oh dear. One of these transactions involves swapping his merchandise for the chief’s daughter, Liana (Fern Foster, Carey’s wife at the time).
Now, just to remind us that our Harvard boy still has a shred of decency, he means to marry Liana fair and square once the missionary makes his rounds. Oh good. Because I was really worried about that. Apparently, purchasing another human being is just fine if your object is matrimony. Fortunately, Liana goes for soused psychopaths so the union just might work.
But then Nancy shows up and it turns out that she is the cause of everything. Her rejection of McVeagh sent him down the path of darkness. It is all her fault. Obviously. To prove his point, Harvard ’05 has a couple of freelance pearl divers shot in front of her and then he smacks her around for good measure. That will make her sorry she dumped such a fine fellow!
(Between this and The Wishing Ring, it’s a wonder that any movie people bothered to send their boys to college in 1914. My word! The habits they pick up!)
I wish I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall when this story was proposed.
Harry Carey: Then Nancy dumps him. He is so broken-hearted.
HC: So he sails the oceans to forget and ends up on a remote island.
P: It often happens that way.
HC: He gives himself over to the bottle.
P: Alas, a story all too true.
HC: And then he forms an illegal pearling operation, begins to torture and strangle people, and purchases women for kicks!
P: That sounds very interes— wait, what?
Meanwhile, the natives are planning an uprising (good!) and Liana is conspiring to poison Nancy. More violence is in the offing but I think we can cut off the synopsis here.
Brute Island is one of those movies that makes you feel grimy inside. The content is so very unpleasant, so repugnant on every level that it is impossible to enjoy. It didn’t have to be that way. See, stories of people who go too far in their resentment and then slowly transform into monsters can result in intriguing character-driven films. Unfortunately, Brute Island treats McVeagh not as a monster of his own making but as a good guy who has a few bad habits. Anyway, it was all Nancy’s fault. I thought we made this clear. (Seriously, though, I don’t blame her for dumping the whiny-baby-turned-homicidal-maniac.)
Carey wrote and directed the film but his performance is the biggest problem. I have always said that of all the silent cowboys, he had the most raw acting ability. Well, in this case, bad acting would have actually been a plus. To be sure, Carey’s performance isn’t great but even so-so Carey is pretty darn good. He does spend much of the film staggering about in a gin haze. However, he is quite convincing in the more brutal scenes. I didn’t want to be convinced, thank you very much.
Carey had the rare ability of being able to turn his charm on and off like a spigot. I have never seen another performer be able to be so charismatic in one role and then switch it off completely for another. This works against Carey as a shred of charm might have made McVeagh eventual redemption more believable or welcome. And by redemption, I mean he just decides he has killed and maimed enough people and goes home. Yay?
Our director/writer/star is pretty much the whole show as none of the supporting cast is at all memorable. The direction itself is so-so. There are nice sea and sky shots and whatnot but the editing has no rhythm or flow and the action is difficult to follow. There are relatively few cuts and even fewer closeups (which are, oddly, reserved for relatively minor characters) and this really gives the film a static, archaic quality. Some of the compositions are interesting but this is cold comfort what with the nasty plot and all.
Brute Island shows the dark side of movie making in the early feature film era. It was apparently re-released in the early twenties to capitalize on Carey’s popularity but it has sunk into obscurity since then, deservedly so.
One interesting footnote: Both the film’s production company and Carey himself were named in a lawsuit claiming that the film was withheld and shareholders shorted. It seems, though, that nothing came of the case. (The movie is listed under its original title, McVeagh of the South Seas.)
Brute Island is one of very few Carey silent features available to the general public. This is a pity as it seems to have been one of his worst appearances.
Movies Silently’s Score: ★
Where can I see it?
Brute Island has been released on DVD. I would compare versions and all that but you’re not going to make me watch it again, are you?