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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Cult Film Faves Not On DVD: I Escaped From Devil's Island (1973) review


Jim Brown (Lebras), Christopher George (Devert), Richard Ely (Jo Jo), Paul Richards (Major Marteau), Richard Rust (Sgt. Zamorra), Robert Phillips (Blassier)

Directed by William Witney

"Nobody's ever gonna escape from Devil's Island. The sharks, the sea, the jungle... they see you dead first."

The Short Version: Roger Corman and his brother Gene collaborated with Mexico's Churubusco Studios on this sleazy little number that packs a healthy serving of tasteless Drive In delight into this minor piece of exploitation cinema. Fans of prison actioners, Corman, Jim Brown and Christopher George will find this average obscurity of the most interest.

Tortured and humiliated on the hellish atoll that is Devil's Island, home to any number of political prisoners and criminal scum, Lebras and a few others plot to break free of the inescapable penal colony in French Guiana, 1918.

Roger and Gene Corman produced this Mexico lensed exploitation trash mini epic highlighting the grim ordeals prisoners encountered on the infamous Devil's Island. It's all here, torture, humiliation, threats of man-on-man rape, fights to the death, shark attacks, political statements, sex, violence, a leper colony and even a tribe of Amazonian savages. Although it never fully realizes its nasty potential, this co-production with Mexico's Churubusco Studios musters enough exploitation elements to make a reasonably satisfying Drive In quickie. Director William Witney was also guilty of helming the thoroughly outrageous, offensive and ridiculous blaxploitation-musical-comedy, DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975). He was also a prolific director of action and western television programs. This shows in I ESCAPED FROM DEVIL'S ISLAND which often resembles a 70s TV series, albeit a gritty and bloodily violent one with nudity to spare.

In addition to the more sadistic and salacious side of the film, the script squeezes in a helping of political intrigue involving the various prison cliques. There's the side that wants off the island, then there's the sides that vie for various special treatments in the hopes of not having to work as hard, or to simply escape severe torture at the hands of the maniacal prison guards. Of course there's the requisite backstabbing and corruption amongst not only the captives but those in command as well. It should also be noted there's a shocking scene showcasing real animal cruelty. Lebras slaughters a pig (it's his job to slaughter and carve meat for the inmates and guards of Devil's Island) while smiling at Devert, who looks on in what amounts to a brutal analogy after Devert betrayed Lebras during the opening moments. It's safe to assume Brown isn't the one doing the killing as you never see Brown and the pig in the same shot, but given the reputation European films receive for their mistreatment of animals, this US-Mexico co-pro is guilty of the same charge.

Located in French Guiana, this criminal wasteland was host to a slew of political prisoners and various murderers and cutthroats. At least one person incarcerated there managed to escape confinement via the shark infested waters surrounding the island penitentiary at the turn of the century. The best-selling novel, 'Papillon' (which was also made into a movie starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman and released a few weeks after Corman's film) was based on an alleged escape by the books author, Henri Charriere, but his claims were later refuted by journalists or those employed on the island.

The 'Escape From Devil's Island', interestingly enough, takes place 40 minutes into the movie. The crude raft Brown and his three escapees get away on quickly falls apart and the four men now must contend with the scorching sun beating down on them. With one of the nearby islands within reach, several sharks show up and make a meal out of one of the prisoners. They then encounter a leper colony that helps them evade the stalking militants tracking them after their escape.

From there, they have a run in with a tribe of savages. Lebras kills the leader, but not before taking a blow dart to the back. Lebras later awakens to discover him and his two remaining friends tied down to stakes. A woman approaches and frees Lebras. It's quickly surmised that it was her husband he killed in the jungle and she has decided to take him as a mate. Of course, Lebras isn't one to pass a up a tryst inside a wood hut with a hot native. Devert and Jo Jo free themselves and Lebras decides he's going to stay! But when he sees his friends nearly killed trying to get away, he fights the savages and takes off with them further down the river.

From here to the end, it's a chase with the police and Major Marteau culminating in a big shootout right in the middle of the Festival of Santa Lucia. Lebras, having split up from Devert to meet at a boat leaving for the mainland, sets off a massive fireworks display to cover his escape. What's funny is that the fireworks display sounds like a bunch of big explosions going off! Les Baxter, who regularly contributed to Corman and AIP pictures, delivers a really good score that's a throbbing collection of pulsing jungle beats and rhythms. It fits perfectly with the exotic settings seen throughout the film.

Jim Brown is fun to watch as Lebras. It's never revealed just how, or why he ends up on Devil's Island, but he attracts lots of attention to himself for not taking a "fancy boy" (what a homosexual partner is called in the movie) and also his build which comes in handy when one of the guards wants to show off to another by having Lebras fight to the death with some other hulking inmate. He also loves women and every time he and his friends end up in a mini adventure, he ends up bedding down some pretty lady and also ends up deciding to stick around instead of running.

Brown was one of the most prominent African American film stars following Sydney Poitier's success in Hollywood. Starring, or co-starring in a slew of big Hollywood productions, Brown went on to a lucrative career in blaxploitation actioners. Brown is reunited with Robert Phillips here, who played one of the main heavies in Brown's most recognized black action picture, SLAUGHTER (1972).

Christopher George plays a pacifist who ultimately turns to violence by the end. Greatly respected by many of the other inmates, he incites a minor revolt that gets Sgt. Zamorra a permanent stay in "The Hole". He and Brown work well together and form an unlikely partnership. Both help each other when the cards are down. George was a regular on television programs such as his lead vehicle in the two season run of THE RAT PATROL, an action packed series set in Africa during WW2. Like Jim Brown, Christopher George appeared in Playgirl magazine in the 1970s before embarking on a successful film career predominantly in Drive In fare and European horror movies.

It's not a great piece of trash, but it's definitely entertaining trash and moves at a fair clip. Fans of prison style action films and jungle adventures will find themselves mildly amused for approximately 90 minutes. Fans of Roger Corman's fast and furious style of movie-making will notice it's a slightly lesser affair when compared with his New World Pictures of the same time period. Unavailable on legitimate DVD at this time, the film occasionally pops up on various cable channels in restored format.


Fang Shih-yu said...

Wow! One I've never heard of, venoms5! Thanks for posting this review!

Director William Witney got around, and he's best known for directing (or co-directing) an array of TV shows and movies, especially some classic "B" westerns and serials for Republic Pictures in the '30s-'40s!

If you haven't seen any of his very early work, look for a copy of the serial Adventures of Captain Marvel (1941), featuring the comic book character who was Superman's stiffest competition in the '40s!

venoms5 said...

The only serials I remember seeing as a kid on television are COMMANDER CODY, THE UNDERSEA KINGDOM, FLASH GORDON, THE PURPLE MONSTER STRIKES and THE PHANTOM EMPIRE. I seen some BONANZA episodes of his I think it was. I wanna get that LAREDO box set with William Smith. He directed a handful of those, too.

Fang Shih-yu said...

Those are good serials as well!

The Purple Monster Strikes is a lot of fun with Roy Barcroft as the bad guy and Linda Sterling as the leading lady; she was good-looking (by today's standards) and could act!

Always love the sub and the "tanks" from Undersea Kingdom, not to mention the robots from The Phantom Empire! (Love that "melting" effect in the last chapter of the latter work!)

I think I've seen the Laredo set you've mentioned. What was the show like?

venoms5 said...

I've not seen many of them, but my interest stems mainly for the co-starring William Smith. Peter Brown is one of the main characters, too, he was in this other show my uncle likes a lot called LAWMAN from a few years earlier. It's been on the Western Channel here lately. I've not watched it, but seen it advertised. There was a movie on last week I missed that had both the LAREDO and VIRGINIAN casts called BACKTRACK! It was made up of footage from both series'.

Fang Shih-yu said...

I've seen a little of Lawman; John Russell went on to replace James Doohan as the commander on the CBS Saturday morning program Jason of Star Command!

I've liked seeing Alias Smith and Jones and Maverick when they were on Western Channel. (I'll guess Maverick is still on!)

Watch your listings on this same cable channel (and have your DVR handy) for The Legend of Custer, a movie version of a failed TV show created by Samuel Peeples, writer of the 2nd Star Trek pilot (the one that sold the show)! Not a bad presentation at all!

venoms5 said...

I remember JASON OF STAR COMMAND as a kid. Great times then!

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