Color, 1976, 105 mins. 1 sec.
Directed by Lewis John Carlino
Starring Sarah Miles, Kris Kristofferson, Jonathan Kahn, Margo Cunningham, Earl Rhodes
Scorpion Releasing (Blu-ray), Shout! Factory (Blu-ray & DVD) (US RA/R1 HD/NTSC), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9)
One of the most infamous personalities in Japanese literature, Yukio Mishima has proven very tricky to adapt outside of his native country with his unique, unsettling perspective on culture and customs being especially daunting for the English language. The first (but far from the last) attempt to bring his work to the screen outside of Japan came in 1976 with The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, an adaptation of his 1963 novel Gogo no eiko with the action shifted to the English coast of Devon. The film was notorious in its day for the much-promoted torrid love scenes between Sarah Miles and Kris Kristofferson, an attempt to ride the same publicity tactic that had boosted Don't Look Now two years earlier. As it turned out, the film was far less explicit than viewers had been led to believe (especially since the stars had also done a far more graphic photo session for Playboy during the shoot) and actually works better as a covert horror film about the dangers of straying from one's true nature and the cost of falling in with a dangerous ideology.
In a seaside English village, widowed Anne Osborne (Miles) lives a lonely existence with her troubled and voyeuristic teenage son, Jonathan (Kahn), who has fallen in with some dangerous fellow students at school including the Nietzsche-worshipping, budding fascist Chief (Rhodes). The arrival of a large merchant ship to dock for a few days brings mother and son into contact with the second officer, Jim Cameron (Kristofferson), who begins a passionate affair with Anne. The jealous and increasingly impressionable Jonathan spends more time with Chief and his sadistic crew, while the relationship between his mother and the sailor presents conflicts of its own.
The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea marked the directorial debut for Lewis John Carlino, who had started off as a screenwriter for such films as Seconds and The Fox and would go on to his biggest success writing and directing The Great Santini. In a wise move for a first-time director, he employed some very strong talents behind the camera including veteran cinematographer Douglas Slocombe, who had cut his teeth at Ealing and worked with names like Ken Russell and Roman Polanski, and editor Antony Gibbs, the go-to cutter for Tony Richardson and Norman Jewison. Also noteworthy is the subtle, evocative score by Johnny Mandel, who had scored hits with his work on M*A*S*H and The Sandpiper, and the actors all do fine work with tricky roles that don't spoon feed the audience at all. The result divided critics to put it mildly (and though no animals were actually harmed, cat lovers should approach with caution), but the film became something of a minor sensation at the time as a disturbing erotic couples film with enough of an arty pedigree to make it respectable, a formula that had worked for Last Tango in Paris and would be reprised again for such unlikely hits as The Night Porter.
Despite its theatrical release from Embassy Pictures, this particular title fell out of that catalog following its VHS run in the '80s. Anchor Bay issued a widescreen VHS in the late '90s, while Image Entertainment brought it to DVD in 2004 when it was part of the Castle Hill library. In 2012, the film bowed on bare bones Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as an exclusive available directly from the company's website; however, the very mediocre a/v quality drew immediate fire, with the image quality looking very drab, zoomed in, and frequently blown out. A massive improvement all around came in 2020 from Scorpion Releasing, who issued a remastered Blu-ray featuring a transfer from the original camera negative for the very first time. The results really speak for themselves; more image info is visible, the prevalent damage is gone, the white balance is back where it should be, and colors that were previously obliterated (particularly green) are back where they should be. Some delicate day for night color timing has also been reinstated where necessary, most notably the opening scenes after the main titles. The negative is also in much better shape than the earlier elements without any missing material due to damage; for example, the earlier Blu-ray clocked in at 104m29s (and was missing the opening Avco Embassy logo). The DTS-HD MA English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also much better with more dynamic range and a merciful lack of distortion. A new video interview with Carlino (17m53s), who passed away in 2020 mere days apart from Mandel, covers his discovery of the source novel by chance as a paperback, the common threads between Japanese and English culture that played a role in the adaptation, the story behind that legendary photo spread, and his working relationship with Slocombe, whose extensive experience came in very handy on set. Then the always quirky Miles turns up for a new video interview (9m52s) about her familiarity with Mishima's work before the film came about, the parallels between Mishima's philosophy and ultimate fate with the title character here, her very funny thoughts on approaching the film's masturbation scene, and a life-changing moment that occurred during the production. Finally you get a collection of interviews (29m36s) with stills photographer Graham Attwood, production manager Hugh Harlow, assistant director Anthony Wayne, set dresser Ian Whittaker, and focus puller Robin Vidgeon touches on the personal entanglements that may have impacted Kristofferson's marriage at the time to Rita Coolidge, the trickiness of catering one of the more pivotal locations, Slocombe's working process, the lodging conditions in Devon, and the challenges of wrangling the two leads at times, with Whittaker really pulling no punches about his experience. Bonus trailers are also included for The Tamarind Seed, Conduct Unbecoming, Cold Heaven, Johnny Cool, Shadow Play, Love Letters, and The Last Seduction.
SCORPION RELEASING (BLU-RAY)
SHOUT FACTORY (BLU-RAY)
Reviewed on July 9, 2020