I first saw this film on network TV some decades ago and don’t remember much except that I later realized it was edited within an inch of its life, as when I saw it the next time in my teens on cable, the film had a load of stuff I missed plus stuff I understood better, but still missed because of the TV version’s heavy censoring. That said, I’m gathering that over that first network airing, the nudity was chopped out as much as possible and anything overtly sexual didn’t make the cut except for brief flashes. As for violence, I remember the infamous scene with the cat (more on that below) was also chopped down, but you still got the idea of how horrifying it was.
Anyway, flash forward to seeing the film again recently, and while The Sailor Who Fell With Grace From The Sea is both beautiful to look and quite haunting, it’s also going to be for some viewers (as I found out when I recommended it to some friends), a “pretty repellent film” when all is said and done. Two tastes that don’t taste great together for some, but at least the tagline on the poster is quite applicable. It’s got memorable performances, lovely cinematography, direction, and so forth and so on, so I can’t and won’t complain about any of that. I think the issue with some viewers is with the original Yukio Mishima story it was based on and the film not changing its tone into a more kinder one, although it shifts what some say are morally questionable characters and plot to a breezy, stunning English seaside setting instead of its original Yokohama location. But this wasn’t meant to be a film that bent itself to a particular set of generic movie rules.
Story-wise, a woman, Anne Osbourne (Sarah Miles) widowed for four years who yearns for companionship and has a love of the sea falls hard for visiting sailor Jim Cameron (Kris Kristofferson). Her young rebellious son Johnathan (Jonathan Kahn), initially takes to the man, but doesn’t expect him to be a permanent fixture until the sailor later returns after a long trip and proposes to his mom. Normally this would be a good thing, but the son, along with four other schoolchildren have fallen under the sway of a rather evil fellow student called Chief (Earl Rhoades) who has his own ideas of how life works and this greatly and tragically effects the outcome of everything. The film deals with a few rather touchy subjects but handles things like a puberty afflicted Johnathan discovering a hole in a wall where he can spy on his mother (and later, both her and the sailor) in a slightly less creepy manner than you’d think (even though it’s still rather unsettling).
Granted, it’s foolish to assume that outside of national boundaries and some strict religious and cultural differences, people are going to be or act radically different for some reason when they fall under the control of those who have nefarious intent. This film, like many others with icky characters and situations is one where you leave your morals in the fridge or on in a closet somewhere, switch into passive viewer mode and just let the experience cart you down its bumpy road. Granted, the combination of its young lead discovering the birds and bees through both his supremely evil “friend” and spying on his mother and her lover is definitely going to push a few buttons. It’s not an easy watch if you’re unprepared.
For the most part, the film goes for an “arty” approach to its nudity and scenes of the lovers being tastefully shot while that disturbing peeping is all close ups of an eye or eyes and fade ins to glimpses of parts. But to me, the most upsetting scene is when Chief sacrifices his loyal cat to “prove” a very misguided point. While the scene isn’t extremely graphic at first, the buildup and payoff are pretty disgusting stuff. No, that cat wasn’t killed in real life, but it was chased around and very likely given something to make it groggy and for some, that’s disturbing enough. I recalled sitting through this scene way back when I saw the uncut film of cable and how one person walked out of the room until it was over. There was no skipping though a cable version of a film like you can now. This time out, I fast-forwarded the scene because I’d gotten the point of it a few decades back, but I went back and re-watched the scene later to see if it still was as impactful. Yep, it was.
This scene sets up the downer of a climax to the film, as Jonathan’s bedroom viewing habit is discovered and even though Jim tries to make nice with the boy (Anne is justifiably livid, to say the least), Johnathan is too far influenced by Chief’s training to do anything but round up his friends and take matters into their own hands. The ending is a no way out situation that’s upsetting partly because you don’t want to see it happen, but the film obliges you and doesn’t offer any hope for any of its characters. You get the situation that takes place, but no resolution to ease you into a sense of justice in you wanted it. But yes, many movies end do end in a similar “Un-Hollywoodlike” fashion, so let’s just say if you know what you’re going into (hard to watch cat scene and all), it’s a recommend from me.
I remember this movie when it came out, and at the age I was then, and knowing very little about it, it still wasn’t on my must-see list…things like Rollercoaster and Rocky and The Outlaw Josey Wales, yes, but this one, not so much. And now hearing about that cat scene, well, as Samuel Goldwyn once said, include me out.
Though I would be curious to see someone make a slick mash-up of ‘Sailor Who Fell from Grace’ and Altman’s ‘Popeye’. And while they’re at it, they might as well throw some ‘French Connection’ in there as well.