LIFE must have been tranquil once for the Indians of Central and South America, for underneath the luxuriant foliage, there can have been little for them to do apart from painting their bodies and poisoning the tops of their arrows. But then, a strange group of men called film-makers started to arrive, determined to make them famous.
Werner Herzog herded them before his cameras in unblinking crowds in Aguirra, The Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo; not long ago, they were to be seen in Roland Joffe's The Mission; and now the cheapest film extras in the world, this time, to be
precise, from Belize, turn up again in the Mosquito Coast (Odeon, Haymarket, "PG").
Peter Weir's new film, based on Paul Theroux's novel of the same name — which, needless to say, no-one I know seems to have read — addresses itself to that peculiarly American preoccupation, the escape from the Rat Race: is it possible to retreat from the mundane reality of consumerism and be fulfilled seeing no-one and growing one's own pumkin and sweet potato?
Allie Fox (the usually wonderful Harrison Ford) is an inventor living in New England. Sickened by the faults he sees in contemporary America, he uproots his wife (Helen Mirren) and their four children and travels to the Mosquito Coast (which extends from Guatemala to Panama, if you know nothing about either geography or Theroux). They buy a town called Jeronimo from a drunk in a bar; and arrive hoping to transform the desolate settlement into a thriving community.
Because Allie is a genius at DIY, Jeronimo is soon alive with activity. Aided by his family and a group of benevolent Creoles, our Hero transforms the village. The crops flourish; a small icefactory is built (because "ice is civilisation"); and airconditioning follows.
Not even the interfering zeal of the local missionary (Andre Gregory) can disturb the idyll and before we know it, paradise prevails and the all American family is sitting down to its first Thanksgiving Dinner.
Fox's fortunes turn with the arrival of four psychotic desperados. When they refuse to leave, he attempts to gas them, in the ice-machine. Instead, it explodes, taking Jeronimo with it. As the family travels up river looking for another spot in which to settle, he becomes increasingly unreasonable and despotic; and is eventually shot by the missionary whose church he attempts to destroy. The Mosquito Coast ends, lamely and abruptly, with an aerial shot of the family raft drifting out to sea and the voice of his son declaring that the world seemed stale and banal while his father was alive; but that now it appears wide with excitement and possibility.
I said that the film's preoccupations appeared particularly American; and that impression is reinforced by an early sequence of the family's boat sailing upstream as Huckleberry Finn's did looking for a finer reality, the dream made flesh. It does not matter whether Fox is a plausible character (and as inventor of genius inimately familiar with the scriptures he despises, some would say he is not).
It matters what he does and here I found myself totally unsympathetic. There may be good reasons for loathing aspects of America — the missionary dispenses Blue Jeans bibles, while his daughter majored in "Communications" (speech? literacy? telepathy?).
But anyone who abandons the developed world for the jungle needs psychiatric help especially when exposing wife and children to every conceivable danger. Fox is arrogantly intolerant of everyone else, he molests the Indians, he pollutes the river, he disturbs the forest by importing the trappings of the civilisation he claims to disdain.
And if even one-tenth of the American population followed him by carving a little Eden out of the rain-forests of Central America, the world's ecological balance would soon be threatened.
Ford looks the part, shuffling, preoccupied, bespectacled; and, takes well to manual labour (the result of an earlier career as a carpenter rather than another of the excesses of method acting). He is convincing in the film's comic moments and while his reason is intact, but in his descent into megalomania he nears the precipice of stage villianry. He may well receive an Oscar nomination, but for me, his looks and great charm weren't compensation enough for an inflated, unsympathetic character; and a poor excuse for giving the articulate Helen Mirren a tedious, largely silent part (and when she does speak, her American accent doesn't convince).
The film is a show-case for Ford; when he dies, it has nothing more to say and has to end as it begins, with a vehicle moving across a distant horizon one is reminded of the opening of Witness; and one can only remember with disappointment that triumphant collaboration between the same director, actor, composer and photographer.