I Escaped From Devil's Island

I Escaped From Devil's Island

Part of the legend of Martin Scorsese is the story of him screening his Roger Corman produced movie Boxcar Bertha (his first commercially produced theatrical feature) for his mentor John Cassavetes. However, despite the fact he acted in many of them (Devil’s Angels, Machine Gun McCain, The Incubus), Cassavetes had contempt for exploitation pictures. After seeing the film, John said to Scorsese, as nice as he could, “Kid you just spent a year of your life making a piece of shit.” Then John clarified, “Look, don’t get me wrong, it’s fine for what it is. But you don’t want to get caught up doing these sleazy exploitation flicks. Leave those for the other guys, you’re better than that.”
Now at the time, while Scorsese had ambition, I don’t think he thought he was that much better than that. One, he didn’t look down on those type of pictures the way Cassavetes did. Two, he admired Roger Corman and welcomed his mentorship (in Mean Streets, Scorsese includes a scene where the guys go see Corman’s The Tomb of Ligeia). And three, he was just thrilled to be making movies. After his first Independent film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door, he was thrilled to be making movies people might actually see. He had another picture already set up with Roger’s brother Gene Corman. But Cassavetes talked him out of that project with Corman, and into getting his ass in gear and finish writing Mean Streets. Which is what he ended up doing, and as they say, the rest is history.

But the film he didn’t do for Gene Corman and United Artists was pretty good too, I Escaped From Devil’s Island starring Jim Brown. When faced with finding a new director for his picture, Gene Corman decided not to go with one of his brother’s promising protégées. Instead, he chose an old salty dog he admired who he’d worked with before, someone who’d been directing pictures since 1937: None other than the great William Witney (aka Wild Bill Witney). For Gene, Witney had directed a nifty little 20th Century Fox picture titled Valley Of The Redwoods (1960), that Gene, himself, thought was one of the best pictures he ever made; he told me so. Witney was one of the greatest directors of action cinema in the history of the business. And Corman knew it. He pretty much created (along with stuntman extraordinaire Dave Sharpe) the modern movie fistfight. He came to it by observing one of his hero’s sets – – Busby Berkeley! – – and how Berkeley choreographed his dance sequences. And from watching the way the cinematic dance king covered the action with different camera set-ups, Witney figured the same technique might very well work for a fistfight. And, voila, the Hollywood donnybrook was born; the way Witney and Sharpe devised it is still the way we shoot fights to this day. Before he passed on I asked Burt Reynolds about working with Witney who directed him on a few episodes of his fifties TV series Riverboat, with Darren McGavin. Burt said, “William Witney worked under the assumption that there has never been a scene ever written that couldn’t be improved by adding a fistfight.” He continued: “You’d do a dialogue scene, then Bill would yell, ‘Cut cut cut! You guys are putting me to sleep.’ Then he’d point at me and say, ‘Okay you talk to him for a bit, then you punch him.’ Then he’d point to the other guy and say, ‘Well that makes you mad so you punch him back. And now we got a scene!’ ”
The title of Bill Witney’s first autobiography says it all, “In A Door, Into A Fight, Out A Door, Into A Chase”. If Witney hadn’t been under contract to Republic Pictures (and Witney was definitely a company man), he should’ve shot the fifties version of Rex Beach’s often filmed novel The Spoilers. Imagine: What Witney could have done with the massive climactic throwdown between Jeff Chandler and Rory Calhoun? Like Don Siegel and Sergio Corbucci, Witney had a real capacity for filming screen violence, in both his own work as well as shooting second unit action on other people’s movies.

He shot the exciting battle in Republic Pictures’ Alamo movie, Frank Lloyd’s The Last Command (The one with Sterling Hayden as Jim Bowie) and the thrilling stagecoach robbery in my favorite Allan Dwan picture, the offbeat Woman They Almost Lynched. And, more historically, in Chapter 8 of his serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion (most serial fans’ nominee for greatest serial ever made), he precedes the Yakima Canutt riding on-top-of-the-lead-horses-pulling-the- stagecoach, then-falling-under-their-hooves-as-the-coach-and-horses go-over-him stunt in John Ford’s Stagecoach in the same year (1939). And with Yakima Canutt! The story: when Ford was prepping Stagecoach he got together with his stunt gaffer Canutt and asked him to come up with a really spectacular stunt for the film. Canutt told Ford about a real humdinger he’d just done for one of Bill Witney’s serials (Ford knew who Witney was because everybody at Republic knew Witney. Not only that Pappy’s actor brother Francis Ford worked regularly for Witney. Ford had Republic screen the footage for him and Canutt).
When Ford saw the footage he was gobsmacked. Once Ford and Canutt stepped out of the screening room, he asked the greatest stuntman who ever lived could he do the same stunt with two more horses. And that’s how one of the most famous action scenes in movie history came to be (Till the day he died, whenever Witney referred to great directors, the two examples he always used were: John Ford and William Wyler).
Easily the most violent movies ever made for children were made by Witney (I say that as a badge of honor; get ‘em while they’re young). That would include many of his serials: Drums Of Fu Manchu, Spy Smasher, Dick Tracy Returns. And especially The Adventures of Captain Marvel, which easily contains in Tom Tyler’s Captain Marvel, the most homicidal berserker superhero of cinema. (Most of the gags and set pieces that Spielberg restages for Raiders of the Lost Ark are taken from Witney’s chapter plays).
When Republic Pictures heard the kids at the Saturday afternoon matinees thought Roy Rogers was getting soft, they brought Wild Bill Witney in to toughen him up.
A standard Witney directed dust-up in a Rogers picture left all involved with bloody noses. The climactic fight at the end of Twilight in the Sierras includes an amazing bullwhip battle that leaves both Roy and the picture’s heavy as striped as tigers. And his Roy Rogers film Eyes of Texas (after Witney’s The Golden Stallion Rogers’ best film) is viciously violent for a film made for the Saturday afternoon kiddie matinee crowd (the film’s female heavy wields her power through killer dogs).
When Witney started making movies for adults in the fifties, he came up with a classic: the Macdonald Carey western Stranger At My Door, which includes the most amazing and terrifying breaking-the- unbreakable-horse sequence in the history of western cinema, including Monte Walsh. Witney became so renowned in the industry for this sequence that when he started directing western TV shows, he was usually brought in to helm their breaking-the-unbreakable-horse episode.
His 1958 World War II combat picture Paratroop Command is the best of American-International’s WW2 potboilers. But I think it’s even better than that. It contains a realism that sets it apart from most other WW2 movies done in that same era. So much so that it makes a lot of good and similar movies from that same time, Robert Aldrich’s Attack and Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes, look theatrical and stagey by comparison.
Characters perish in ways closer to real combat than the normal Hollywood pecking order. And it includes a very realistic and suspenseful crossing-the-minefield scene. To compare it to Platoon might be stretching it a bit, but only a bit. Because Witney spent as much time in World War II as Oliver Stone spent in Vietnam and not making movies with the Mark Harris bunch, but fighting. And there’s the film that first turned me on to Witney: The Bonnie Parker Story, which presented the bank-robbing duo of Bonnie and Clyde (here called Bonnie & Guy?) as much closer to the mad dog killers they were. Even including one of their most famous murders, that of a policeman they shot during a traffic stop, that the Arthur Penn film ignored.
Witney’s film not only predates Benton and Newman’s script for Bonnie and Clyde, but it also manages to predate David Lynch’s Wild At Heart as well (even including Flame Dissolves).

Interestingly, while I Escaped From Devil’s Island is a strong picture, and a cruel picture, it isn’t necessarily a violent one. The idea behind the film was to beat the massively budgeted Steve McQueen Devil’s Island epic Papillon to cinema screens, which it did by a month (a few years later Two-Minute Warning would do the same thing to Black Sunday).
Now Franklin Schaffner’s epic Papillon is a pretty iconic film for boys my age who saw it when it came out or later on television or in the eighties on video. The film is very involving. It contains maybe McQueen’s finest serious acting moment on film, when he sticks his head out of the solitary confinement door and is not only unrecognizable but completely deranged. And the film contains one of the most powerful time cuts I’ve ever seen in a motion picture.

The film’s also not a little pretentious, self consciously arty, unrelentingly grim, extremely grueling and except for Dustin Hoffman keeping a bankroll and an extra pair of spectacles up his ass, completely devoid of any entertainment value. Qualities it shares with The Revenant, so much so Iñárritu’s film could be titled Papillon Part 2.
In a way, a grueling affair like Papillon being presented by its studio as a massive commercial epic encapsulates the era of seventies filmmaking better than any other example (I own Steve McQueen’s personal 35mm print of Papillon that includes twenty extra minutes. I joke it’s twenty extra minutes of Steve McQueen close-ups).

While Papillon is the better film, there’s a case to be made that Witney’s I Escaped From Devil’s Island is the more interesting film. The script by talented episodic TV writer Richard Adams, who also wrote the superior Jonathan Kaplan-directed Jim Brown heist flick The Slams, is both entertaining and rather complex (I mentioned to Scorsese how much I liked the script and he said, “I know, I was going to do it”).
The film’s three lead characters, Jim Brown’s alpha male Le Bras, Christopher George’s pacifist Davert and especially Rick Ely’s fancy boy Jo-Jo are refreshingly complicated and three dimensional (the fourth member of the team, James Luisi, is his usual snarling one-note bore).

But what really distinguishes this version of the Devil’s Island tale from Papillon and Strange Cargo and all other versions of the French penal colony story, is the exploration of the societal dynamics of the community that the island prisoners exist in. And this is most profoundly felt inside the prisoner subculture of The Fancy Boys, as seen in the effeminate homosexual young men who doll themselves up (as best as they can) as women, and prance around driving the muy macho alpha male prisoners wild with desire. Talented Rick Ely plays Fancy Boy representative Jo-Jo, the film’s third lead.
The Fancy Boys aren’t presented the way the queer population is usually depicted in novels about Alcatraz or other prison-set seventies adventures.
Which is to say, they’re not a degraded marginalized subculture (Six Against The Rock, The Onion Field) or a source of buffoonery (The Longest Yard, Penitentiary). Nor are they made up of fresh fishes brutally butt fucked until they’re turned into prison punks.
On the Devil’s Island of this movie, The Fancy Boys hold their own respected status inside of the island convict community without degradation. They’re respected both as individuals and as the group they represent. And are coveted objects of desire among the convict population. Neither do The Fancy Boys hide behind their more macho island dwellers. One scene shows The Fancy Boys, led by Ely’s Jo-Jo, administering their own form of straight razor retribution against a transgressive inmate. Unlike John Guillermin’s detective story P.J. starring George Peppard, where private detective P.J. (Peppard) enters a late sixties era gay bar and is beaten to a pulp by a bunch of clichéd pastel pantsuited pansies. Or the killer queers in the James Bond film Diamonds Are Forever. Or pencil-thin lady-boy Christopher Morley in Freebie and The Bean beating the tar out of macho Freebie (James Caan) in a Candlestick Park men’s room (it’s an ugly homophobic scene in an otherwise excellent and – – ironic – – take off on fascist-cop movies. Having said that, Christopher Morley is still kind of an amazing presence).
In those three above examples, having the effeminate male characters commit violence against the straight masculine male genre hero is done as a reverse on a reverse. In those cases, it’s presented as comic hilarity (Diamonds Are Forever), grotesque surreal absurdity (Freebie and the Bean) or both (P.J.).
By contrast, old Hollywood pioneer William Witney presents The Fancy Boys’ retribution surprisingly straight. The scene’s meant to be wild, but not grotesque or ridiculous. You’re actually meant to be on The Fancy Boys’ side.
But what’s really wild is gridiron Mr. Macho, in both movies and real life, Jim Brown’s character Le Bras’ relationship with Ely’s Jo-Jo. They’re not lovers, but if Le Bras was stuck on this island for the rest of his life, it’s not out of the question they could have been. The two men share a genuine camaraderie. Brown’s Le Bras likes and respects Ely’s Jo-Jo, down to giving him a respectful epitaph once he exits the picture. Now, this would be considered progressive in any seventies action movie. But for the audience that this film was intended for it’s downright jaw-dropping.

Starting at the end of the sixties, Hollywood started fashioning Jim Brown as the sexy, surly, smoldering alternative to Sidney Poitier’s upright leading man (or as Brown said in the Spike Lee documentary about him: “Sidney was the nice guy.”). During that time Brown starred in, or was an important cast member of, quite a few studio features. With some of them being pretty good, obviously The Dirty Dozen, but also Dark of the Sun, Riot, Ice Station Zebra, The Grasshopper, and his best performance at that time, …tick… tick… tick… .Even in the films that didn’t work, 100 Rifles, The Split and Kenner, Brown’s still solid. 100 Rifles mediocre final product still seems like a shamefully wasted opportunity (I mean Jesus Christ, how do you fuck up a movie starring Jim Brown, Burt Reynolds and Raquel Welch?).
I asked Burt Reynolds how he felt about working with Brown? He said: “I loved him! The biggest straight shooter I ever worked with. If Jim Brown told you the sky was brown, then I guess the sky musta’ turned brown, because Jim said it.”
Yet none of Jim Brown’s mainstream Hollywood movies (save The Dirty Dozen) really clicked commercially. The then exploding blaxploitation market was beckoning him to join the parade. And after a touch of resistance on his part, he finally said, fuck it, going over to American-International Pictures to make his first film in that vein, Slaughter! The Jack Starrett-directed Slaughter was the Jim Brown starring smash all those other movies were supposed to be. And from that day forward Jim Brown became that genre’s biggest superstar (as popular as Fred Williamson was, he was always number two). And following Slaughter came a string of movies where Jim Brown played a badass motherfucker! Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off, Black Gunn, The Slams and Three The Hard Way where he starred with the other two most popular male stars of the genre, Fred Williamson and Jim Kelly. And when that film played in black neighborhoods it was one of the biggest cultural events of the decade (I watched it once on a Sunday afternoon on television in the Los Angeles County Jail lock-up).

In 1972 my Mom was dating a black professional football player. So in an effort to get in good with her, he wanted to hang out with me. He asked her: Does he like football? She said: No, he likes movies. So he took me to my first movie in a black theatre in a black neighborhood. The film was Jim Brown’s brand new movie Black Gunn (the radio spot proclaimed: Jim Brown’s gonna’ git the motha’ who killed his brotha’). And frankly, I’ve never been the same since. To one degree or another, I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to recreate that experience of watching a brand new Jim Brown movie on Saturday night in a black cinema in 1972. The closest experience I ever had with a white audience at that time, was how they reacted to Sean Connery’s James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. Still…there was no comparison. When Jim Brown sat behind his desk and Bruce Glover (Crispin’s father) and his other white gangsters threatened Jim Brown’s Gunn, and Gunn hit a button and under the desk a sawed-off shotgun dropped in his lap…the jam-packed cinema of black males cheered in a way the ten-year-old little me had never seen in a movie theatre before. At that time, living with a single mother, it was probably the most masculine experience I’d ever been a part of. And I remember as the movie ended with a freeze-frame of Jim Brown as Gunn, the guy behind me proclaiming out loud: “Now that’s a movie about a bad motherfucker.”
I Escaped From Devil’s Island wasn’t intended to be a blaxploitation movie. The initial idea was to beat Papillon to the punch at the box office. Nevertheless Jim Brown was the biggest star of that black action movie genre. And once it was done, United Artists sold it primarily to Jim’s black male audience base and the film did well enough when it came out. But it played for years and years as a second feature on Times Square and at urban grindhouses and on the lower half of drive-in double and triple features. And that black male audience that the film was primarily sold to was notoriously homophobic. So I’m sure the reaction to the Le Bras and Jo-Jo dynamic (which includes a scene where Le Bras pretends to have sex with Jo-Jo) among audiences of Watts and Compton and Inglewood and Oakland and Harlem and Detroit must have been positively incendiary. In retrospect, it’s both surprising and gratifying that Jim Brown was down with such subversive tinkering of his persona. There are black male stars today that refuse even a hint of sexual ambiguity for the very same reason. They don’t think their audience can handle it. And all of this is doubly surprising that it’s William Fucking Witney – King of the Serials – Roy Rogers auteur – at the helm.

And Wild Bill Witney wasn’t done yet. His last film is a ridiculous satire about an all-black female motorcycle gang called Get Down and Boogie. It takes on a certain racist Kentucky Colonel who’s masterminding a diabolical plot to control the black community through his franchise of fast food rib joints (so far the only cinematic treatment of the rumor in black folklore that popular brands in the black community like Church’s Fried Chicken and Marlboro cigarettes are secretly owned by The Ku Klux Klan). And in one of the last days of a directing career that spanned constant shooting of film since the mid-thirties Bill Witney wrapped it up by shooting The Dramatics singing Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get!