APES ON FILM: Meek Are the Children in ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS

By Lucas Hardwick
Contributing Writer

 

Welcome to Apes on Film! This column exists to scratch your retro-film-in-high-definition itch. We’ll be reviewing new releases of vintage cinema and television on disc of all genres, finding gems and letting you know the skinny on what to avoid. Here at Apes on Film, our aim is to uncover the best in retro film. As we dig for artifacts, we’ll do our best not to bury our reputation. What will we find out here? Our destiny.

 

 

 

ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS – 1964
4 out of 5 Bananas
Starring: Celia Kaye, George Kennedy, Carlos Romero, Larry Domasin, and Junior
Director: James B. Clark
Rated: Not Rated
Studio: Kino Lorber & Scorpion Releasing
Region: 2K Blu-Ray, Region A
BRD Release Date: October 18, 2022
Audio Formats: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect Ratio: 1:85:1
Run Time: 93 minutes
CLICK HERE TO ORDER

 

Ask any kid in a Steven Spielberg movie and they will tell you that grown-ups are terrible people. But long before Spielberg was torturing children with dinosaurs, aliens, ghosts, and death, movies like ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS were around to introduce kids to the very grown-up institution of suffering at an early age.

Based on author Scott O’Dell’s young adult novel, which is based on a true story, the film tells the account of Karana (Celia Kaye), a young Native American girl living alone on San Nicholas Island off the coast of California, it doesn’t seem so horrible at the outset. In fact, the Chumash tribe as portrayed in James B. Clark’s (FLIPPER,MY SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN) 1964 film live a rather idyllic existence on the California Channel Islands. That is until the day a white sea captain (George Kennedy) and a group of Aleut natives swing by to round up a few otter skins and renege on the promise to exchange the otter hunt for iron knives and harpoons. Instead, Chief Chowig (Carlos Romero) — Karana’s father — takes a couple of fatal rounds to the chest, eventually forcing the tribe to seek refuge on the mainland with a group of Spanish missionaries. In a rush to escape the island, Karana’s brother Ramo (Larry Domasin) is left behind. Being the only family Ramo has left, Karana swims back to the island to be with him.

In the spirit of suffering, things do not get easier for Karana as the story progresses, and she continues to endure one hardship after another. Considering the limited population on the island after her tribe leaves, it’s easy to deduce that Ramo’s fate is sealed early in the film. Viewers needn’t sweat these early plot twists; the movie isn’t as concerned with storytelling mechanics so much as it is with character development and Karana’s singular journey.

At the heart of the film is Karana’s relationship with the Aleut dog that’s left behind. Karana’s kinship with the dog she calls Rontu (Junior) — meaning “fox eyes” — is rather ironic, and becomes a comment on grief, forgiveness, compassion, and ultimately companionship. While most audiences will grapple with how to reconcile their feelings for Rontu considering his alliance with the wild dogs on the island and ultimately his fatal attack on Ramo, Karana becomes the example of benevolence out of simple kindness or loneliness, or little of both. Karana does reluctantly attempt to kill Rontu out of revenge at first, but the dog survives and then never leaves her side, forging a nearly inseparable bond between the two. Later in the film, Rontu disappears for a time leaving Karana alone to build arguably less meaningful relationships with other animals. Between his attack on Ramo and his penchant for disappearing, it can be a bit difficult for the audience to have a consistent fondness for Rontu. When Rontu eventually passes (we all saw it coming, right?) our hearts break for Karana’s loss and not necessarily for Rontu.

Unlike the adults in the film, Karana’s motivation is frequently driven by compassion. It’s Karana who goes back to be with her stranded brother, not the grown-ups. Karana forgives Rontu for killing Ramo. Karana pardons the Aleuts enough to make friends with one of their own when they return for more otters. Karana’s isolation gives her the freedom to make any choice she wants, and at every turn she chooses empathy and kindness. Meanwhile, the adults in the film routinely choose greed, betrayal, and cowardice.

Celia Kaye — the future ex-Mrs. John Milius — is simply adorable as the lovable Karana. Her spirited performance not only exhibits her resilience during the tough times, but guides the viewer’s emotions through the struggles of her lonesome existence.

Audiences familiar with Hollywood dog pedigrees may recognize Rontu’s (Junior) resemblance to his father Spike who famously portrayed the ill-fated OLD YELLER in the 1957 Disney film. Unlike Rontu’s fair-weather disposition, Junior never left Kaye’s side during the film’s production.

Very little is known about the real Lone Woman of San Nicholas Island, but most of what is known remains true for Clark’s adaptation of O’Dell’s novel. Eventually baptized as Juana Maria after she was brought to the mainland, the Lone Woman’s real name was never known. She belonged to the Nicoleño tribe who had inhabited the islands for 10,000 years, but were indeed forced to seek refuge when an opposing Alaskan tribe made their way down to California to hunt otters. Some accounts say Juana Maria had a son who eventually died, while most contend that she was completely alone until discovered by a fur trapper in 1853. Maria was assumed to be around 50 years old at the time of her discovery and not one member of the Nicoleño tribe remained alive upon her arrival to the mainland.

In the film, Karana is eventually rescued by a group of missionaries. And while suffering is a mainstay throughout the movie, the story ends on a happy note of relief, leaving out the part where the real Juana Maria dies of dysentery seven weeks after her arrival to the mainland. Thankfully, the film doesn’t play out the theme of suffering to its fullest extent.

Kino Lorber and Scorpion Releasing present ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS in a vibrant 2K high-definition restoration on Blu-ray disc. The only feature to speak of is a fun collection of trailers for young adult movies of the era. And with a briskly paced 93-minute runtime, Karana’s life on film is a historical storybook tale suitable for the whole family.

Written by grown-ups, made by grown-ups, produced by grown-ups, ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS presents a family-friendly version of a true tale that’s just troubling enough for children to consider things like death, betrayal, and loneliness as real constants that they must eventually face.

 

 

 

When he’s not working as a Sasquatch stand-in for sleazy European films, Lucas Hardwick spends time writing film essays and reviews for We Belong Dead and Screem magazines. Lucas also enjoys writing horror shorts and has earned Quarterfinalist status in the Killer Shorts and HorrOrigins screenwriting contests. You can find Lucas’ shorts on Coverfly.

Ape caricature art by Richard Smith.

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