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The Sunda Straits 1883: carrying a motley crew of adventurers, convicts and underwater
explorers, the SS Batavia Queen is searching for a sunken hoard of pearls. As the journey
reaches its destination, the island nearby begins a fearsome eruption...
A guilty pleasure, Krakatoa, East Of Java's principal claim to fame is its title, which erroneously places its subject on the wrong side of the island. Directed by Bernard Kowalski, whose rare non-TV credits include Attack Of The Giant Leeches (1959), and SSsssnake (1973), the film is probably his best, aided immensely as it is by some excellent widescreen cinematography emphasised with some convincing location shooting - facts rarely allowed for in the usual criticisms of a film which in addition was cut by almost 30 minutes for an American re-release. Allowing for the passage of years, the special effects, largely achieved through miniatures and blue screen work, range from passable to excellent. Even now, in this era of eye watering CGI, there's still a fascination is seeing how well such a catastrophe was portrayed. Doing justice to the original events, however - one of the greatest eruptions ever known, leading to perhaps the single loudest noise ever heard on the face of the Earth from the main paroxysm, and a resulting 120 foot high tsunami killing over 30,000 - inevitably was going to be near impossible.
In the face of this impending volcanic disaster is Captain Hanson (Maximillian Schell), who has gathered together a team of experts to locate some missing treasure. The various human dynamics on board his tramp ship, as well as the anticipated eruption ahead, is what gives the film its tension, at least until the fireworks start. Included in this disparate band are father and son balloonists, (Sal Mineo and Rossano Brazzi), deep sea diver and laudanum addict Connerly (Brian Keith), with singing girlfriend Charley (Barbara Werle), as well as Dauzig (J.D. Canon) a scheming convict acquaintance of Hanson, Laura (Diane Baker) the widow of the original possessor of the pearls, Rigby (John Leyton) the claustrophobic scientist-operator of a diving bell, and so on. It's a nicely mixed group and one would expect plenty of steamy drama to be played out beneath sweltering decks. But the main problem the narrative is that, despite some promising elements, the audience has little empathy with the main group of characters. Despite the long running time of the film (130 minutes in the full version), they remain too fragmented, and script weaknesses mean that dramatic interest is often discharged too rapidly. The plot has the unenviable task of making drama out of what is essentially padding, as a group of people hang around to catch an expected catastrophe. But that's part of the fun these days, seeing how matters are dragged out between tantalising hints of the eruption to come, or how some potential (for instance the convict rebellion) is over with and wasted in just a few minutes, while others (like the love-hate relationship between father and son balloonists, or the latent sexuality of the Japanese women) is hardly exploited at all. This while the scenes between Hanson and Laura, of whom it is hinted still suffers from mental illness, are dragged out somewhat unnecessarily. For every wooden scene between these two, we would dearly love more about Dauzig's personal demons or his relationship with his comrades in chains below decks for instance, the resentful tension of which threatens to be every bit as violent as the island they are sailing towards.
But there's some incidental fun to be had along the way: one thinks of Keith and Werle in their cabin early on for instance, where she serenades him with a song as unexpected as it is irrelevant. It's a shipboard relationship between a heavyweight has-been and a shop worn female, recalling that between Ernest Borgnine and Shelly Winters in The Poseidon Adventure of three years later. Keith's addict-diver with the 'shot lungs' provides other of the film's whacked out highlights too, as when, high on his drug, he hallucinates and attacks one of the Japanese women. Eventually confined to a crate suspended over deck until he regains his senses, Connerly is a man who seems doomed from the moment we see him. A point-of-view shot through the wooden bars during his moment of trial, lensed as he swings helplessly back and forth, suggests a prison in which a condemned man finds himself. Such is typical of a film that has many such moments, those in which characters peer at a world fraught with challenge. Whether through eyepieces, between slats, out of portholes, from balloons and diving bells, down into holds packed full of convicts or steaming volcanic cauldrons, apprehensive observation and anticipation is the norm for those who ride the Batavia Queen. These moments aptly reflect back the concerns of an audience who, in this film more than others, have come principally to observe a promised spectacular.
Such a visual motif is one of the few unifying elements in the film, other than the overarching expectation of an eruption. The overwhelming episodic nature of events is obvious, but at least it has the merit of making the film fairly diverse in content and, even in its full length version, time passes quickly enough in Krakatoa. On top of this, the concluding explosions and fireworks from the island aside, Kowalski does manage one or two effective scenes, such as the scenes in the runaway balloon, the near-comedy of which reminds one of the balloon antics in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965), or the eerie sound effects caused by the nascent eruption (although one piece of eruption footage, conspicuously recycled, is a distraction). The simulation of audio effects one of the few times that the film actually reflects the subtle indications of such a massive event realistically as, for the rest of the film, the volcano is stereotyped into the usual 'burning mountaintop' image, set in mostly clear air at that, with the phenomenon of falling blankets of ash entirely overlooked. For some reason too, Krakatoa's eruption brings on a storm at sea - a nice easy, extra, touch of drama to be sure, although quite why volcanism should affect the weather is uncertain. Tossed and buffeted, Hanson's ship is a place of refuge amongst the impending devastation and, after dropping off one or two of the travellers who decide to sit out the expected tsunami on shore - a mistake, as any alert audience in this situation immediately realises - it faces the momentous tide alone. Like a similar wave that topples the aforementioned SS Poseidon, the one that comes up here seems to break mysteriously as it approaches the ship, but the outcome is never really in doubt. On shore, the results are worse, but reasonably well done, Kowalski's images suggesting something of a biblical deluge in scenes, which even the film's doubters still find impressive. In fact so much has been leading up to the grand finale, so many supporting stories established, that one wishes that Krakatoa would go on a little longer than it does, at least so that there was time to gauge the effect of such tumultuous effects on the key participants.
In its Region 3 incarnation Krakatoa, East Of Java looks splendid, but sadly arrives without any extras worth mentioning. This seems a shame, as the film has a minor cult following and there is plenty of gossip surrounding its production and subsequent exhibition (Sal Mineo for instance allegedly walked out of the premiere as he felt it was so poor). This while the production design, by the veteran Eugène Lourié no less, is surely worth a discussion on its own. Ultimately, what impresses most these days is the absence throughout of the earnestness that attends so many modern disaster movies, and the result is a still enjoyable film, one both flawed and innocent at the same time.