Island in the Sun (1957)

RIP, Harry Belafonte.

I have an admission to make: Harry Belafonte was the first singer I ever crushed on.

When I was a child, my parents had a large collection of LPs, and among the many singers we heard on those, the ones who stood out for me were Connie Francis, Pat Boone, Jim Reeves—and Harry Belafonte. I still remember a Belafonte album (Belafonte Sings of the Caribbean) we had, which was one of my favourites. This one was also present among the LPs at my maternal grandparents’ home in Kolkata, which we visited sometimes for Christmas. My mother’s father had worked for the Indian music giant HMV, so their home had a massive collection of LPs, with Belafonte front and centre. We didn’t just listen to his carols and hymns at Christmas; we listened to every song he’d made popular, from the soulful Jamaica Farewell (one of the first English language songs I learnt to sing) to hilarious ones like Matilda, Man Smart Woman Smarter, and the classic There’s a Hole in the Bucket (which, by the way, is also a favourite with my daughter: she and I sing it together and always end up having a good laugh).

I loved his voice. I thought the photo of him, smiling and so handsome, on the LP cover, showed that he didn’t just have the most fantastic voice, he was also easily the best-looking of all the singers.

I didn’t know, back then as a pre-teen, that Harry Belafonte was much, much more than a great singer. Also a good actor and an outspoken activist who campaigned tirelessly against apartheid, for civil rights, and in the fight to end poverty, among other causes.

I couldn’t possibly let Harry Belafonte’s death (on April 25, 2023) go unacknowledged. So here, a tribute: in the form of a review of an early Belafonte film.

Island in the Sun opens to the sound of Harry singing the title song while scenes are shown from around a fictitious Caribbean island named Santa Marta. Santa Marta, we are told (by way of the island’s governor, Lord Templeton, talking to a newly arrived American journalist), began as a French colony but is now part of the British Empire. It has the usual racial mix common in the Caribbean: nine-tenths of the population is coloured, which also includes those of mixed race.

The most important of the characters in this story are introduced at a party that Lord Templeton hosts for his son Euan (Stephen Boyd), who’s come to Santa Marta for a brief vacation before he returns to England and to Oxford. Euan has been a soldier in Egypt till recently, and he’s been away from ‘pretty girls’ so long that it doesn’t take him long to fall under the spell of the lovely Jocelyn Fleury (Joan Collins), the daughter of a wealthy planter of the island. He sees her across the party grounds, and is instantly smitten.

Jocelyn’s family includes her parents Julian and Betty (Basil Sydney and Diana Wynyard), and her elder brother Maxwell (James Mason). Maxwell, who lives in a large, rambling planter’s bungalow bequeathed by his father, is a bitter, hard man. Why he’s so hard and bitter emerges later in the film, when it is revealed that Maxwell’s father Julian had always favoured his elder son. Maxwell, relegated to being second-best, had to make do with local schools (studying beside those blacks) while Arthur, now dead in the war, had been privileged: Eton, Oxbridge, an illustrious career.

Maxwell’s angst is also directed towards his wife Sylvia (Patricia Owens), whom he strongly suspects of having an affair with a man named Hilary Carson (Michael Rennie). There do seem to be grounds for suspicion, though. Sylvia seems to spend a good deal of time in Carson’s company. And one day, Maxwell, returning home while Sylvia is out at the beach with Jocelyn and another girl friend, finds cigarette butts in the ashtray: some with lipstick on them, others very distinctive Egyptian cigarettes with gold foil around the filter: cigarettes that Carson freely admits to having got made specially from Cairo for himself.

Among those attending the party are also a young firebrand ‘revolutionary’ named David Boyeur (Harry Belafonte), who has been specially invited by Templeton. Accompanying David but basically gate-crashing, since she hasn’t got an invite, is drugstore worker Margot Seaton (Dorothy Dandridge). David has dared Margot to come along, and she’s taken him up on it, though she’s nervous.

Dorothy, however, quickly makes friends with Lord Templeton’s ADC, Dennis Archer (John Justin). Archer is obviously quite attracted to Margot, and he’s soon found out where she works, and so on.

Also at the party is an old acquaintance of David Boyeur’s: Mavis Norman (Joan Fontaine) has grown up on the island, and remembers David from when he used to work at the hotel where she and her family were staying when she was twelve years old. They catch up, talking with the relaxed and easy confidence of people who know each other fairly well.

Soon enough, over the course of a handful of scenes, three separate romantic relationships are built up.

Two of these are interracial. First, there is the obvious attraction, leading to an outright admission of love, between Margot Seaton and Dennis Archer. He goes to her drugstore on the pretext of buying toothpaste, but rather blatantly to ask her out: to invite her to a dance. From there on, there’s no stopping these two.

Then, there is the rather more subtle relationship between David Boyeur and Mavis Norman. What is going on between these two is understated, perhaps even hard to put a name to. Mavis goes on a day’s trip through the villages of Santa Marta with David; he shows her the village where he was born, the school he attended. There is a scene of somewhat taut chemistry where they’re talking by the roadside, but though it’s obvious that they’re at least attracted to each other, whether they’re willing to commit to anything, even to admitting it, is a moot point.

And then, there’s the one relation which no-one can point fingers at: Jocelyn and Euan. From the very moment they meet, these two clearly find each other fascinating. It’s just a matter of time before Euan proposes, and that happens following a night the two of them spend alone together at Maxwell’s home. There is something sinister underlying this—a man wearing a carnival mask sees Euan and Jocelyn arrive at the house, and while they’re inside, he watches surreptitiously. Later, when they emerge to drive away, they find that the car has been tampered with, leaving them stranded. And the telephone too is dead.

It’s a little disturbing, but Euan and Jocelyn make the most of it. And when Euan proposes the next day, Jocelyn obliquely asks her father if he knows of ‘any good reason’ why she and Euan shouldn’t marry. Euan, after all, is headed for the House of Lords; his wife must be worthy.

When Julian Fleury says there is no good reason for their not marrying, Jocelyn happily accepts Euan.

… but that happy complacency is shattered soon. The visiting American journalist, assiduously going about investigating race relations in Santa Marta, publishes an incendiary article in which he reveals an explosive truth: Julian Fleury’s grandmother was of African ancestry.

Suddenly, race has cropped up in unexpected places.

Based on a novel by Alec Waugh, Island in the Sun was produced by Darryl F Zanuck and directed by Robert Rossen. Zanuck, no stranger to controversial subjects for cinema, was so prepared for flak when he made this film, he had even promised film theatre owners compensation for fines they might face for screening the film.

As expected, the backlash to the film’s fairly outspoken ideas of race relations, including the interracial romances, was brutal. Island in the Sun was banned in some places (including Tennessee and the Bahamas) and Joan Fontaine was the recipient of some fairly vicious hate mail.

It is, however, an interesting film and one I found quite intriguing.

What I liked about this film:

The courage it shows in depicting a nuanced view of race relations (or at least more nuanced than I would have expected from the usual film of that period). This comes through again and again in the interactions between the characters, and not just in their romantic relationships, but otherwise too—and at times fairly subtly. For instance, there’s a scene where Mavis and David are walking through a village marketplace and stop at a shop outside which are rows of masks, ready for the upcoming carnival. Mavis is entranced, and just for fun, picks up a mask and tries it on. It’s a mask depicting an African woman, and David’s reaction is harsh: he whips it off Mavis’s face, without saying a word. White is white and black is black, and never the twain shall meet?

And there’s a brilliantly scathing speech by David as he confronts Maxwell at a political rally, challenging the planter with the truth of how he, Maxwell, sees race.

It’s not as if there’s much PDA: neither the Margot-Dennis couple nor the David-Mavis couple even kiss (the only romantic kiss is between Jocelyn and Euan), but the very fact that these interracial romances are part of the film is enough.

Then, there’s the ensemble cast, which is excellent: Harry Belafonte, James Mason, Dorothy Dandridge, Joan Fontaine, Stephen Boyd, Joan Collins… all fine actors, and used well here.

Last but not least, the visual and aural experience of it. Filmed in the Bahamas and Grenada, Island in the Sun is gorgeous, from the flame trees and bougainvilleas painting the landscape red and magenta, to the beaches, the coconut palms, the blue seas…

Part of that experience, too, are the songs. The title song and Lead Man Holler are the two Belafonte songs, and they’re wonderful, his voice hauntingly beautiful.

What I didn’t like:

Not very much, actually, though I do wish there had been more of Belafonte’s singing here.

Also, one niggle: what is the meaning behind that suspicious masked man watching while Euan and Jocelyn come to Maxwell’s bungalow? And why is the car tampered with, the telephone dead? This smacks too much of a deliberate attempt to ‘compromise a lady’s honour’ as they’d have it in a Regency romance, but I’m not buying it, and I couldn’t figure out what that was all about.

On the whole, this was an interesting, thought-provoking film. It left enough unsaid to be that much more intriguing (or was it perhaps that much more middle-of-the-road? I don’t know). And it said enough that made one wonder at just how prejudiced, how woefully blind even to their own prejudice, people can be.

Thank you for the music, for the films, for the voice, Harry. Farewell.


7 thoughts on “Island in the Sun (1957)

  1. This is one of my favourite Harry Belafonte movies, Madhu. Thanks for this wonderful review. I watched this for the first time as part of a series of ‘films on racial relations’ that our college film club organized. The screenings usually culminated in robust discussions on the films screened, with the panel comprising not only students but also writers, scenarists, film makers, actors, etc., who were regularly invited to be panellists. (I miss those days!)

    Like you, I first heard Harry Belafonte in my childhood – my father had a couple of his records and loved the man’s voice. And then, after I married, S introduced me to a lot more of his work. But I didn’t know about his activism or his continuing work with the underprivileged until much later.

    RIP Mr Belafonte. You are missed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That film club sounds wonderful, Anu – I can imagine how invigorating and interesting that might be, and for a film like this, where there can be so much to ponder over and discuss…

      Yes, I too learnt about his activism much later. What an example he set!


  2. Thank you for the recommendation. The film has a lot to make you think, and as you said, there is almost nothing to not like. It does take a nuanced view of race relations. The one thing that seems unrealistic to me is the absence of racist characters or clear racist attitudes.

    The characters are fleshed out and nuanced too: David Boyeur for example, a generally good guy, avoids developing any relationship with Mavis – because she is white, because he is more concerned with his political career.

    David, the budding politician, is the only character to profess any attachment to the island. Everyone else would leave if they could. That seems true of the real Harry Belafonte too. I’ve been wondering about his relationship with Jamaica and the West Indies. Did he think of the islands as home or have any attachment to them? I can’t find anything to suggest that he did. Though a big chunk of his schooling was in a British-style school in Jamaica, where he spent a lot of time with his mother’s relatives (mixed race).

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am glad you enjoyed this film. Yes, you’re right about there being no clearly racist characters, but to me it seemed more as if people like Maxwell, for instance, are inherently racist but try – perhaps out of a sense of political correctness – to tamp down the urge to show it.

      I have no idea whether Belafonte, in real life, had any links with the Caribbean: I hadn’t even known he schooled in Jamaica and spent time with local relatives. I suppose there must have been some affinity, given that a lot of his music, for instance, has definite shades of the Caribbean. Lot of calypso there.


      • Both his parents were from the West Indies, and they were illegal immigrants in New York. He was very young when his mother sent him back to live in Jamaica with her mother (this grandmother was white, daughter of a plantation manager). He came back to America in time for the last few years of school.
        This personal history suggests that the world of Island of in the Sun must have been a familiar one for Belafonte.


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