King of the Damned (1935, UK)
If honourable mentions were handed out for well-meaning prison movies, this might get one. Not because it’s a great film (it’s certainly not that), but because it tries, honourably, to draw parallels between the struggle of prisoners against an oppressive regime, and the struggle of undervalued workers against their oppressive capitalist masters. In the end, sadly, the metaphor detracts from any real impact it makes as a prison drama.
The film is set on the island of Santa Maria, a Spanish (or Spanish-speaking – Equatorial Guinean, perhaps) penal colony (a conscious ploy, it seems, to avoid offending France by imputing that Devil’s Island might be in need of reform). Its 3,000 prisoners seem to have been transported for life; when liberated once their sentences have been served, they are not returned to their fair-headed homeland but are simply left to eke out an existence in the jungle or the island’s only town.
The penal colony’s elderly Commandant Fernandez (CM Hallard) has unfortunately become gravely ill, and his beautiful daughter Anna (Helen Vinson) flies in to his bedside. Anna has another reason for wanting to visit Santa Maria – her fiancé, Major Ramon Montez (Cecil Ramage), is the second-in-charge, and they have spent two years apart. Anna is warned before she gets off the plane that Ramon might have changed in the couple of years he’s been on Santa Maria. It’s a useful tip; it’s evident that in a short time Ramon has become a cad and a rotter (or maybe, in Spanish, un canalla y un sinvergüenza) who is corruptly using prison labour to build a road for the local mining company (for some significant personal reward), and whose basic approach is to “keep (the convicts) afraid of us.” With Anna’s father’s condition not improving, Ramon is appointed Commandant.
Anna is a little shocked and troubled when she sees her fiancé punish a prisoner simply for advocating for a colleague who was too ill to work, and even more so when Ramon gets drunk at dinner and insults his prospective father-in-law by telling all and sundry that the regime has been “too soft”, that it is “a penal settlement, not a sanatorium” and that it “has never been properly run.” She hurries out of the dinner and engages in conversation with Ramon’s prisoner servant, an educated man known only by his number, 12183 (or ’83’ for short, played by Conrad Veidt), who tells her, “Perhaps the day is coming when the horrors and the evils of this place be swept away. On that day I will create a new island where men will work side by side for the common good, respecting each other and themselves. A day of justice and reason and hope.” Ramon spies them in conversation and when 83 later refuses to tell him what they talked about, promptly (and punitively) reassigns him to ‘The Roads’ – the most gruelling of the work areas, being more swamp than road – telling Anna that the prisoner in whom she had shown an interest had to be suddenly hospitalised with malaria.
83 is not fussed. The undisputed leader of the prisoners, he has been planning an insurrection and has been looking for someone to ensure that the workers on The Roads play their part when the rebellion kicks off. His loyal sidekick is 98 (Noah Beery), a big-hearted, smiling thug with a fondness for drink, who is uncommonly known not just by his number, but as Mooche.
Under Ramon’s rule, the prisoners are getting increasingly restless; all are waiting for the sign from 83 to revolt. When a flood in another part of the island leads to a contingent of guards being redeployed (escorting a team of prisoners) to repair an aqueduct, 83 prepares to strike: the guards will be at half strength, and should be easily overpowered by the thousands of prisoners. But there is, of course, a rat in their midst who alerts the guards to the plot: 43, or The Greek (Edmund Willard), who has a beef with Mooche, tips off a guard; Mooche strikes the guard, takes his gun, other guards blow their whistles; the departing guards hear the commotion and return to the camp, Mooche shoots The Greek, and is soon arrested and readied for execution.
Plan B is for the remaining 2,999 prisoners to rescue Mooche while they are all compulsorily assembled to watch his death sentence carried out. But on the night before the execution, 83 is told, “Your free pardon has come through at last.” Oh-oh; dilemma. He selflessly elects to stay with and lead his men, rather than grab his freedom and leave them to it. When the revolt starts, the guards are caught a little by surprise and are overwhelmed. The prisoners take control, with Ramon, Anna and the guards taken captive but treated with great decency. 83 immediately sets out to prove what the prisoners can achieve “if let alone.” They drain the swamp. Mooche gets off the booze. They work cooperatively and, mostly, voluntarily. The men regain their self-respect: “they’re men again!” The prison becomes the socialist idyll.
After three months a boat attends the island, (Anna previously having not given the game away when the plane returned for her, despite her father being killed in the rebellion), and Ramon (proving again that he is a cad and a rotter) alerts the ship to the trouble on the island. The game is up! The convicts are relieved of their command. The ship’s Captain Torres (Raymond Lovell) promises 83 a fair trial.
There are lots of little problems with the movie. To start, whereas I can see that the guards might call 83 ’83’, it seems less likely that the prisoners would do so, also. A trifling matter, I know, but what do you do in a prison of 3,000, where you’d expect thirty-odd 83s? When 83 is called to the office, do all thirty turn up?
A bigger problem is the worthy Conrad Veidt, (a German who fled his home country with his Jewish wife during Hitler’s rise to power), who is not entirely convincing as a person whom thousands would follow (and who, post-insurrection, would be able to prevent the degraded, brutalised, vengeful masses from molesting Anna and their ghastly former tormentors). It’s also hard to believe that the penal settlement has deteriorated so quickly from whatever it was under the decent Fernandez, to become a place of fermenting rebellion in the short time that he has been ill. And why Ramon would use 83 as a trusty is also bewildering; although there are similar examples (notably Andy Dufresne in Shawshank), prison wardens are generally pretty good at avoiding having prisoners who are smarter than they are working in positions where they have access to the most sensitive workings of the prison. And is it then not a touch naive for 83 to think that in response to him being able to show that the convicts could operate the penal colony better than the officers, the authorities would be happy to forget about the rebellion and leave the prisoners to run things on Santa Maria?
For all its shortcomings, in showing that prisoners have untapped skills and the capacity to act responsibly if only given the chance, it makes an uncommon (and optimistic) point worth making.
Posted on March 7th, 2021 at 9:21 pm. Updated on March 7th, 2021 at 9:21 pm.
#319 in the Top 500