Scott O’Dell’s beloved award-winning novel was made into a wonderfully captivating film that’s tragically been cast aside
Island of the Blue Dolphins is new on Blu-ray from Scorpion Releasing and Kino Lorber.
The “Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island” was an indigenous woman in the 19th century who was accidentally deserted on her home island when her tribe migrated, leaving her to survive on her own for nearly twenty years.
Author Scott O’Dell was inspired by the story to loosely adapt it into his 1960 children’s novel Island of the Blue Dolphins, incorporating elements of the rather tragic history and making into a lighter — but still very impactful — tale of a more youthful protagonist. A film adaptation quickly followed in 1964.
The novel was a childhood favorite of mine, which made it seem especially weird that I had never heard of the movie. That was certainly the source of some trepidation when the new Blu-ray version of the film, now available from Scorpion Releasing and Kino Lorber, was offered for review. Nevertheless, my fondness for the book is deeply ingrained and I pounced on the opportunity to check out the film.
I fully expected to be disappointed.
Karana (Celia Kaye) is a teenage girl who lives with her tribe on an island west of the Californian coast, their secluded existence only occasionally interrupted by outside influence. An encounter with a violent group of Aleutian trappers changes their fate forever. The party is captained by a white explorer (up-and-comer George Kennedy in one of his early roles), a cheery seeming fellow who is ever accompanied by his aggressive dog. But after scouring the area of its resources, the outsiders cheat on their trading agreement, not only stealing away their spoils without compensation, but massacring many of the tribesmen, including their chief — Karana’s father.
Dismayed, the remnant of survivors are compelled to leave their island. Karana’s impetuous brother Ramo accidentally misses the boat, and she swims back ashore to stay with him. It’s not long until the boy is killed by the Island’s wild dogs — who now answer to a new alpha, the captain’s hound who was also left behind — leaving her completely and utterly alone.
The film does not enjoy a very high profile (and carries a middling 2.9 on Letterboxd), but getting past some of the dated elements (white actors in native parts, stilted acting) that color the first act, a wonderful story emerges — a portrait of loneliness and survival. Poignant themes of forgiveness and determination play out naturally in the narrative in a way that isn’t spelled out, but also won’t be lost on children. Alone in the world, Karana must learn to survive, taking on traditionally male (and forbidden) tasks like hunting and building — and also to find friendship in unlikely places, from among those whom she might consider her enemies.
While Karana has some adventures and finds pockets of happiness, for the most part the tale is about a girl’s battle with her isolation and abandonment. For a family film, it’s rather melancholic and sometimes a little heavy. My daughter and I both cried a lot watching this, completely invested in the story of a girl who battles not only her deep loneliness, but a vengeful hatred that falls away after she mortally wounds the alpha dog and feels, rather than the satisfaction she seeks, the despairing pang of regret for what she’s done. Despite their enmity, Karana and the hound, whom she names Rontu, become each others’ closest companions — mutually left behind and bonded by fate.
This film has been resigned to obscurity and doesn’t even seem to have any cult appreciation among those who’ve seen it, but I have no harsh words for it. It’s a little shaky at the start, but most of the problems disappear along with the wider cast — once it’s the Karana and Rontu show, it’s fully engrossing, and by the end (which is astoundingly moving for simply being an internal struggle in which Karana must make a fateful choice), I was completely enamored.
Karana finds fleeting moments of happiness, often only to lose them. Even trivial things, like befriending a seal pup, carry a big impact because, in her isolation, they occupy her whole life. This is just wonderful storytelling.
The film is actually very reminiscent of the beloved and then-recent 1957 classic Old Yeller, similar in both story and style, but with a bit more melancholy tone. I love both, but my initial sense (with just the one viewing of Island against many of Yeller) is that I prefer this one.
Even before entering fatherhood I’ve always had a soft spot for girls’ coming of age films, and it’s likely that many viewers simply won’t be as taken by it as I was. But I’d certainly urge you not to skip on it because of poor perception or reviews, especially if you enjoyed the novel or if aspects of this review resonate with you. Highly recommended.
Scorpion Releasing via Kino Lorber have released Island of the Blue Dolphins in a pretty standard format, a Blu-ray disc in a blue case and featuring the film’s classic poster art.
This edition boasts a new 2K master. The transfer’s appearance is on the soft side and has some snow and small scratches evident, moreso at the beginning of the first reel, which soon stabilizes after the first few minutes. Personally I always like it when older films have a little grit — more character and feeling of a theatrical experience as far as I’m concerned. But I get that many viewers prefer a clean, digitally restored print. For a film that (tragically) has virtually no cultural footprint, I think this looks quite solid, especially the vibrant colors. As far as I can tell this movie seems to have skipped DVD altogether, so this is certainly by far the best the film has ever looked outside of a movie theater.
Special Features and Extras
The disc includes the film’s original trailer as well as a curated gallery of trailers for other movies carried by the label, mostly from family films.
Theatrical Trailer (2:37)
Almost Summer (3:28), CHOMPS (1:57), For Those Who Think Young (2:51), Pufnstuf (2:49), Where the Lilies Bloom (3:09)
— A/V Out
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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.