Krak’d Up

Krakatoa, East of Java may be the only film famous for not knowing where it is.  It’s right in the title.  Which announces, for all to read, that Krakatoa is to the east of Java.  Whereas—as any spin of a globe will tell you—Krakatoa is to Java’s west.  Some producer’s face must’ve been mighty red about that.  I vaguely recall hearing, when the film was released in 1968, of its big title boo-boo; of which my brother told me, that the joke going round Hollywood was that the film should have been renamed:  Krakatoa—WAY East of Java.

I guess Rudyard Kipling got it wrong

Just what kind of research did the movie’s staff do?  Hold a map up to a mirror?  Consult an atlas printed backwards?  Who knows?  But when you’ve got a multi-million-dollar film ($2-3 mil on SFX alone), whose title tells everyone that you can’t tell East from West—they are in opposite directions—that’s embarrassing.  It’s like not remembering to pull your pants up (I trust everyone knows which way is down).  Per IMDB, the producers learned of their mistake only after all the advertising and publicity materials had been prepared, and they thought it too expensive to make changes.  Well, it was the pre-digital age, when printing involved actual typesetting, so maybe they had a point.  Per Wikipedia, the producers thought that “East” had a more “exotic” sound than “West,” so left the title as is.

To the exotic hoots of baffled movie goers, no doubt.

I’d loved to have been a fly on the wall at that producers’ meeting when they brought the bad news.  Listen, fellas, says the Head Honcho, we’ve blown half our budget on advertising, and NOW you tell me the title points the wrong way?  Then there’d be one of those Errol-Flynn-rallying-the-troops moments, with the Big Chief urging everyone to ignore cutting comments from the likes of National Geographic and brazen the whole thing out.  So what if it’s West, we’ll just put East in a bigger font!  Isn’t the concept of direction relative, anyway?  All we gotta do is focus on that volcano and forget everything else…

That’s what everyone did—forget the movie, I mean—because the dang thing tanked at the box office.  Re-released in the late 1970s, eruptively retitled Volcano and with a “Feelerama” soundtrack, the response was still underwhelming; and the film is remembered today with a snicker.  Poor Krakatoa.  Even with Feelerama, it couldn’t cop a feel.

I have another thought about this expensive floperoo.  And that is—who cares whether Krakatoa is East, West, North, South, two parasangs over the horizon, or around the corner and three blocks to your left?  It’s a lousy title.  Except to the American Association of Geographers, does it matter where, or where not, Krakatoa is?  Shouldn’t a label for a movie about one of the biggest natural explosions in recorded history at least indicate that?  Remember that old 1937 John Ford movie, The Hurricane?  Ok, raise your hands, everyone who can’t figure what that movie’s about.

Me, I can’t figure one of those old-time movie moguls, Louis B. Mayer or Darryl Zanuck, settling on such a say-nothing title.  Those guys were showmen, who knew how to sell.  Put some oomph in it, they’d have said.  Maybe Krakatoa, Danger Island.  Or Krakatoa, Where Danger Lives.  Or what about Voyage to KrakatoaFrom Here to Krakatoa?  Escape From Krakatoa?  Doom Comes to KrakatoaKrakatoa and The Pit of Fire?  Krakatoa Meets the Big Boom?  Or Krakatoa Two?  (That one’s a pun; see if you can guess it.)  Pick a name that will pair Krakatoa with excitement, not with a geography lesson.  And a wrong lesson, at that.  As marketing goes, it’s Zilch.

That’s probably why, when I finally saw the movie, I was surprised to discover it had an honest-to-God plot.  Like, a real story with characters and a narrative arc.  All this time, subconsciously, I must have thought of this film as a long travelogue—picturesque views of Krakatoa, its scenery, habitat, resident flora and fauna, estimated rainfall per year—that ended with a (literal) bang.  “And so, to the soothing rumble of volcanic activity, we take our leave of sunny Krakatoa, bidding good-bye (look, guys, can we hurry it up, this baby’s gonna blow) until next time…”  Exit, Pursued by a Lava Flow.

The movie’s actual tale, taking place in 1883, concerns a sea captain (Maximillian Schell) seeking to recover a fortune in pearls from a sunken ship.  Accompanying him are his lover (Diane Baker) who knows the ship’s whereabouts, and a motley crew of experts to locate the vessel by water and air:  A neurotic deep-sea diver (Brian Keith), a diving-bell inventor (John Leyton), a pearl diver (Jacqui Chan), and a father-son balloonist team (Rossano Brazzi, Sal Mineo).  Along for the ride are 30 convicts the captain is forced to take on board for delivery to another port, as well as the deep-sea diver’s girlfriend (Barbara Werle), a past-her-first-bloom singer who specializes, so she claims, in “social occasions, weddings, and smokers.”  Talents not exactly suited for the pursuit of sunken treasure.

Especially when that sunken treasure went smack dab down next to the isle of Krakatoa.  Which lately has been emitting a series of unpleasant growls from its blazing interior…

Basically, Krakatoa is a conventional adventure story (more than one writer has noted its resemblance to an earlier Krakatoa-themed film, 1953’s Fair Wind to Java), but its surrounding movie is weird.  At least six other plots mingle with its main one, covering spouse abuse, insanity, generational conflict, interracial romance, convict mutiny, drug addiction, and a search for a lost child.  Musical numbers pop up randomly, particularly the now-notorious “I’m Just an Old-Fashioned Girl,” which the diver’s girlfriend sings while performing a striptease—wiggle-wagging her bottom as she denudes herself of petticoats and garters.  I assume this bit was inserted to appeal to an adult demographic—I can’t think of any other sane reason why it should be here—though I think most adults in the audience would have greeted this scene with dumbfounded silence.  Wasn’t this movie supposed to be about a volcano…?

That’s the movie’s problem.  Beyond the culminating big bang, no one involved in Krakatoa’s making seemed to know what it was about.  The entire movie was conceived around its last quarter hour, when the island erupts and a tsunami hits (per IMDB, the special effects sequences were shot first, before a script was written), so there’s a big gap of time to fill.  How to keep viewers in their seats until the grand finale?  Well, how ‘bout we give ‘em a racy music-hall routine, along with an arty bit of the laudanum-crazed diver hallucinating about giant octopi, as well as a heartwarming scene of rescued kiddies; plus one sequence that has the diving bell losing its air hose, the balloon losing its motor, and the convicts taking over the ship (the One Damn Thing After Another plot).  That some 20 minutes were cut for re-release (including, mercifully, the striptease) tells you someone had second thoughts about what was going on in this film.

Though even at reduced length, the film still feels like it’s going nowhere.

In hindsight, I think it’s symbolic that Krakatoa was released in 1968.  That year marked the collapse of the studio system (as well as the end of the Production Code), and I think that may account, in part, for the film’s bloat, unease, and confusion.  There was no one—no Mayer, Zanuck, Warner—to tell the makers what this film was.  Is it adventure, romance, treasure hunt, mystery quest, disaster flick, or (eye roll here) musical?  Even the B-level cast seems befuddled (that usually fine actor, Brian Keith, barely twitching a facial muscle as the freaked-out diver, probably did it strictly for the paycheck).  Everything’s so ‘off’ here that I wonder if the title error could connote another way of reading the film—as a kind of alternative universe, where Krakatoa really is east of Java and a salvage operation really can break out into a bump-and-grind routine.

The special effects, however, are quite good, the miniatures, mattes, and multiple explosions convincingly done.  The staff obviously did a lot of research into getting everything right—the ocean, the volcano, the tsunami, the voyage, the ship…

Everything except just where the hell Krakatoa is.

And that’s right in the title.

While it’s available, here‘s the original-length version (two hours and eleven minutes) of Krakatoa, East of Java on YouTube, in a pretty good print.  For the curious, Barbara Werle’s music-hall number begins at the 20:10 mark.  It’s one of those scenes where you find yourself thinking what the actors were thinking as they filmed it.  That Werle was apparently the girlfriend of Cinerama head honcho William Forman (the film was shot in the Cinerama process) may explain a lot…

BONUS CLIPS:  A Tale of Two Trailers:

1. Here’s what said to be the official trailer for Krakatoa, East of Java; of which I can only say it fits that unevocative title.  Just how bloody hard was it to sell this film?

2. Here’s the German-language trailer for the film, which at least has Oomph — “große Katastrophe!”

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