Actor George C. Scott and director Franklin J. Schaffner collaborated so effectively on Patton (1970) that it’s surprising they only worked together once more. And while their second picture is a much smaller endeavor than the duo’s celebrated military epic, Islands in the Stream is memorable in different ways. Adapted from Ernest Hemingway’s book of the same name, the picture takes place during World War II and details the exploits of Tom Hudson (Scott), an American sculptor living in the Caribbean. Separated from his old life—he left behind a bride and three children when relocating to the tropics—Tom is the quintessential Hemingway man’s man, an iconoclast driven by a code of honor few people can truly understand. Yet while some of Papa’s heroes express their individualism with battlefield courage and other such violent displays, Tom follows a more cerebral path. He’s all about beauty and truth, even if that means unmooring himself from society’s traditional expectations.
Schaffner and screenwriter Dennie Bart Peticlerc transpose literary devices from the source material, including chapter breaks and voiceover, so Islands of the Stream is a bit self-consciously arty. Furthermore, because the voiceover features Scott sensitively reading Hemingway’s staccato prose, the movie alternates between visceral scenes between characters and internalized moments during which the juxtaposition of images and Scott’s monologues advances understanding, if not necessarily the storyline. In other words, Islands in the Stream is an offbeat hybrid of full-blooded drama and novelistic rumination. Both elements work, to different degrees.
The best of the fully dramatized material involves Tom’s fraught relationships with his estranged wife, Audrey (Claire Bloom), and his sons, particularly young adult Tom Jr. (Hart Bochner), in whom the hero finds a kindred spirit. (A poignant sequence revolves around Tom meeting his children for the first time and taking them on a grueling fishing trip.) The best of the purely literary material arrives at the very end of the picture, when Schaffner finds just the right images to accentuate the segment of Scott’s voiceover that contains his character’s closing thoughts after experiencing loneliness, loss, and a kind of redemption.
The movie has significant flaws, not least of which is an episodic structure that impedes the building of proper dramatic momentum, but the elegance of Schaffner’s execution covers a multitude of sins. More importantly, Scott is at his very best—which is to say that his work is very near the pinnacle of American screen acting. Suppressing his natural tendency toward bluster in order to channel a character who keeps most of his feelings hidden, Scott conveys pain and regret while still illustrating the subtle idea that Tom Hudson considers each man’s life a work of art. So even if the movie’s penultimate passage, a long discursion into high-seas wartime adventure, stretches credibility and dilutes the impact of the film’s touching family-ties material, that’s a minor complaint. After all, it wouldn’t really be Hemingway without at least some hairy-chested excess.
Islands in the Stream: GROOVY