The late River Phoenix stars in two of the four films that I’m adding to my lists for summer viewing.
1. The Mosquito Coast (1986) with Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren, River Phoenix, Jadrien Steele, Martha Plimpton, and Andre Gregory: Harrison Ford seems to be at his best when he’s directed by Peter Weir (Witness), and this film is no exception. Ford plays Allie Fox, a mad scientist. Actually, he’s a genius of an inventor who descends into madness.
Paul Theroux published the book in 1982, a time when President Ronald Reagan was escalating the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. Theroux’s Allie Fox is convinced a nuclear disaster is inevitable, so he moves his family (a wife, two sons, and twin daughters) to Central America to start a new life. It’s hard to imagine how that would protect them from a nuclear holocaust, but you recognize very quickly that the man is becoming mentally unbalanced.
Paul Theroux visited Quito, Ecuador, in the mid 1970’s while he was writing The Old Patagonian Express. I was living in Quito at the time, and Theroux visited and interviewed a friend of mine named Moritz Thomsen. I’ve always suspected that part of Allie Fox was loosely based on Moritz. Not that Moritz was mad, far from it. However, Moritz had left the U. S. (out of boredom, not out of fear) to join the Peace Corps at age 48. He documented his experiences in the book Living Poor, which Theroux was familiar with. He chose to try to help a coastal village, accessible only by boat, in the jungles of Ecuador. He tried to show them how Americans farmed more efficiently. He even got someone to donate a tractor to the village. When he demonstrated how the tractor worked to the natives, the tractor bogged down in the wet soil. He could never move it and had to watch it for weeks as it became engulfed and consumed by the jungle. Moritz told me that he never accomplished a thing in the two years he worked in that village. Likewise, Allie Fox tries to change the Mosquito Coast into the country he left. He builds an ice house for refrigeration and air conditioning, and it ultimately leads to disaster.
River Phoenix narrates the film and plays the older son. He has an interesting scene with Martha Plimpton, who plays a daughter of a missionary (Andre Gregory of My Dinner with Andre fame). The chemistry between River and Martha was so good that it undoubtedly is what led to their re-teaming in the superb Running on Empty.
Young Jadrien Steele plays the younger son and holds his own with this fine cast so well that it probably got him the juicy role of the invalid youth in Hallmark’s production of The Secret Garden the following year.
2. Shiloh (1997) with Blake Heron, Scott Wilson, Michael Moriarty, Ann Dowd, and Rod Steiger: This film is intended to draw attention to cruelty to animals. The dog in this film is no phony hero. He’s just a regular dog that is abused by his owner.
After thirty years, this movie re-unites Scott Wilson and Rod Steiger. In best picture Oscar winner, In the Heat of the Night, Sheriff Steiger captured runaway suspect Wilson on a bridge between Mississippi and Arkansas. Wilson was innocent then, but this time he’s as sorry as they come.
Mr. Wilson is playing against reality in this one. He is actually an activist against animal cruelty, but he’s playing a guy named Judd who poaches animals out of season and abuses his own hunting dogs.
Mr. Steiger is no longer a tough guy with a conscience; instead, he’s a just a nice guy with a conscience. He plays a country store owner and veterinarian who befriends the young man who brings him an injured dog, and he would have done it for free if the kid had let him.
The film belongs to young Blake Heron ( Marty) who finds an abused dog at the Shiloh bridge, hence the name of the dog. Judd had hit the dog in the eye with a rifle butt, and the dog understandably ran away. Marty has to return the dog to his owner, but decides to work odd jobs during the summer to earn enough money to buy the dog from Judd. He even works for Judd with the understanding that he gets the dog when the work is done. But is Judd as good as his word?
Marty is the kind of kid that any father would be proud of, but Michael Moriarty plays a proud, strict father who seems never satisfied and even refuses to consider having a dog in the family. But don’t give up on him. In the credits, Rod Steiger was thanked for his advice and guidance. Remember the tough sheriff with a conscience? This father may have a heart as well.
This is a good little movie.
3. Stand By Me (1986) with Wil Wheaton, River Phoenix, Corey Feldman, Jerry O’Connell, Kiefer Sutherland, John Cusak, and Richard Dreyfuss: This coming-of-age classic takes place at the end of the summer of 1959 in Oregon. Four pals are anticipating their first day in high school until they learn the whereabouts of the body of a missing classmate. They then set out on 20-30 mile hike along railroad tracks hoping to become heroes for finding the body.
The story is told by Gordon Lachance (Richard Dreyfuss) as he writes about an adventure he had as a youth. Young Gordie is played by Wil Wheaton, who was a regular on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Gordie is the forgotten son of two parents who are still grieving over the death of their favorite son. John Cusak plays the late brother, who admired Gordie’s writing talents and supported his younger brother when his parents failed.
Gordie’s other supporter is Chris (River Phoenix), who came from a bad family and was supposed to turn out bad, too. He was accused of stealing milk money at the school. Did he really do it?
Corey Feldman plays Teddy, whose ear was nearly burned off by his father. Teddy, however, defends his “looney” father, who had stormed the beaches at Normandy.
The fourth pal Vern is the chubby motormouth who learned where the body was supposed to be. He’s played by Jerry O’Connell, who trimmed down and buffed up after this movie and is unrecognizable in later roles.
Unfortunately for the foursome, the local teenage hoods also learn where the body is. Their leader, Ace, is played by Kiefer Sutherland long before he became a hero saving the day on TV’s 24. There is a great confrontation toward the end of the film between Ace and Gordie.
Along the way to find the body, the boys wonder what Goofy is, hear the story of Lard Ass, get chased by a dog that’s known to “sic balls,” get covered in leeches, and grow up a little bit.
We are reminded in this film that we all have special friends at various times in our lives. We share good and bad experiences together, move on, and make other friends from year to year. Later on, we wonder what ever happened to those who once mattered to us.
4. Flood Tide (1958) with George Nader, Cornell Borchers, and Michel Ray: A man named Bill Holleran is convicted of murder on the testimony of a crippled boy, David Gordon. Steve Martin, who had rented his beach house to Holleran, returns from a business trip to help. Martin knows that David is an habitual liar, and he knows why. David expects his mother to devote all her attention to his needs. Anyone else who receives her attention may be in serious trouble.
George Nader admitted that he was never given very interesting roles to play, but he thought he did a pretty job making his one dimensional characters likeable. This is a good example. He plays Steve Martin, who falls in love too quickly with David’s mother, inexplicably rejects his girlfriend (the gorgeous Joanna Moore) , and befriends David too magnanimously. But Nader somehow makes it work.
Cornell Borchers no doubt got the part as David’s mother because she had played Michel Ray’s mother four years earlier in The Divided Heart. Also she looks and sounds very much like Ingrid Bergman. But since she’s not Ingrid Bergman, it’s a little hard to understand how Mr. Martin preferred her to Joanna Moore.
The plum role goes to young Michel Ray. He has to display both a bitter, secretive, manipulating liar as well as a vulnerable kid whom you really want to like. He plays David Gordon, who was injured in a accident five years earlier and is unable to walk. Michel got his role in The Divided Heart (1954) because of his ability to snow ski. He starred in The Brave One (1956), which involved bullfighting. In The Tin Star (1957), with Henry Fonda, he rode a pony. He was a pretty lively young actor to be restrained for an entire movie. He later rode a camel in Lawrence of Arabia (he decided after spending nearly two years on that film that acting was interfering with his education; he retired from the screen and is now a billionaire and one of the richest men in the United Kingdom).
by David Offutt, July 2008