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The Mosquito Coast
November 26, 1986 | 117 minutes
Producer Jerome Hellman bought the rights to Theroux’s novel as soon as it was published, and Peter Weir committed to filming it. As the film went into pre-production, and Weir was in Central America scouting for locations, the financial backing for the film fell through and the project was suspended indefinitely. In the meantime, Weir was approached to direct “Witness” starring Harrison Ford. The film, which was Weir’s first American production, was a critical and commercial success, garnering eight Academy Award nominations. During the production of Witness, Weir discussed The Mosquito Coast with Ford who became interested in the role of Allie. With Ford attached to the project, financial backing and distribution for the film was easier to find (ultimately from Saul Zaentz and Warner Bros.). River Phoenix was cast as Fox’s son and Helen Mirren got the female lead as Ford’s submissive wife. It was only her second role in a Hollywood film after wrapping production on “2010: The Year We Make Contact”. Helen remembered being cast in “Mosquito Coast” in an interview on 2007’s Hollywood Greats:
It’s funny when I got that role, and I never expected to get it, with Harrison Ford, you know, in a film by Peter Weir. Hollywood movie! I remember I heard about it in New York and I left the meeting and I was walking on air. I thought, ‘I’ve cracked it. I’ve cracked it. I’m a Hollywood film actress’. And the exact opposite happened, the film got sunk without a trace and I was back to square one (laughs). Harrison was fascinating to work with because he was so incredible knowledgeable about the camera and he told me a great deal. I was like a frightened deer in the headlights of a car in front of the camera and Harrison totally understood the frame. He had a performance for this, for that. He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.
Harrison Ford recalled Mirren as much more prepared than she had remembered herself. “If Helen says that she didn’t know very much about acting for the camera I find it hard to believe because I never had any sense that she was ever uncomfortable or felt inadequate. She’s unique and individual. She doesn’t fit the mold of the typical American leading lady perhaps. I think Helen is a wonderful blend of natural, talent, understanding and technique and, dare we say it, balls. Asked in 1986 on why she took a part so calm and so passive, she drew comparisons to a much bigger role she had played before. “I had to come to the recognition that 85 percent of the women in the world are like that. It’s the myth of the ancient concept of the woman as mother. I’m not like that remotely. But if you play Lady Macbeth, you can’t sit there and say, ‘This is all wrong'”.
Filming began the week of February 7, 1986 in Belize and finished there on April 26 before moving to Georgia. Harrison Ford considered the role of Allie Fox to be a great opportunity, and he was elated about finally playing a character with such great complexity and depth. This character clearly differed from any previous role he had ever held before. Ford noted that “Allie is a complicated person, and it’s a complicated job for the audience to figure him out. He’s a good father and a bad father. He’s a monster, a clown, a fool, a genious.” Peter Weir wanted to avoid the falsities that often accompany filming on a hollywood backlot, thus the cast and crew were flown into Belize. Paul Theroux even flew down to watch the production. Although the cast and crew had to endure weeks of stifling heat and humidity, they recognized the importance of filming in a real jungle. Over 300 Belizians were hired to help construct the massive set- virtually a whole town had to be built. Ford amused and impressed everyone by periodically helping out the crew. He once stated that, “..the collar around my neck is blue. I know what it is to work and work hard. Acting is a job, a responsibilty, a complete task- all those things. I approach all work from a workman’s point of view. I expect to get my hands dirty, to get into a sweat and work overtime.”
Despite all premonitions, given the book’s success and Ford’s status as Hollywood’s leading man of the 1980’s, “The Mosquito Coast” became a critical and commercial failure. The New York Times called it “utterly flat.” In her review for the Washington Post, Rita Kempley wrote, “Sooner or later a man of invention will pollute paradise, a grand contradiction that gives Mosquito its bite and Ford inspiration for his most complex portrayal to date. As a persona of epic polarities, he animates this muddled, metaphysical journey into the jungle.” In her review for the Los Angeles Times, Sheila Benson wrote, “He’s orchestrated The Mosquito Coast’s action to match Fox’s progressive mental state, from rage to explosion to squalls and finally to hurricane velocity; however, the film leaves us not with an apotheosis, but exhaustion.” And New York Magazine, just like the moviegoers, wondered about the role of “Mother”: “The beautiful and authoritative English actress Helen mirren, cast as his wife, has nothing to play – literally not one scene in which she is given any individuality. Mother (as she is called by everyone, including Allie) is simply… a mother. She’s always around, hanging onto the posts in a storm, comforting Allie when he’s down. This is perhaps the 300th betrayal of women in the last twenty years of American movies, and given the sophistication of the filmmakers, it’s one of the most mystifying and unforgivable”. Despite its critical failure, “The Mosquito Coast” received two Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor (Harrison Ford) and Best Original Score.
“The Mosquito Coast” is not as disastrous a film as critics reviewed it back then. In fact, I found Harrison Ford to play one of his most convincing roles here. I’m sure moviegoers were appaled to see their “hero” actor – don’t forget he’s been Han Solo AND Indiana Jones – playing a man who’s completely delusional and very anti-heroic. But it’s a great role. The same cannot be said about “Mother”, a woman so unnecessary to her environment that she not even has a name. After reading how hard Helen fought to make the woman character on “The Long Good Friday” a little bit more intreresting, one has to wonder why she took on a role with no own voice (literally) and almost nothing to do. But I think that this is due to Hollywood power and the opportunity to work with Harrison Ford and Peter Weir. Helen’s own explanation has been comprehensible as well. She has said in interviews that she could relate to the most offbeat characters in her career at that time – the witch in “Excalibur”, even the space ship captain on “2010” – but a character she found absolutely no connection to was the one of a simple mother and housewife, who follows her husband without questioning his motives. However, the role on “The Mosquito Coast” is upsetting in its silent acceptance of her husband’s actions and the dangers that her own children are facing. Still, I’d recommend “The Mosquito Coast” to watch. It’s an off-beat story with beautiful cinematography and an subliminal thriller of a family losing their connection to the world and to each other.