The year is 1918 and the French penal colony, Devil’s Island, is renowned as the world’s most brutal prison. Hidden away from mainland Europe, it is populated by the worst of the worst. The prisoners have been sentenced to either spend their life on the island or to die at the blade of guillotine and the guards are all sadists. Le Bras (Jim Brown) has been sentenced to die but he impresses his fellow inmates by putting up a fight on his way to have his head chopped off. He doesn’t succeed in escaping but, fortunately for him, the death penalty is abolished mere moments before the blade falls.
Le Bras is alive but he’s still been condemned to spend the rest of his life on Devil’s Island, under the sadistic eye of the head guard, Maj. Marteau (Paul Richards). However, Le Bras has no intention of being anyone’s prisoner. He teams up with two other prisoners, a pacifist named Davert (Christopher George) and Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), who, because he is gay, is abused by both the guards and the other prisoners. The three of them manage to escape from the prison but they still have to make their way through the jungle. Along the way, they visit a leper colony and Le Bras takes some time to get busy with a native woman. Meanwhile, Marteau remains hot behind them, determined to capture them and send them back to the prison.
If I Escaped From Devil’s Island sounds familiar, that may be because you’ve seen Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman in Papillon. Papillon was a major studio production with big stars, a huge budget, and an epic running time. I Escaped From Devil’s Island was a low-budget film starring B-movie stars and with a 90-minute running time that was the exact opposite of epic. Roger Corman produced I Escaped From Devil’s Island to capitalize on the expected success of Papillon and he started production early enough that I Escaped From Devil’s Island actually beat Papillon to theaters by a matter of weeks. Corman originally tried to hire Martin Scorsese to direct I Escaped From Devil’s Island. When Scorsese decided to follow John Cassavetes’s advice and do a personal film instead, Corman ended up hiring William Whitney to direct. (Scorsese’s personal film turned out to be Mean Streets, so he probably made the right decision.)
I Escaped From Devil’s Island is an entertaining B-movie. It doesn’t have the epic sweep of Papillon but it does have a fun cast and all the action that you would expect from a 70s Corman production. Jim Brown was never a great actor but he never claimed to be. What Brown had was a tremendous physical presence and a confident movie star charisma and both of those are put to good use in I Escaped From Devil’s Island. Whether he was playing football or beating up bad guys, Jim Brown was always the epitome of cool and that’s especially true in this film. Christopher George has some good scenes as a pacifist who believes in non-violent resistance and Paul Richards is a great villain but this is a movie that you watch for Jim Brown and he doesn’t disappoint.
As of today, Jim Brown is 84 years old. As anyone who has seen him interviewed recently can tell you, Jim Brown is still the epitome of cool. When Jim Brown speaks, whether people agree with him or not, they still shut up and listen. Happy birthday, Jim Brown!