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"Fair Wind to Java" at Tribeca: Saturday Afternoon at the Movies

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Is a cutting-edge video game like Grand Theft Auto more fun than Pong was when it first came out in 1972? I don't think so. Pong's rudimentary oscilloscope graphics were secondary to the game itself, the age-old struggle between two vertical white lines and the little dot that vexes them.

In the same way, are modern zillion-dollar action movies like the "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise more entertaining than a well-produced swashbuckling adventure film from half a century ago? The newly restored 1953 classic "Fair Wind to Java," which had its latest debut at the Tribeca Film Festival on Saturday, is a compelling argument that they are not.

Of course, filmmakers must use the latest technology to achieve their visions. They do so knowing that the special effects available at any one point in time are doomed to look antiquated and probably ridiculous as technology marches on. However, in the hands of a capable director, the strength of a gripping adventure story is timeless, recasting technical shortcomings as precious snapshots of a fond era. Such is the case with "Fair Wind to Java."

"It's Saturday afternoon, and this one's just for fun," Martin Scorsese told the audience as he introduced "the epitome of a Saturday afternoon matinee picture."

Scorsese was the perfect person to introduce the film, and he looked exactly the same in person as he does in television interviews, with his bushy eyebrows behind dark-rimmed glasses. In a staccato of clipped tones, he spoke of the pleasure of going to see matinees of films such as this during his childhood in Queens.

"These are real treasures of the past--65 percent of films ever made don't exist anymore," Scorsese said. "It's a pity to have that go by the wayside."

Released at a time when studios were losing audiences to the new medium of television, B-movie producer Republic Pictures' "Fair Wind to Java" stuck to the established formula of non-stop action, Scorsese explained.

"It was 'in a door and into a fight, out a door and into a chase,'" he said, describing a recipe as successful now as it was a generation ago.

The film stars Fred MacMurray, who I only knew from watching reruns of the sixties family comedy "My Three Sons" when I was growing up. I remember the opening credits, with lounge-lizard music and three sets of cartoon legs, the names of cast members flipping by, accordion-style, between cartoon hands. I wasn't aware until recently that MacMurray had been a huge box-office draw as a movie actor, and was, in his prime, reportedly one of the wealthiest men in Hollywood.

In "Fair Wind to Java," which was adapted from a novel by Garland Roark, MacMurray portrays Captain Boll, an ambitious, self-made man in command of a trading ship named Gerrymander, with billowing white sails. Already at a disadvantage as an American trying to profitably ply the Dutch-controlled waters of the East Indies in 1883, Captain Boll is under pressure from one of his employer's agents (an evil version of the memorable insurance company stooge from "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou") to make more money for the home office, or else lose his command.

Captain Boll yearns for riches, not to make right with his bosses, but to purchase his own ship some day, which he sees as a fair reward for an arduous life of hardtack and the lash. (In one scene he delivers an enjoyable tongue-twister of a speech about his hardscrabble beginnings, replete with an impressive string of nautical clichés.)

My favorite scene occurs near the beginning of the film, as Captain Boll goes onshore to a seedy wharf side tavern reminiscent of the cantina from Star Wars to get some information from a contact. The contact, a shadowy Asian man with a Fu Manchu beard, sits in a dark corner of the bar, as a cast of misfits, outcasts, and disparate seamen shouts and quarrels in drunken excess around him. Captain Boll orders whisky from the bar and casually acknowledges the man, who's indebted to Boll for saving his life years ago. In a low voice, the man tells Boll of a lost treasure of 10,000 diamonds that disappeared with a Dutch ship 200 years earlier. He directs Boll to a trader on a vessel at anchor in the harbor nearby who possesses a clue that can help him find them.

"It is death to be seen with me," he says to Boll as he leaves. True enough, death, for the informant, was just around the corner.

Scenes such as that one define the very idea of the exotic in the minds of many people today, a theme explored in Alain de Botton's excellent book "The Art of Travel."

The clue comes in the form of a half-Javanese slave girl with eyebrows that look like \ / named Kim Kim, played by Vera Hruba Ralston, a former ice skater from Prague who, in the words of Scorsese, "did everything in the same accent, Czechoslovakian."

Captain Boll buys Kim Kim's freedom and sneaks her on board the Gerrymander in a wooden chest, though she doesn't remain a secret for long. "Don't worry about the roustabouts on deck," he assures her, wrongly. "They won't bother you."

The fiendish, mask-wearing Saint Ebeneezer (a.k.a. Pulo Besar) kidnaps Kim Kim and imprisons Boll and his crew in his lush, green island fortress. Neither brutal whippings nor the sight of her withered mother who had been held captive by Ebeneezer for years can make Kim Kim reveal the location of the cursed diamonds, until she thinks Boll's life is on the line. Smitten with the handsome Yankee, Kim Kim finally spills the beans about the location of the treasure.

Armed with this knowledge and with Kim Kim in tow, Ebeneezer immediately sets off for Krakatau, the scary volcanic island where the diamonds are supposedly hidden. Through trickery and sheer grit, Boll's crew overpowers their guards and frees their captain. They recover their ship, flee the island, and give chase to Ebeneezer, ending in an eruptive climax featuring the finest film pyrotechnics of the time.

Keeping with the simplistic drama, the denouement between the two budding lovers is ushered in this way by Captain Boll: "Kim Kim, I've been thinking. Go down and put on your silver sarong."

The scenery in the film is beautiful, the effects more amusing than corny, and director Joseph Kane has a gift for keeping things moving. "He was like a traffic cop, and that's not a slight," Scorsese said, referring to the challenge of directing dozens of actors at once for a complicated scene. "I've tried to direct traffic--it was a disaster," he added.

A film with similar characters today might appear clichéd, but at a time when the archetypes were first being cast, it seems perfect that the actors portraying seamen fit so firmly in their individual roles: the dumb, sarcastic drunk; the eager, bright-eyed shirtless lad who's always ready for a scrap; and the steady mates who wear the proper sailor uniform of black and white horizontally striped shirts, white pants with thick black belts and knife sheaths, and black fisherman's caps.

Restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive with funding from The Film Foundation (a nonprofit film preservation organization founded in 1990 by Martin Scorsese and other prominent filmmakers) and Robert M. Sturm, "Fair Wind to Java" utilized a color process called Trucolor (as opposed to Technicolor) which, Scorsese explained, was a two-color process known to produce "sharp skin tones and good greens and browns."

This peculiar, striking image quality from the early days of color--combined with the classic story, earnest overacting, and steady flow of action--will transport viewers of any age to a simpler, more innocent time, even if such a time never existed.