The trouble begins right on the poster before a viewer even sees one frame of footage! You see, the volcano Krakatoa is actually WEST of Java! The people who slapped this story together never even bothered to verify the geography of the region (or else were looking at the map upside down?) Someone did realize the issue before the film opened, but, by then, the promotional material had all been developed and printed, thus it would have cost a small fortune to correct this matter. Thus, the film went on and producers hoped that no one would dither on about the problematic title (later reissues of the movie would used the title Volcano, avoiding the problem entirely!)
Unlike most of the later big deal disaster movies, this one takes place in the past and is based on a real event. In 1883, Krakatoa, a volcanic island near Indonesia, erupted and killed (depending on the source) 21,000 to 40,000 people. To give you some idea of the magnitude of the eruption, it was approximately 13,000 times, yes, 13,000 times the explosivity of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima at the close of WWII! In short, it was a monumentally devastating event that, had it occurred on a continent and not in the sea, would have spelled death for an even greater number of people.
The movie centers on Maximilian Schell, Captain of The Batavia Queen, a steamship bound for the waters near Krakatoa where another ship has sunk, allegedly containing some immensely valuable pearls that he hopes to salvage. Schell, as tall, tan and hunky a skipper as one could hope for, has amassed a small team of fellow adventurers to help him salvage the pearls and who will get to enjoy their own share of them.
Brian Keith plays a deep sea diver whose lungs are on the fritz after too much punishment. He's addicted to Laudinum, a strong medicine that, when abused, causes hallucinations and disorientation. Keith brings along his gal pal Barbara Werle, an entertainer of sorts. She boards the ship carrying some sort of exotic plant and proceeds to their cabin where she then sings one of the most grating songs imaginable to Keith and starts to strip off her multi-layered get-up. Counting a song sung by children in the prologue and a vomitous Beach Boys-flavored number called "Java Girl," played as the ship begins to shove off, there are three numbers (written by Mack David) front-loaded into the movie and dangling it perilously close to being a disaster musical (and not the good kind like The Apple or Xanadu!)
Also on board is Schell's girlfriend Diane Baker, a near-divorcee-cum-widow who has been in a mental hospital following a breakdown. She is the one who knows about the pearls because they belonged to her estranged husband who was on the ship when it sank. She is also in the midst of a desperate search for her young son who may or may not have been on the boat when it went down. She and Schell attempt to renew their relationship (which was the catalyst for her marriage's failure), though not without a lot of angst on her part.
Rounding out the team is John Leyton, a diver who uses a bell, father-son team Rossano Brazzi and Sal Mineo, who possess a hot air balloon in order to scope out the situation from above, and a quartet of Japanese ladies, renowned for their ability to hold their breath for extended periods of time as they harvest pearls. These folks each get a cut of the loot as they use their various means at hand in order to retrieve it. One unexpected drawback is the British government's insistence that Schell take on a passel of convicted criminals, one of whom (J.D. Cannon) used to work on The Batavia Queen. The chained, filthy, bitter men are placed in a dank cargo hold where they build up resentment for their situation. Cannon, however, arranges to work above on deck as if he has his old job back. He starts to sew the seeds of discord by pestering Keith about his lungs and his drug addiction.
The ship hasn't even left port before one sailor falls to his death while loading the diving bell. Not exactly a good omen of things to come! At least with so many sailors working topside as well as in the bottom, where the coal fires are kept burning and stoked, there is the occasional opportunity to see some manly chest action. (For some reason, there are also more than a few shots of some phallic pistons pumping!)
Mineo develops an affection for one of the ladies (an actress named Jacqui Chan!) after she allows him to try to take part in their fitness exercise, a game of sorts involving rhythm and two long bamboo poles which are clicked together as the feet dodge in and out. The man on the left in these shots is Geoffrey Holder, known for his villainous role in Live and Let Die, his kindly role of Punjab in Annie and a series of 7-Up commercials in which he promoted the soft drink as being "crisp and clean with no caffeine" in his distinctive, West Indian voice. Though Mineo and Chan's romance is never properly fleshed out (nor is much of anything in the cardboard script!), it is later capitalized upon, or is attempted to be capitalized upon, when doom strikes...
Meanwhile, Keith starts going loco and experiences a hallucinatory vision, resulting in his almost killing one of the female pearl divers and earning him the punishment of being dangled up above the deck in a crate. Eventually, he returns to his regular, charming self and is released.
The ship comes upon various oddities on it's way to the wreckage site, such as rumblings, orange skies, insanely large flocks of birds and schools of dead fish, but don't seem to let these bother them much or deter them from the task at hand. Once they reach the wreckage, the participants take their places in order to best locate the salvage. Leyton bobs down below the surface in his diving bell (and promptly gets caught on some coral, causing his air supply to be compromised!) Keith, Schell and the four Asian ladies dive in to help. Brazzi and Mineo take their balloon up into the sky only to have the propeller break down, causing them to waft and waft through craggy mountain terrain until they are right in the mouth of the volcano!
While all this is taking place, as if there weren't enough problems, Cannon decides to seize the ship. Fortunately, Schell is able to put down the uprising with the help of a gigantic, high pressure fire hose (was there such a thing in 1883 on ships?) This hose is remarkably absent later when bits of molten rock come flying onto the deck and the hands use buckets of sea water to try to put out the fires.
Once the ship is located and the safe brought aboard, everyone is dejected to see that there are no pearls. Schell decides that at least they can proceed to the island where Baker's son was last seen and salvage him. Before the others can bellyache too long about it, it becomes clear that Krakatoa is about to belch up some major league lava. The island village where Baker's son had lived is now little more than a burnt shell of a church and some debris.
As the danger continues to mount, The Batavia Queen slithers through a shallow, rocky pass while hunks of fiery rock and lava flail their way onboard. Thankfully, during this ordeal, it gets so hot that Schell has to unbutton his shirt to the waist. (Also, this being an equal opportunity movie, for the bear lovers out there, Keith scarcely bothers to button up his top at this point either. And being an equal opportunity website, I always try to present as much beefcake - in whatever form - as I can think of in virtually every post!) Once the fires have been put out, we see that Schell's shirt has been strategically torn at the shoulder and right at his left nipple, affording us a peek at his pec for a sequence of scenes. Considering that the next decade would bring a somewhat past-his-prime Charlton Heston and the less-than-hunky Gene Hackman, Michael Caine and Jack Lemmon as stars of disaster movies, Schell is a welcome leading man.
Before the movie is over, the volcano has not only erupted catastrophically, but it has also caused a considerable tsunami. Today is certainly not the day to poke fun at or downplay the severity of such an occurrence, so I most assuredly will not. What we get is a two-fold climax, with half the cast on a nearby island about to experience a tidal wave while the other half is still on the ship, going through a kind of mini-Poseidon Adventure as the water threatens to capsize them. Suffice it to say that not all of the characters make it out of this one alive.
Krakatoa, East of Java was advertised as being in Cinerama (or a "new" type of Cinerama), though, apart from the opening credits, it was actually lensed in Todd-AO, making it nonetheless a very wide-screen feature. Thus, it has never played effectively on TV prior to the advent of letterboxing and/or DVD. Why on Earth such a spectacle would be trusted in the hands of a reasonably dependable, but hardly qualified, director such as Bernard Kowalski is anybody's guess. I've read more than once accounts of famed directors such as Hitchcock and Wellman who decried the use of oddball camera placement. They couldn't stand it when the point of view came from someplace unlikely such as inside a fireplace or within a suitcase and so on. Now I know what they're talking about! Time and again, Kowalski uses gimmicky set-ups that only draw (bad) attention to themselves.
It begins with a shot allegedly inside the lining of a rudimentary telescope, then continues with a shot from inside the wardrobe of Werle's cabin. Then there is a shot of Baker crying and falling to bunk, face down, with no space between her face and a blanket and yet the camera is up in her face! Later, one of the Asian pearl divers is washing herself and the camera shoots up through the bottom of the bucket, through the water. When a man is being hurled to and fro before being tossed overboard, the camera is underneath his torso. By the time a shot is done from inside the waterlogged safe, this whole approach has long since become distracting and annoying.
The film's music is by Frank de Vol and while it isn't awful, it must be said that his contribution to films of a more (intentionally) comic nature are more enduring. A more sweeping, memorable score might have helped to patch over some of the rough spots and help the movie make a stronger impression.
The script for this film is also less than stellar. A pretty decent cast is wasted on two-dimensional (at best) roles and sometimes you can actually see the actors striving to bring something to their underdeveloped parts. Yes, disaster movies are chiefly about the catastrophe at hand, but some people (Stirling Silliphant, for example) are better at offering up capsule characterizations than others. There is also the constrictive, mostly (small) ship-bound setting to contend with. Due to the noise caused by the wide-screen cameras used in this (Italian-made) production, every ounce of dialogue had to be rerecorded at a later date, something else that compromises the immediacy of the acting, though quite a bit of this is handled pretty well, all things considered.
Schell's most famous role was that of the defense attorney in the WWII war crime drama Judgement at Nuremberg, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar. Always appearing rather tall on screen, he is, in fact, 5'10" in height. He has enjoyed an acting career that spans more than fifty years and was nominated for Oscars two more times after Nuremberg (as Best Actor for Man in the Glass Booth and as Supporting Actor for Julia.) Despite a serious case of diabetes, he appeared in films as recently as 2009. One of his most surprising connections to present day Hollywood is the fact that he is Angelina Jolie's godfather, having acted with Jon Voight in 1974's The Odessa File and directed him in 1975's End of the Game (Jolie was born in 1975.)
Baker began auspiciously in George Stevens' 1958 film The Diary of Anne Frank (as Anne's older sister Margot) and she's still actively appearing on TV and in films today. She worked three times with Joan Crawford (who took a shine to her) in that legendary actress's late career and also worked for Alfred Hitchcock in Marnie. More recent work includes small parts in The Silence of the Lambs and A Mighty Wind. She does go into some unintentionally laughable histrionics here a time or two, but is generally decent.
Keith had been a child actor born to Robert Keith, a busy character player. Perhaps best known for his fatherly roles in The Parent Trap and on Family Affair, he always tried to take on more complicated parts in order to avoid typecasting. He was back for another bout with disaster a decade later in Meteor. Despondency over his ill health (due to emphysema and terminal lung cancer) and the recent suicide of his twenty-seven year-old daughter led him to take his own life in 1997.
Mineo was another child actor, but one whose success peaked when he was still young and who wasn't able to gain a significant foothold as an adult film actor. He'd been a juvenile delinquent who turned his life around (and how!) through acting and wound up with two Oscar nominations as Best Supporting Actor (for Rebel Without a Cause and Exodus.) A fan favorite among teenagers, he struggled with issues in his sexual identity and faced typecasting as he grew up. In 1979, as he was about to make an appearance in a Los Angeles play, he was robbed and murdered by a young drifter who didn't even realize who he was. His story remains a shocking and sad one.
Latin lover Brazzi had starred opposite Katharine Hepburn (Summertime), Joan Crawford (The Story of Esther Costello) and Olivia de Havilland (Light in the Piazza) as well as lip-synching the lead in South Pacific next to Mitzi Gaynor, but was now entering a supporting actor phase. He passed away in 1994 of a neural virus at age seventy-eight.
Blonde, blue-eyed Leyton had been a British teen heartthrob himself, having embarked on a singing career and starring in a popular British TV series, Biggles. What followed were roles in action-oriented films like The Great Escape, Guns at Batasi (in which he was love interest to fledgling actress Mia Farrow) and Von Ryan's Express (directed by and starring, ironically enough, Farrow's future husband Frank Sinatra.) He also (in an unlikely bit of casting) played Jennifer Jones' son in one of her last films, The Idol, in 1966. Though alive today and still working, he soon entered a dry spell that kept him off TV and movie screens for two full decades.
Cannon is best known for playing Dennis Weaver's aggravated, antagonistic superior on McCloud. A busy character actor on countless TV shows (and occasional movies like Cool Hand Luke and Raise the Titanic), he worked until about 1991, passing away in 2005 at the age of eighty-three (of natural causes.)
Barbara Werle, who somehow warranted star billing in this film, is an acquired taste indeed. A bit part actress in TV westerns and a lady who worked in three different Elvis Presley movies, she began landing expanded parts in films like The Battle of the Bulge. It's not that she was terrible... just unspectacular and not necessarily possessing leading lady looks (her teeth were crooked.) She does give her all to the part and gets off one good crack when, while defending Keith over his charges of assault, she tells Brazzi, "Labels are for jelly jars..." I'm afraid it just wasn't going to happen for this lady. Her career sputtered to an end in 1976.
The special effects of Krakatoa were nominated for an Oscar, but lost to the sole other nominee, Marooned. Some of the effects are excellent, but a lot of them are pretty lame, even for that time. Also, many shots are used time and again. The tsunami sequences use techniques that had been done to better effect way back in The Rains Came and The Hurricane and while some of the ship at sea effects are good, there are other times when the whole shebang is clearly a model bobbing around amidst some fake rock.
The opening credits here almost serve as a trailer of things to come. Practically all of the action sequences are sampled behind the lists of names. Some folks may want to save their time and call it quits after they're over. Still, fans of these type of adventure flicks may find a measure of enjoyment in watching the rest of the movie, even if their finger is on the FF trigger during some of the duller bits.