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The Problematics: ‘The Blue Lagoon’, An Off-Putting Fairy Tale About The Joys Of Sibling Sex

There are some older movies you look at and say “Boy, you sure couldn’t make that today.” And then there are some older movies you look at and say, “Why the hell did they make that in the first place?” I have to confess that the latter best represents my feeling about 1980’s The Blue Lagoon, the coming-of-age-while-shipwrecked-in-Paradise picture, currently streaming on HBO Max.

The Blue Lagoon was adapted for the screen twice before its controversial R-rated outing starring possibly inappropriately young actors Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins showing a fair amount of skin, as realism ostensibly demanded and new production standards made possible. The first was as a silent film, now lost. The second picture was British, made in 1949, and starred Jean Simmons, who mostly strode around in a sarong. 

Anyway. One reason I’ve never cottoned to the movie is an issue that’s partially taste, partially philosophy. Based on a 1905 novel, Lagoon tells the story of two young proper Victorian children, Richard and Emmeline, who wash ashore after a shipwreck and are left to grow up, and into adulthood, pretty much by themselves. As the title indicates, there’s a fairy tale aspect to the whole enterprise. One that I’ve always found a little off-putting.


In the book and the subsequent movies, the children are at first fostered by the ship’s cook, Paddy, who teaches them a few things about survival in the wild before croaking. In the 1980 film he’s played by Leo McKern, the boisterous British actor who chased down Ringo Starr in the Beatles picture Help!. At one point he chastises young Richard and Em, during this section played by very young child actors Elva Josephson and Glenn Kohan. 

“It ain’t proper, to be runnin’ around buck naked, all the time,” he tells them. But the movie’s message when it comes down to it, is that it IS proper to be running around naked all the time. That the life of man in a state of nature is not, as Sir Thomas Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short,” but rather can be a recreation of Eden. This is a riff on Enlightenment philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage. A notion that fed into the 18th-Century French novel, Paul and Virginie, which in turn influenced the Irish author of Lagoon, Henry De Vere Stackpool.  (Paul and Virginie was a big favorite of Gustave Flaubert’s tragic heroine Emma Bovary: “She had read Paul and Virginie, and had dreamed of the little bamboo house…” Now while Emma Bovary was indeed a tragic heroine she was also, let’s face it, a bit of a dope.)

The movie had apparently long been a dream project of Randal Kleiser, and after the enormous success of Grease he had the clout to make it happen. The IMDb page’s trivia section will tell you all about the then-young stars who were considered for the main roles. The part of Em went to model-turned-actress Brooke Shields, whose appearance and bearing had already sent prudish Americans into fits of finger-wagging. She was about fifteen at the time. The role of Richard went to newbie Christopher Atkins, himself a model, and the performer who was depicted in the actual nude the most in the film. 

The tech credits, as Variety would say, are top-notch. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros was a natural-light maestro well-suited to capturing the lush sunlit beauty of the Fiji island where the castaways grow up. (Three years later he would shoot Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach, for my money a far superior teen-discovers-sexuality-in-a-summer-setting movie.) Basil Pouledouris did the swelling orchestral score, which turns delicately piano-based once the kids discover the joy of you-know-what. And so on. 


The kids are introduced on a ship headed for San Francisco, and the sex topic is introduced early on when Richard discovers a little stash of sepia porn owned by the aforementioned Paddy. Paddy mans their lifeboat after the ship goes down, and he rows one way, while all the other parties row the other. Once they’re in sight of the island, a turtle, a peacock, an iguana and more all notice that they’re coming. “Nirvana, that’s where we are!” Paddy rhapsodizes. He’s not just taken by the setting, but by the fact that he doesn’t have to take orders anymore. Just like in Triangle of Sadness!

Actually, to paraphrase Holden Caulfield, it’s mostly a lot of Robinson Crusoe crap until Paddy buys it. Before doing so, he instructs the kids in certain rudiments of staying alive and advises them to stay away from the far side of the island, where he detected some perhaps pagan, perhaps cannibal activity. And once Paddy goes out, it’s off to the sex races for Richard and Em. 

Okay, not quite. When we meet the Atkins and Shields versions of Richard and Em, it’s Christmas morning, and Richard has prepared some surprises for Em, including fake reindeer tracks. The script, by Douglas Day Stewart, harps on the confused nature of the characters’ various confusions, as when Richard mixes up the Lord’s Prayer with the Pledge of Allegiance at one point. It also does a lot of telegraphing as the characters’ hormones start acting up. 

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“Why are we always fighting so much?” Em asks Richard. Observant viewers will think: “BECAUSE THEY REALLY WANT TO HAVE SEX.” And why not? They’re both young and super attractive and tan and stuff. 

But they don’t understand themselves. “I just keep on having all these strange thoughts.” The kids are even more flummoxed when Em has her first period, which she wants to keep private. So, too, does Richard want to keep on the down low his first wank session (he figured out how all by himself, good going pal) which Em walks in on.


It’s during this exchange that sharp-eyed, and even less than sharp-eyed, viewers will notice that Brooke Shields’ long hair is literally affixed to her breasts, so as not to reveal them. When asked about her so-called nude scene in the movie, she sometimes replied that they were not much of an issue, because she didn’t do them. She worked in a state of at least partial coverage at all times, and used a body double a lot. 

This was rather different from Pretty Baby, which she made at age eleven, and featured rear views of her actually naked. Which she also shrugged off. And continues to. To New Yorker writer Michael Schulman she recently said: “I didn’t have any shame as an eleven-year-old. I didn’t have ‘budding sexuality.’ Maybe I was naïve, and maybe eleven-year-olds should be. I saw the original photo—we took E. J. Bellocq’s photos and re-created them, and mine happened to have been the one on the chaise longue, nude. I didn’t have any qualms about it. People have wanted me to be a victim and feel abused. I was a kid who went to Fellini movies with my mom. We were in the art world. We were surrounded by models. Everybody walked around naked. There was a freedom to it.”

Both Atkins and Shields are very appealing and unaffected in their roles. Nevertheless, they don’t quite sell the ode to innocence that the movie wants to be. Their mutual hostility defines itself when Richard, commenting on Em’s budding breasts, sputters, “You look like one of those picture Paddy had in his drawers. One of those ‘hootchie kootchie’ girls.”

Once Richard and Em figure out that they need to do SOMETHING together to relieve their urges, the dialogue goes to Goofy Town: 

Richard: “I feel so funny in my stomach.” 

Em: “Me too.” 

Richard: “My heart’s beating so fast!” 

Em: “Mine too!” 

Richard: “Do you give your informed consent to what we’re about to do?” 

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No, he doesn’t say that. This is about an hour and five minutes in, and here the movie goes in for a lot of exposed flank, swoony dissolves, and piano themes. After which the kids just can’t get enough. None of this, when you come down to it, has much “prurient interest” appeal. The depictions are mostly “artful nudes” with a schmear of American smarminess, if you will. 

Anyway, having done the deed, now Em and Richard are getting along great! Water slide! Waterfall! Swimming with dolphins in between hitting it, which they just can’t get enough of. Life is right and soon enough Em is pregnant, but our new Adam and Eve don’t know it. Just like a man, Richard says, “Will you stop eating, you’re getting fat.” Em, feeling strained, starts withholding sex: “When it stops hurting we’ll do it.” This is, as played, eyeroll inducing, and I reckon had I actually seen the movie in 1980, I would have found it so then. 


Not too long after this, Richard stumbles upon a blood ritual performed by the heretofore unseen island natives. This is the most genuinely offensive bit in the movie, a scene with as much cultural insight and sensitivity as that Bugs Bunny cartoon where the spear-bearing aborigine shouts “Unga-bunga” over and over again. Apparently, in this world of The Blue Lagoon, it’s only the white savage who’s noble. 

Their kid, of course, is practically an Ivory Snow ad. And Em and Richard don’t really get the miracle of birth: “Why did we have a baby?” “I don’t know.”  What’s left, save a wrap up which signals the couple’s dread of being “rescued” with some romantic notions of suicide. Yeesh. 

In the aforementioned New Yorker magazine interview, in which she’s promoting the new Hulu documentary Pretty Baby: Brooke Shields,  Shields discusses three directors in some detail — Louis Malle, Franco Zeffirelli, and Lagoon’s Kleiser. Malle, who directed Pretty Baby, she seems to regard as something of a genius and an overall solid citizen. Endless Love auteur Zeffirelli she paints as dictatorial, something of a Jekyll and Hyde figure, albeit with a strong vision. It’s Kleiser she takes a bit of a hammer to. He was apparently convinced that she and Adkins would “blossom” in real life before the cameras, which would catch them “falling in love.” Shields incredulously notes: “It was like the original reality show!”  

She continues: “The thing is, I was unaware that that was their goal. I didn’t know that that was what Randal had said to people, that they were going to really see this actress really be awakened and we’re going to catch it on film. I mean, such a pathetic perspective. I remember thinking, Can we just act? Do you not think that I’m talented enough? You think I need that?”

Turns out, maybe not. Shields, who endured a lot of roasting in the press, from both gossips and critics, eventually proved herself a deft comedic actor. As for Lagoon, it now seems like a relic in her career, one whose aforementioned fairy-tale aspect is so firmly rooted in antiquated notions of sexuality and such that I reckon you’d have to be in the grip of a nostalgia for what you’ve never experienced in order to fall under its spell. 

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews‎ new releases at, the New York Times, and, as befits someone of his advanced age, the AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, at Some Came Running and tweets, mostly in jest, at @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed 2020 book Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.

By: Ny Post

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