Grade:  B-
Not Rated (would be PG)

Island of the Blue Dolphins was released just four years after the 1960 Newbery Award-winning book on which it was based. If you’re a fan and haven’t seen this film by James B. Clark (A Dog of Flanders, Misty), you’ll be glad to know that the writers and director steered as close to Scott O’Dell’s book as anyone could. And both the book and the film have been used in classrooms to broach discussions of feminism and the mistreatment and resilience of indigenous people.

Parents should be cautioned that this children’s book was written originally for adults, which means that there are some adult things here. Island of the Blue Dolphins has more in common with a novella like John Steinbeck’s The Pearl than it does your typical Newbery Medal recipient. Though there isn’t much blood, many people die in a brief battle, a main character is killed off-screen, and a beloved animal dies onscreen. Through it all, what’s emphasized is the strength and fortitude of a female character that is 12 years old when the story begins.

Black-and-white promo (film is in color)

Celia Kaye, part Cherokee, won a Golden Globe for Best Newcomer as Karana, who must learn how to fend for herself in Robinson Crusoe fashion after her people decide to leave their Channel Island off the coast of southern California following a battle with Russian fur traders and their Aleut trapper allies. Karana is in the evacuation boat when she realizes that her six-year-old brother (Larry Domasin) is still on the island. Rather than leave him, she dives into the water, which is indeed populated by dolphins. That split-second decision will lead to many years of relative solitude and self-sufficiency.

The book and film are set in 1835, and Karana must learn how to do things that were forbidden for her to learn because she was not male—things like how to string a bow and shoot arrows to protect herself from the feral dogs on the island, and how to feather arrows and make nets. When the film was first released, a New York Times reviewer pronounced it a film for children. Maybe that’s because the script calls for the characters to speak in simple language with no contractions to suggest an earlier time period; maybe it’s because the plot itself is as simple as a fable, but with a less obvious lesson; or maybe it’s because the reviewer was conditioned to think of it as a children’s story since it had been published as a children’s book. But for a 1964 production, Island of the Blue Dolphins doesn’t seem all that dated because of these things. And it’s not nearly as slow as the film version of Robinson Crusoe due to the constant presence of a threat on the island.

George Kennedy (center) and Carlos Romero (right)

Clark did other things right that contribute to the film’s tension and believability. All of the extras that played indigenous people were members of the Manchester and Kashia tribes of the Pomo nation. Much of the footage was shot on location, not by the Channel Islands in the South, but at Anchor Bay, near Gualala in Northern California. An even more interesting bit of trivia is that the main dog used was the offspring of the dog that played Old Yeller, and “Junior” was Celia’s constant companion, both in front of the camera and when everyone was on a break. For his performance, Junior won a PATSY [Picture Animal Top Star of the Year] Award from the Hollywood office of the American Humane Association.

What’s more adult than this film or book was the true story that inspired them both. Around 1835, indigenous people from San Nicolas Island were taken from their homes to the mainland, where missionaries hoped to convert them. One woman jumped overboard because her brother (or child—there are two versions of the story) had been left behind, and she spent 18 years alone on the island before another ship returned.

The real “Karana”—who was given the name of Juana Maria—died of dysentery just seven weeks after she was taken from her island to the mainland. A plaque placed by the Santa Barbara Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution honors her:  Joana Maria, Indian Woman abandoned on San Nicolas Island eighteen years, found and brought to Santa Barbara by Capt. George Nidever in 1853.  

Kino Lorber brings the film to Blu-ray with a brand-new 2K Master.

Entire family:  No (8 and older?)
Run time:  93 min. Color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 2.0 Mono
Bonus features:  D (only a trailer)
Amazon link
Battle clip
Not rated (would be PG for some violence)

Language:  0/10—Squeaky clean

Sex:  0/10—Also squeaky clean

Violence:  4/10—The early battle that sets the plot in motion is brief and nearly bloodless; moments that will make you wince involve deaths that come later in the film, nothing graphic, but emotional nonetheless

Adult situations:  3/10—The main character has to stoically survive and deal with loss and loneliness

Takeaways:  Life goes on. And is there a Newbery Medal winner that hasn’t been made into a decent movie?