Philip Roth meets Roger Corman

"Battle of Blood Island" reconsidered.

The pressure’s on to exhale an opinion about Blake Bailey’s much-discussed biography of Philip Roth. I’m about 200 pages in (and enjoying it very much, thank you). But the social-media-driven marketplace of literary criticism waits for no man. So let me offer this: There isn’t enough about Battle of Blood Island.

Fanatical Roth devotee though I am, I never heard of Battle of Blood Island until I stumbled onto it on page 135 of Bailey’s book, where discussion is confined mostly to a footnote. Yet its significance, now that I’ve screened it—it’s a 1960 movie—is plain. It is not only the first film based on a Philip Roth work (preceding Goodbye, Columbus by nine years) but also the only film based on Roth’s fiction that wasn’t a significant disappointment.

Even the better adaptations of Roth’s books (Indignation, The Human Stain, Roth’s own American Playhouse adaptation of The Ghost Writer, the HBO adaptation of The Plot Against America) consistently fall, by general agreement, well short of the originals, as adaptations of literary fiction tend to. In most Roth adaptations the problem is that the solemnity translates intact but the irony does not. That isn’t something you can say about Battle of Blood Island. This Roger Corman-funded quickie is demonstrably superior to “Expect the Vandals,” the justly-forgotten (and humor-free) 1958 Roth short story on which it’s based. The film is also, quite unexpectedly, more Rothian.

Saul Bellow, in his famously exuberant Commentary review of Goodbye, Columbus, observed that although it was “a first book,” it was

not the book of a beginner. Unlike those of us who came howling into the world, blind and bare, Mr. Roth appears with nails, hair, and teeth, speaking coherently. At twenty-six he is skillful, witty, and energetic and performs like a virtuoso. 

In Bellow’s manuscript, Bailey reports, this career-making praise was a setup for some unspecified criticism that Commentary’s editors cut out; an “outraged” Bellow wrote their mutual friend, the novelist Richard Stern, that the published version had “some of its teeth drawn.” But Bellow was right that Roth was, at 26, a remarkably accomplished craftsman. Both the title story in the collection and, especially, “Defender of the Faith,” compare favorably to the best of Roth’s subsequent work. I part company with today’s consensus that, with the possible exception of Goodbye, Columbus, Roth’s books prior to Portnoy’s Complaint were overpraised. Letting Go, oft-derided today as a quaint, lifeless artifact of the 1950s literary cult of Henry James, is my favorite of all Roth’s novels. I find its Jamesian qualities contribute to rather than detract from its power. (Hey, I like Henry James!)

But my revisionist esteem for Roth’s early work doesn’t extend to “Expect the Vandals.” An extract from a 62-page novella of which Roth completed a first draft in 1957, and that Esquire published the following year, “Expect the Vandals” is bereft of the nails, hair and teeth so markedly in evidence two years later. It’s pretty awful—a reminder that, even for prodigies like Roth, you usually have to be a bad writer before you can become a good one.

Set in the Marshall Islands at the end of World War II, a milieu of which Roth knew nothing, the novella is the story of two Navy sailors’ survival on a deserted Japanese-controlled atoll. That it would become the basis for a B-movie is richly ironic given that while Roth was writing it he was also writing film reviews for the New Republic in a mandarin voice that frequently tipped over into condescension. (The two samples available online won’t leave you begging for more.) Roth sent his novella to Esquire after its assistant fiction editor asked him to send “the best short story you have.” The editor, Gene Lichtenstein, replied, “This is flawed but I’m really interested,” and they set to work on revisions.

Roth would later remember the Esquire story, Bailey writes, “with a shudder,” but Bailey gamely wages a halfway defense, arguing it was “probably better than its author would later remember.” Well, maybe. Bailey has the advantage of having heard Roth discuss it and having seen earlier drafts, where perhaps the influence of Joseph Conrad (and maybe James Jones too) were even more gravely misapplied.

The story concerns Moe and Ken, two improbable survivors of a failed U.S. Navy island invasion that foundered on the surrounding coral reef and ended in massacre by a small occupying force of Japanese soldiers, the island’s only other inhabitants. After the massacre, Moe drags Ken, who is wounded and can’t walk, into a cave, where they hide out until the Japanese soldiers commit mass suicide, presumably because the war has ended. After that, Moe and Ken live for a year as castaways, speaking bitterly of their fate and often squabbling. Moe burns the island’s vegetation to cinders trying to attract notice from any passing ships, but it doesn’t work. At one point a despairing Ken shoots himself, though Moe interprets the resultant flesh wound to indicate he lost his nerve at the last minute. Finally the two are rescued as, in the narrative’s single deft touch, they take in a wildly surreal scene of American GIs hauling farm animals onto the island—which turns out to be an unnamed, fictionalized version of Bikini Atoll. The GIs are preparing for the first postwar atomic tests. A rescued Moe and Ken watch their island vaporize into a mushroom cloud alongside their rescuers on the deck of a Navy ship.

(Pedantic aside: Some farm animals were indeed included in the Bikini tests, though these were loaded onto warships rather than the island itself. The tests were intended to shed light on an atomic bomb’s impact on the warships and, secondarily, on the farm animals, though neither could have been much of a mystery. The result was an environmental and humanitarian catastrophe for the relocated natives—unlike in Roth’s story, the atoll was inhabited before the tests—not to mention a spectacular waste of Navy hardware.)

The story’s principal character, Moe, is Jewish, and Roth gives him the surname Malamud in obscure tribute to Bernard Malamud, whom Roth much admired. (The Assistant was published the year before.) Ken Moyer is Protestant, but, as Bailey observes, “Jewishness is not a salient issue in the story, unless one associates Jewishness with the kind of sensitivity and discernment that Moe possesses and his buddy, Ken, does not.” (In the story’s first draft, Moe was a shegetz like Ken.) But Bailey notes further that the story contains “startlingly overt homoeroticism: Moe’s nursing of the crippled Ken entails brushing a fly away from his naked groin, and kissing his forehead in a burst of tenderness.”

It may perhaps have been to accommodate this homoeroticism that Roth decided to make Moe Jewish. The story was published a decade after Leslie Fiedler’s celebrated Partisan Review essay “Come Back To the Raft Ag’n, Huck Honey,” which delineated homoerotic bonds in American literature specifically across ethnic barriers: Huck Finn and Jim, Ishmael and Queequeg. Roth much admired Fielder, who like Roth was from Newark, N.J.

Although today just about everybody considers Jews, Italians, and most other Mediterranean groups to be “white,” at midcentury these groups’ sense of social exclusion often made them judge themselves to be what we now call persons of color. Roth himself is quoted in Blake’s biography describing the faculty at Bucknell, where he was an undergraduate, as overwhelmingly “white,” by which he means Gentile. Moe and Ken therefore adhere to Fiedler’s construct.

The twin problems that plague “Expect the Vandals” are that the the story is almost entirely without incident—one reads endlessly about Moe’s despair of ever being rescued (“Where were they? If the war was over, then where the hell were they?”)—and that the dialog between the discerning Moe and the vaguely childlike Ken reads like something from, well, a B movie. Here are Moe and Ken after Ken’s suicide attempt:

“How do you feel? Does it hurt?”

“I want to die!”

“You’re not going to.”

“Let me!” With a grunt of pain he tried to sit up, as though a change of position would hasten death; but Moe pressed against his chest and pinned him back to the floor. “Let me … let me ….”

The Esquire story caught the eye of Joel Rapp, who had just finished his first film, High School Big Shot, and would later become a comedy writer for TV (most notably in this context, Gilligan’s Island). Rapp was the son of Phillip Rapp, who created the popular radio shows The Bickersons and Baby Snooks, and godson to Baby Snooks’s star, Fanny Brice. Later, according to a 2006 scholarly article and interview about Blood Island by Derek Parker Royal, Rapp fils would become

a horticultural guru, establishing his own indoor plant business in Hollywood, writing several best-selling books on indoor gardening and cooking, appearing for 11 years as Regis Philbin and Kathie Lee Gifford’s TV gardener, and making a name for himself as “Mr. Mother Earth, Plant Man to the Stars.”

In other words: A living, walking character in a Philip Roth novel (most at home I think somewhere inside the Zuckerman trilogy). This is the first advantage that Battle of Blood Island has over its anemic source material—a conceptual advantage rather than an actual one, but striking nonetheless.

Rapp paid Roth $2000 for the dramatic rights, the equivalent of about $18,000 today and a sum that helped Roth free himself from his pursuit of a Ph.D to focus on writing fiction—a second reason to value the movie over its source material. That $2000 would end up representing nearly one-tenth Battle of Blood Island’s $28,828 gross (on a budget of $51,579).

But I promised aesthetic comparisons.

“Expect the Vandals” is a pretentious title.

"Battle of Blood Island” is much better for melodrama, which “Expect the Vandals” basically is.

Battle of Blood Island has much more blood.

Granted, “Expect the Vandals” has a very dramatic scene in which the Japanese soldiers, in strict military formation, all shoot themselves. Roth depicts this with appropriate relish (“the tops of heads sailed into the air like confetti”). By contrast, in Battle of Blood Island the camera cuts away when the rifles go off. That’s something you hate to see in a war movie, especially when Roger Corman is involved.

But in the short story neither Moe nor Ken kills a single Japanese soldier, whereas in the movie each of them kills two or three, sometimes with a gun, once with a thrown knife, once with a shovel, and sometimes thrashing on the ground in hand-to-hand combat, usually to the ominous sound of kettle drums. There’s some implausibility here (remember, Ken can’t use his legs) but what’s gained is some badly-needed narrative juice.

After Moe kills his first Japanese soldier, he downs a bottle of sake that he’s stolen from the Japanese encampment, looks at it, and toasts himself: “To Moe Malamud. Killer. I guess everybody should celebrate their first kill, huh?” Ken tries to reassure him: “Moe, he was just a Jap.” Moe responds: “I wonder if he’d killed me, if he’d a figured I was just an American…. Well, I’m not just an American. I’m Moe Malamud, a 35 year-old accountant with a wife and a kid.”

Bad dialog for a work of literary fiction, this is good pulp dialog for a B-movie, and it includes some trite but commendable commentary to the effect that we are all of us brothers under the skin. (The Museum of Modern Art’s landmark “Family of Man” photo exhibit was mounted four years before Battle of Blood Island was filmed.)

For the record, Backbencher does not condone usage of the ethnic slur “Jap,” which appears in both short story and film. But nobody would have taken much note of it in 1958 or 1960, less than two decades after the end of World War II.

Battle of Blood Island is more Jewish.

As noted above, Moe’s Jewishness exists in Roth’s story mainly to kindle a little Ishmael-Queequeg cross-ethnic homoeroticism. Homoeroticism is evident in the film, too, and arguably more overt; at one point, for instance, Ken jokes to Moe that he’ll make some man a splendid wife someday.

But Moe’s Jewishness is integrated more as a plot element in the film. See, for instance:

Ken: They’re bound to find us sooner or later.

Moe: No, not necessarily. Not as long as our mazel holds out.

Ken: Our what?

Moe: Our luck.

Later:

Ken: Hey Moe, I been meaning to ask you, what’s that whistle around your neck?

Moe: (Chuckles.) That’s a mazuzah.

Ken: A who?

Moe: A good luck charm. It’s kinda like, oh, a St. Christopher’s medal. Brings that mazel I was telling ya about.

Neither of these scenes is especially Rothian—they’re cast more in the creaky mold of Roth’s childhood heroes Norman Corwin and Howard Fast—but two others play humorously with Jewish stereotypes in an edgy manner vaguely reminiscent of Portnoy’s Complaint.

A noise is heard on the island. Ken and Moe thought all the Japanese soldiers were dead! What’s up? Moe creeps around quietly to discover a Tucan, which becomes Moe and Ken’s pet. “He’s got a schnozz bigger than Durante’s,” Ken ventures. Rather than take offense, Moe says, “You know? He looks a little bit like my Uncle Morris.” For the rest of the film they call the bird Uncle Morris.

In a similar vein, Moe remarks, while performing a crude operation on Ken with a knife, “Well, Mom, this is what you’ve always dreamed of. Your son. Moe, the doctor.”

Eventually tensions over ethnic difference burst into the open. In both the short story and the film, Ken and Moe argue constantly over Moe having to play nursemaid, but only in the film do matters turn ugly, with an anti-Semitic outburst from Ken in response to what we’d call today an ablest insult from Moe.

Moe: Takin’ care with a wife and kid, that’s one thing. But out here on this godforsaken island with a crip—I’m not a savior.

Ken: Kill me, then! Slit me open like one of your fish—

Moe: I oughta let you rot. I oughta move to the other side of the island and let you rot.

Ken: You would, wouldn’t you, Malamud. You [eyes now wide open with fury] … JEW!

Cue kettle drums as Moe starts to choke Ken. Then he comes to his senses and says, “Messiahs don’t come except in Bibles and Talmuds.”

And finally:

Battle of Blood Island doesn’t include the word '“pickaninny.”

In both short story and film, Moe creates a soup from potato-like vegetables he finds on the island. In the short story, Moe and Ken call this “pickaninny blood soup,” which is admirably hard-boiled but also quite offensive, even for 1958. In the movie, they just call it “blood soup.”

So far as we know, Roth never saw Battle of Blood Island. By the time it came out Goodbye Columbus had made his name as a writer and he didn’t want to draw attention to it. Battle of Blood Island is nobody’s idea of a good movie. But it’s better than the source material, something that would never prove true of its successors.

Update, April 13: My friend Joel Bellman informs me that there is yet another improbable adaptation of an obscure early Philip Roth short story. The story is “The Contest for Aaron Gold,” published in the fall 1955 issue of Epoch, a literary quarterly published by Cornell University, and in 1956 in Martha Foley’s Best American Short Stories. It was not included by Roth in any volume of his own, and I can’t find it online; back numbers of Epoch made available online don’t go back that far. Bailey writes that the story is pretty derivative of J.D. Salinger. That makes it all the more puzzling that it would be chosen for adaption by “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” I’m too weary to jump down this additional rabbit hole, but the video is here and a Tablet story about all this is here.