“When you get to the island you better see an optimist”: Laurel and Hardy in “Atoll K” (1951).
Is it possible to dislike a film because you love its stars too much? If so, that film is Atoll K. Or Utopia. Or Robinson Crusoeland. They’re all the same film – given different titles in different countries.
You see, they’re not the fat one and the thin one any more. They’re the morbidly obese one and the emaciated skeletal one. At various points in this movie, Stan looks barely alive – his frighteningly gaunt and pale features provoking a sense of horror, fascination, and immense compassion.
However, if you can suspend or suppress some of the compassion just a little bit, there is actually much to appreciate in Atoll K.
The thing is, nobody watches Atoll K except Laurel and Hardy completists, and these completists are definitionally people who love Stan and Ollie and hate to see them in pain. These completists are also aware of the troubled history of this movie – a Franco-Italian production delayed by much multi-lingual fuss and confusion and a film that took longer to make than any other Laurel and Hardy picture. Stan’s obvious illness made it even more of an ordeal, needless to say. The film wrecked Stan’s health and Stan’s health wrecked the schedule and so it went on and on.
The making of Atoll K might prove the basis of a fascinating film in its own right. Just as Fitzcarraldo and Apocalypse Now have become dramas about film-making rather than stand-alone filmed narratives, so Atoll K has become a story of tragic film-making hubris and insanity. As soon as John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan feel up to it, they could apply themselves to a “Making of Atoll K” movie. It could be a masterpiece.
The plot of Atoll K involves Stan inheriting a vast fortune from his uncle, a fortune that is instantly decimated by taxes and legal fees. All they have left is an island in the South Pacific and a yacht to get to it with. They pick up the boat in Marseilles, along with a stateless man called Antoine and a stowaway called Giovanni (Adriano Rimoldi).
They are eventually shipwrecked on a brand new volcanic island where, simply by reading Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, they manage to build a sustainable life for themselves. All is well until a nightclub singer called Cherie (Suzie Delair), who is angry with her controlling boyfriend, arrives; at which point they all have to start shaving again. Yet civility prevails and the three men are decent enough to build the new arrival a separate house to live in.
Unfortunately, a crew of sailors led by controlling boyfriend arrives to survey the island. High levels of uranium are detected and Great Powers express their interest in asserting legal sovereignty over the Atoll. In these circumstances, it becomes necessary for Ollie to write a constitution, hold an election, and establish Crusoeland as a newly independent nation. This brief constitution which disclaims all law and all taxation, makes Crusoeland tremendously popular and immigrants from all over the world arrive so as to live lawlessly and mine uranium. Unsurprisingly the atoll descends into the wrong kind of anarchy. This film does not end especially happily. There’s a coup d’etat, a near hanging, and Antoine is eaten by a lion. The atoll itself is destroyed by another storm in what looks very like a Divine act of extreme disapprobation.
Unlike their friend Buster Keaton, Stan and Ollie never met their Samuel Beckett. Atoll K is the closest we get to a Laurel and Hardy film which takes older versions of their characters and subjects them to surreal tragi-comedy. Stan, despite or perhaps because of being at death’s door, puts in a particularly poignant performance. His new cadaverous features give his clowning a distinctive strangeness. It’s his best performance in a decade I think. There’s a nice little scene during the first storm where he literally “pours oil on troubled waters”.
Antoine the stateless man (Max Elloy) is a wonderful character, who eerily anticipates the story of the stateless man who lived at Paris CDG airport for years before inspiring a Tom Hanks movie.
Whatever else it is, Atoll K is a film that attempts to tell a story and if its technical shortcomings are obvious, it offers a version of how the Laurel and Hardy relationship could have been allowed to develop given sympathetic direction and proper funding. It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s a strangely rewarding one. However, the Reilly-Coogan “making of” film could be one of the greatest films of our age.
I have some thoughts about other Laurel and Hardy films.
In fact, all of them.