All right. I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for any movie that combines reggae, rasta, vegetarianism, voodoo, kung fu, and political satire. We’re talking genuine popular culture here. Jamaican popular culture.
Los Angeles gives us Repo Man, Japan gives us Yojimbo, England gives us Doctor Who, and Montego Bay gives us Countryman (1982).
For this reviewer, watching Countryman brought back nostalgic memories of Bruce Lee movies in Chinatown and dubbed Italian westerns in cheap Paris theatres. Not great cinema. Fun cinema. The joy of sharing in the totally idiosyncratic mythologies of other cultures which somehow always manage to grab a larger audience than ever intended by the film makers. It somehow doesn’t seem to matter that the photography sometimes looks like it was done out of the back of a pick-up truck with a camera salvaged from a WWII bunker, or that the actors were taken off the night shift at the local bar, or that the special effects cost $1.25. For its intended audience, a movie such as Countryman is a celebration of the audience itself. A carnival hall of mirrors where the reflections are exaggerated, sometimes revealing, and always entertaining. Everyone is in on the joke.
The plot of Countryman doesn’t matter. The characters do. The central figure is Countryman himself—a poor Rastafarian fisherman living in perfect harmony with the natural world. How perfect? you ask. Somewhere on the level of Carlos Castenada’s Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan. Even the impossible doesn’t take a little longer. Respect for nature allied with Rastafarian teachings produces that ultimate paradox—the Invincible Pacifist. The Mystic Warrior. Humility and Power.
On the opposing side, poor sods, is a mere army, corrupt police force, and voodoo high priest. True to Central American life, evil is both political and superstitious. Allied with Countryman is his mentor, the village wise man, teaching the children the ways of Jah peace.
Despite my earlier comment, the cinematography here looks unexpectedly sharp. No evidence of the rough-but-potent camera work of that earlier reggae gem The Harder They Come. The soundtrack for Countryman is Bob Marley & the Wailers—worth cranking way up if your speakers will handle it. The film itself is dedicated to Marley. The Harder They Come showed Jamaica the way it is; Countryman show Jamaica the way the Rastas would like it to be. Join the celebration.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Countryman was the first VHS film review I ever wrote, back in April 1987 for the local East-West Kootenay Lake Review. It wasn’t even a third the length of the reviews I’m writing now. I think Dickie Jobson’s film was an auspicious beginning. I watched it again on YouTube, and it’s still the perfect reggae movie. What did I miss? Definitely that cool scene near the beginning of the movie where Countryman shares an idyllic meal of fresh fruit, seafood, a big spliff, and rasta philosophy with the couple he’s just rescued—“Just living I-Life.” And there’s that great parable about the fish in the trap….
There’s now a 12-minute YouTube documentary available, The Legend of Countryman, made decades after the original film. Check it out. The documentary highlights what a unique project this was. Director Jobson was Bob Marley’s manager at the time, producer Chris Blackwell was the founder of Jamaica’s Island Records, and Countryman was exactly the character he portrays in the film—minus a couple of martial & spiritual superpowers. He’s fifty in the documentary, raring to go for a sequel. Like Countryman, most of the rest of the cast had never acted before. Of the professionals involved, Hiram Keller’s biggest role was in Fellini’s Satyricon! The actress playing Beau, Kristina St. Clair, was Keller’s wife.
I goofed in using the term “voodoo” in my review. The magic here is Jamaican obeah, as distinct from vodou as it is from santería. Unfortunately, what I know about obeah doesn’t go beyond the Wikipedia page. Here’s a brief introduction taken from Timothy White’s fascinating biography, Catch a Fire: The Life of Bob Marley:
“The chief guardians of Jamaica’s folk wisdom and lore have been the sorcerors, kown as ‘oheahmen’ (from the Twi obayi—meaning magic or sorcery) and ‘Myalmen’ (related to the Hausa word maye, ‘wizard’). Obeah is the practice of exploiting the power of ‘duppies,’ or spirits of the dead, to harm or help people and influence events. A myalman, however, has the ability to thwart or neutralize the evil wrought by duppies. Under colonial domination, Jamaican slaves would align themselves in large numbers with obeahmen and myalmen (and women) in order to cast spells to defeat their captors….Throughout the Third World, Bob Marley was viewed as a modern myalman who had the will and the means—literally and figuratively—to repel evil. He was, as he himself claimed, a ‘duppy conqueror.’”
A great line I missed in my review? When Beau asks Countryman how he found her in the wilderness, he smiles and says, “Guidance, Sister, Guidance,” making that single word express all of the wonder of life in this world and beyond.