When 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea premiered in 1954, it was the most expensive Hollywood production to date, and one of the first to be filmed in wide-screen CinemaScope. Based on the classic Jules Verne novel about Captain Nemo’s submarine the Nautilus, its undersea sequences — with special effects which were then considered state-of-the-art — were filmed partly in the Bahamas, whose extraordinary underwater reef formations astonished viewers. Hollywood came calling in the Bahamas again in 1965, with the James Bond film Thunderball. Sean Connery, as Bond, experiences Junkanoo in Nassau before discovering the undersea lair of the villain Emilio Largo. The filming location in the Exumas — a natural cave system with a narrow entrance, where colourful fish teem in the eerie glimmering water — is to this day known as Thunderball Grotto, a favourite site for snorkellers and Bond fans alike. Meanwhile, 2010’s Children of God, directed by Bahamian Kareem Mortimer, opens in Nassau but soon shifts to Eleuthera, the long, tapering island famed for its pink sand beaches. Here, the film’s characters variously seek and sometimes find creative inspiration, spiritual solace, and romance, and the laid-back, idyllic landscape contrasts with the high-stakes drama of the plot.
Published in 1953, Phyllis Shand Allfrey’s novel The Orchid House — a fictionalised version of the author’s earlier life, set in Dominica — is now considered a classic of Caribbean literature, described by Allfrey herself as “a love story by a woman in love with an island.” Nearly forty years later, it was brought to life on the small screen by Trinidadian filmmaker Horace Ové, who directed a four-part adaptation for the UK’s Channel 4, filmed entirely on location in Allfrey’s home island. “Dominica itself was the real star of the film,” according to Polly Patullo, writing in Caribbean Beat in 1993. “As Phyllis Allfrey described it, the island is removed from the stereotype of sweeping white-sand beaches and hotels drenched in bougainvillea. It is a wild place of mountains, rainforest, waterfalls, a mysterious Boiling Lake, rare parrots, and a luxuriance of greenery that dazzles the eye whichever way one turns.” The Nature Isle’s astounding, rugged natural beauty also attracted the producers of the wildly popular Pirates of the Caribbean series, who used Indian River, the sulphurous Valley of Desolation, the Titou Gorge, and the cliff-backed bays of the northeast coast to represent various fantastical locations for swashbuckling adventures.
For many cineastes, 1974’s Bim — about a gangster anti-hero turned politician, played by Ralph Maraj — remains the high point of Trinidadian film. In more recent decades, a government-supported film sector has produced dozens of features and shorts, most of them showcased at the annual Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, and many also going on to the regional and international festival round. Filmmakers have taken advantage of Trinidad’s diverse landscapes — from the gritty bustle of Port of Spain, as seen in She Paradise (2020), to the hilltop village of Paramin, the main location for Play the Devil (2016), and the rainforests of the Northern Range, setting for the thriller The Cutlass (2017). The largely rural district of Mayaro, in the island’s southeast corner, has been a favourite location, with its windswept Atlantic beaches stretching for miles, vast coconut estates, and close-knit village communities. 2009’s The Ghost of Hing King Estate, directed by pioneer Horace Ové, used rural Mayaro as the setting for a chilling mystery drama, featuring a host of local theatre luminaries, like Michael Cherrie, Eunice Alleyne, Wendell Manwarren, and Cecilia Salazar. Gentler in tone, 2017’s Green Days by the River brought the beloved Michael Anthony novel to the screen, a story of first love, growing pains, and the verge of adulthood.
Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, had a holiday house on Jamaica’s north coast, so it’s no surprise that the island was the setting for 1962’s Dr No, the first in the Bond film franchise, which has often favoured Caribbean locations. (1995’s GoldenEye, though not set in Jamaica, was named for Fleming’s villa.) But a more grounded and rooted portrait of the island and its people emerges from the work of its own filmmakers, among whom the late Perry Henzell is still a towering figure. His 1972 crime drama The Harder They Come is often said to be the film that introduced reggae music to the world, with Jimmy Cliff in the lead role and music by the Maytals, Desmond Dekker, and the Melodians, among others, in the mix, and the city of Kingston prominently featured. A few years later, in 1976, Smile Orange took a satirical look at the Caribbean tourism industry, with acclaimed actor Carl Bradshaw leading the cast and a barely exaggerated setting in an unnamed north coast resort. More recently, 2010’s Better Mus’ Come is a social drama set in the 1970s — a time of intense political unrest in the country — with a love story at its core, and a gripping recreation of the urban landscape in which reggae grew to maturity.
For many travellers from outside the region, Trinidad’s sister isle — with its lushly forested Main Ridge, picturesque bays, and teeming coral reefs — is a well-kept secret. But in the late 1950s, the island was certainly on the radar for Hollywood location scouts, who chose Tobago as a substitute for more distant tropical settings. In 1957’s Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, Tobago stood in for an unnamed island in the South Pacific during the Second World War. Stars Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum played a missionary nun and a US Navy officer stranded and threatened by hostile Japanese soldiers. Dozens of young Chinese-Trinidadian men were hired as extras, since there was no local Japanese community to draw on. A few years later, in the Disney family adventure movie Swiss Family Robinson, Tobago once again played the role of a Pacific island, where a clever Swiss family manage to survive shipwreck and the depredations of pirates to build an idyllic treehouse — actually constructed by set builders in a giant samaan tree near Goldsborough. Various other scenes were filmed at locations including Pigeon Point, Mt Irvine, and Belle Garden — where an elaborate shipwreck set was constructed out on the rocks. Jump forward a few decades to 2016’s Bazodee — a musical romantic comedy starring soca legend Machel Montano — and Tobago finally got to play itself, with a beach resort offering the location and opportunity for the leads to start the plot-required process of falling for each other.