Perry Henzell

Director of the reggae classic 'The Harder They Come', Jamaica's first home-grown feature film


Perry Henzell, film director and writer: born Port Maria, Jamaica 7 March 1936; married 1965 Sally Densham (one son, two daughters); died Treasure Beach, Jamaica 30 November 2006.

The Harder They Come (1972) is a rough-hewn classic, the first and still the best home-grown Jamaican feature film. It is based on the life of Ivan Rhyging, a self-styled ghetto Robin Hood who died in a shoot-out with police in 1948, but the film's director, Perry Henzell, added an extra element by turning the gunman into an innocent country youth desperate to succeed in the cut-throat Kingston reggae world.

In Ivan, played by the local singer Jimmy Cliff, Henzell created a Jamaican rebel archetype; inspired by such an image, the Island Records boss Chris Blackwell - who had part-financed the movie - seized upon it in promoting his new signing, Bob Marley. In some ways the groundwork for Marley's eventual success was laid by the film having one of the best soundtrack albums ever released, an indispensible accompaniment to chic dinner parties of the early 1970s, introducing Jamaican music to the white album market; Henzell had personally chosen the record's reggae gems.

In making The Harder They Come, Henzell was influenced by such essays in realism as Gillo Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers. "But I felt most realism was boring, very serious," he said. "I wanted to make realism lighter. I also realised I couldn't possibly write dialogue that was as good as what I heard people saying all around me. I was interested in capturing that poetry. That's sort of a cinéma vérité technique.

The Harder They Come, said the director, was "two movies really: on one hand, it was for people who were well-educated and who wanted a glimpse into another side of life. But in the Caribbean and Africa and Brazil, it would be for the poor, for people living in slums. The impact of The Harder They Come on Jamaica was enormous.

When the film was first shown in Kingston in 1972, it provoked riots by people unable to get into the sold-out Carib cinema.

But it was a different story when it opened later that year in London. "It was a difficult sell," said Henzell.

The first night the cinema was empty. Not one critic had gone down there to review it. I had to print up thousands of flyers and literally stand outside the underground station in Brixton and hand them out. That turned the tide. The film took off. Time and time again, everywhere, the film would just have died without a lot of hard work.

After a similar push in the United States, The Harder They Come ran as a midnight movie in Cambridge, Massachussetts, for seven years.

The film's enduring themes have stood the test of time. Earlier this year, a critically acclaimed stage musical of The Harder They Come, produced by Henzell, became the longest-running show ever at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. Henzell missed most of this triumph, needing to travel to New York for treatment following a worsening of the cancer from which he had been suffering since 2000.

Henzell was a man who exuded an almost supernatural calm; he was always effortlessly congenial company, with a permanent twinkle of humour in his enquiring eyes. Both his parents were of old Caribbean stock, his father managing a sugar estate on the Jamaican north coast, where his only son and three daughters were born. After attending Shrewsbury School and McGill University in Montreal, Perry Henzell became a floor manager for BBC television in London.

In 1959, learning that television was about to start up in Jamaica, he returned to the island. There he set up Vista Productions, which over the next decade made hundreds of commercials, honing his directing skills. English commercials directors like Ridley Scott would use Vista's facilities.

By 1969 Henzell was ready to begin filming his first feature. Funded by relatives, as well as by Chris Blackwell, The Harder They Come was not finally completed until 1972, shot at weekends or in one or two-week bursts. During those three years cast members died, and were replaced by lookalikes, a method also employed when Jimmy Cliff was unavailable for a reshoot of the pivotal knife-fight scene.

Despite the film's success, Henzell made little money from it. His next feature, No Place Like Home, was intended to remedy that. But this story of an American film crew who travel to Jamaica to shoot an advertisement, and the subsequent love affair that develops, a conscious effort to present a different side of Jamaica from his first film, landed Henzell in an even more parlous state. Although the tale was probably apocryphal that he left the film's completed print in a New York taxi after consuming rather too much of the "herb" of which he could be fond, it added immeasurably to the director's mystique. (His own explanation was that a Manhattan storage facility had misplaced the reels.) Whatever, No Place Like Home remained unfinished.

Virtually bankrupt, Henzell retreated from the film business, to I-topia, his Jamaican country retreat. Working at night by oil-lamp - I-topia only recently acquired electricity - Perry Henzell wrote The Power Game, a dystopian vision of an unnamed Caribbean island (it was clear that it was Jamaica). Published in 1982, it is as riveting to read as The Harder They Come is to watch. More recently he wrote Cane, a novel about the 18th-century Jamaican sugar-trade, dividing his time between I-topia and Jake's, the award-winning boutique hotel established by his wife Sally in Treasure Beach on the south coast.

In 1988, with assistance from Toots and the Maytals, Henzell wrote a musical about the life of Marcus Garvey, the prophet of black consciousness; the show enjoyed a run in Kingston. Some 10 years ago, he attempted to make a sequel to The Harder They Come, arguing that the Ivan character had not been killed but only badly wounded in the gunfight that ends the original film. But when Jimmy Cliff turned out to have a similar idea and a competing script of his own, the plan foundered. Efforts to make a television series, Star Reporter, about a Jamaican journalist, were also scuppered.

Yet around the same time as Henzell's cancer was first diagnosed, a forgotten print of No Place Like Home turned up in New York - one of the actors turned out to be a young Grace Jones. As well as readying the musical of The Harder They Come, Henzell found funding to finish his second film.

The Jamaican premiere of No Place Like Home was held last night, the day after his death.

Chris Salewicz

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