French Guiana in 1918, and the prison camp at Devil's Island is notorious for the brutality visited on the inmates by the callous guards and a system that offers no chance of rehabilitation, simply punishment after punishment for the rest of their life terms. One of those prisoners is Le Bras (Jim Brown), and today he is set to be executed, bracing himself for the worst in a small cell near the instrument of death. He tells the man in the next cell, Davert (Christopher George), that he is going to fight back, to actually kill the guards who are coming to take him on his final journey to the guillotine, but Davert is an avowed pacifist who promotes peaceful protest and he warns Le Bras against it. There is a struggle, yet quickly the convict is placed with his head under the blade...
Well, that was a short film, wasn't it? He didn't even escape - ah, wait a minute, just as our hero is about to be decapitated an official appears and informs everyone the death penalty will no longer be used, therefore Le Bras's sentence, as well as those of his fellow prisoners, will now be that of a lifetime of hard labour. This was a Roger Corman production, and designed to do nothing else but cash in on a movie made at the same time, a far bigger budget effort than this with huge stars and an epic running time, filmed on all the best locations to boot. That film was Papillon, one of some people's favourite prison movies of all time, and it more or less ruled the roost as far as Devil's Island stories went in 1973.
But I Escaped from Devil's Island had one advantage at least, and that was Corman cheekily making this so quickly that he could release it a few weeks before Papillon made it to the world's cinemas, thereby whetting the potential audience's appetite for the more prestigious yarn. This did not claim to be based on a true story, but the structure was very similar to the women in prison movies Corman's companies became something of an expert in, only with men in the roles rather than ladies. Nevertheless, you could imagine him taking the script and adapting it to his stable of actresses, as the typical elements such as sadistic wardens, torture, bloody violence, homosexual characters and nudity, as well as the sense of injustice bred from dire conditions, were all present and correct.
Under the direction of the fast-working veteran William Witney, Jim Brown was essentially a male Pam Grier in this case, offering a blaxploitation flavour though he was just about the sole black actor in the cast, but his obvious physical presence was enough to carry him through what was requested of him: dialogue between gritted teeth and lots of running about and fisticuffs. The first half hour detailed both Le Bras and Davert's differing reactions to the oppression they had been forced into, with the latter almost a more interesting character than his counterpart since he goes out of his way to behave non-violently, leading to such scenes as the one where a guard demands he beat his fellow prisoner, to which Davert responds by breaking his baton instead. He is punished by being crushed under heavy sacks, something he recovers from with remarkable ease.
There was blood bubbling out of his mouth and everything! Anyway, this was notable for the inclusion of another ally, Jo-Jo (Richard Ely), for he was a gay character who gets far more to do than the swishy stereotypes more often populating movies with such performances. Jo-Jo proved himself just as capable of bloodshed as the others, not someone to mess with even if he and his fellow homosexuals prostitute themselves to the other prisoners, sporting women's makeup (where did they get that from, then?), and if Le Bras doesn't take him as a lover, he does treat him as an equal and friend. More progressive than many contemporaries, though not quite above a few clichés, such as Jo-Jo's ultimate fate, but he, Le Bras and a relcutant Davert do escape (along with another, more disposable chap who gets eaten by a shark in a gory sequence) and the rest of the film follows a cat and mouse chase through the jungle, encountering lepers and natives (one lady Le Bras gets a sex scene with, this reverting to type fairly often). As a two-fisted adventure, not bad at all. Music by Les Baxter.