Words by Jesse Serwer
Photo by Arthur Gorson
As a young man, I saw three movies that enhanced my view of Jamaica, providing a more substantial visual counterpoint to the snippets seen in reggae and dancehall videos. You might guess that the first two of these were The Harder They Come and Rockers, titles canonized not just as great Jamaican films but, among the great music films, period. The third enjoys far less recognition, but left no less of an impression after it was passed along to me on a worn VHS: 1982’s Countryman, directed by former Bob Marley manager Dickie Jobson and starring a man who, like his character in the movie, was identified only as Countryman. To this day, no one seems to know Countryman’s real name; if they do, it’s a closely-held secret. However, we do know, via social media posts from those who knew him (including photographer Arthur Gorson, who took the above photo) that he has just passed away after a long battle with lung cancer.
Like the character in the film, the real Countryman was a fisherman; in fact, he continued to make his living fishing out of Hellshire Beach until fairly recently. By all accounts, there was little difference between the superhero-like character in the movie and the man who played him. However, the namesake movie was not his first time acting. In the mid ’70s, The Harder They Come director Perry Henzell cast Countryman in No Place Like Home, which was never completed. He was already well known locally by the time Jobson and producer Chris Blackwell cast him in Countryman — in 1973, he had appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. The magazine had come to Jamaica to do a story on Bob Marley, reggae and Rastafari; though a peripheral character in the story (which you can read here), his magnetic physical presence was clearly too much for the magazine’s photo editor to pass up.
While biographical details are sketchy, a commonly-told story is that Countryman, who was of Tamil Indian descent, ran away from home at age six, when he began living independently in the bush.
“He was a unique character, able to live in the jungle,” Chris Blackwell said. “We decided to do a film with him because you could never find a movie star who could wrestle with alligators and run through swamps the way he did. Countryman was an amazing person, always positive and full of humor. Being of African and Indian descent, he embodied the Jamaican motto, ‘Out of Many, One People.’”
His physical presence is central to Countryman, which is more of an experience than a movie. Unlike The Harder They Come and Rockers, Countryman‘s plot has nothing to do with music, though its soundtrack of Bob Marley songs and depiction of a Rastafari lifestyle would connect it in many people’s minds to reggae. Instead, Countryman offered a mystical picture of Jamaican life, complete with stunning scenery and a celebration of the simple life that surely helped foster tourist travel from the countries where it was screened.
“Depending on how generous you’re feeling, You could call Countryman a B movie … or you could call it an arthouse film,” National Gallery of Jamaica curator Nicole Smythe-Johnson wrote. “To my mind, those descriptions are equally appropriate, though the self-proclaimed ‘a bush movie’ is probably best.”
Interested in seeing for yourself? Watch Countryman in full right here: