Monday, April 27, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" (1957)

"Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" is something of a forgotten relic, despite being nominated for two Academy Awards and the presence of some very high-wattage talent, including stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr and writer/director John Huston. It's a solid World War II adventure/romance flick that served as a precursor to "Cast Away" and other stories about characters surviving in isolation, though it hasn't aged particularly well.

Mitchum is generally regarded as one of Hollywood's greatest talents, if one who was somewhat under-acknowledged during his career -- including by himself, who often made dismissive comments about his abilities or the acting craft in general. Kerr, on the other hand, was widely regarded as one of the premier actresses of her day, as her six Oscar nominations (including one for this film) attest. Losing six times, she eventually was given an honorary Oscar.

I should note, however, that like many female performers before and after her, Kerr's career as a film star waned sharply starting around age 45 -- an almost magical number that serves to delineate the trajectory of everyone from Julia Roberts to Susan Sarandon. Some do successfully extend an ongoing career roll past this unfortunate sell-by date (e.g., Sandra Bullock), or come back from a lull stronger than ever (Meryl Streep).

Still, it's the rare film actress who enjoys a sustained career arc of undimmed popularity from their 30s to 60s, as untold male counterparts have -- Harrison Ford, Charleton Heston, Cary Grant, Paul Newman, to name just a few.

Based on the novel by Charles Shaw and adapted by Huston and John Lee Mahin, "Allison" is the tale of the title character, a meathead career Marine whose rubber raft washes up on a lonely island in the South Pacific after the submarine carrying his team was forced to submerge and strand them. (The movie was actually shot in Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean, so as to take advantage of British film industry funding and tax revenue.)

There he finds a primitive village, completely deserted, but with a Western-built church atop the hill. There he stumbles across Sister Angela, a young nun in angelic white robes. She, too, has been stranded by her fellows. She and a priest came to the island to rescue another priest, but it turned out the Japanese had already attacked, capturing or killing everyone. Her companion died himself a few days later of old age and exertion.

The rest of the movie is the tale of their relationship as they struggle to survive and come to terms with their fate. Allison is natural-born survivor, the sort who could be plopped down most anywhere on the globe and find a way to get on. She's a bit more sheltered, but tougher than she seems.

Needless to say, they wind up developing romantic feelings for each other, and much of the tension is about whether she'll give in and forsake her vows, and if he'll ask -- or force -- her to.

They'd probably have stayed that way together, for months or years until the war ended, eating coconuts and breadfruit till they were rescued. But the Japanese take over the island, not once but twice, first as a tiny meteorological monitoring station, and later as a full-blown staging area holding thousands of enemy soldiers.

Allison and Sister Angela are forced to decamp to a well-hidden cave near the island summit, subsisting on whatever food they can pick, kill or steal from the Japanese. In one (over)long sequence, Allison sneaks into the enemy camp, armed only with his service knife, to pilfer some cans of food. He's cornered by a pair of Japanese in the supply depot, and must hide atop some bags of rice while they finish a long session of drinking sake and playing board games.

The Japanese leave as suddenly as they came, leaving behind a treasure trove of supplies -- not to mention some rather hefty-looking buildings that they apparently constructed in a day or two. Allison gets roaring drunk on the enemy booze and makes some vaguely threatening comments to Sister Angela about them being just like "Adam and Eve." Fearing a rape attempt, she runs off into the jungle, gets trapped in a downpour and falls deathly ill.

Allison nurses her back to health, but by now a major landing of Japanese have taken over the island again. (Fickle about their strategic deployments, they are.) Allison tries to steal supplies again but is forced to kill a soldier who discovers him, and it seems only a matter of time before they're captured or killed.

Narratively, there's not a whole lot going on in the movie. It's essentially just these two actors playing off each other. Kerr, not bothering to hide her natural-born Scottish brogue for this role, is a stalwart presence as a woman who has a strong sense of herself and her moral inner center. Even though she's attracted to Allison, we never really sense that she truly contemplates abandoning her faith for him. It's more a what-if temptation for her.

Mitchum is something of a conundrum, which Mitchum often was. Even in his most straightforward heroic roles, Mitchum always had an element of danger about his characterizations. Allison seems like a man playing a role as the tried-and-true Marine, though we later learn he had a scrappy, crime-filled upbringing as an orphan. Here is a man who has done bad things in his life and set them aside, but appears capable of going back to them if needs be.

Huston and Mahin received their own Academy Award nomination for their screenplay, which is essentially a character study set against a war-romance backdrop.

Mitchum was just shy of 40 when this movie came out, his famous 48-inch chest starting to fall southward, sucking in his gut mightily in his own imitable way during a few shirtless scenes. With his barrel chest and broad shoulders, wide cheekbones and pointed chin, Mitchum resembled one inverted triangle perched atop another.

I also chuckled to myself at how this man who seemingly never gets to bathe or visit a barber always has perfectly coiffed hair.

Kerr is almost completely covered head to toe in her habit, though during her illness sequence we discover that she did indeed shear her famous red locks close to her head in the traditional nun style. That's a pretty brave move for a single scene -- possibly it's a wig, but it looks authentic.

I enjoyed "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison," which is a great-looking film featuring a pair of immensely charismatic stars. It's not remembered as a great film, which it isn't, but it certainly deserves more of a reputation than it has.

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