Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
James Michener's sprawling saga of the history of our 50th state is woefully unsuited to film adaptation, and it's to the credit of producer Walter Mirisch that such an intelligent picture resulted. Hawaii was a substantial hit, which says a lot for a film where uplifting moments are outnumbered four to one by scenes of misery and sadness. The performances are commendable and George Roy Hill's direction avoids decorative travelogue effects. The script by Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash has an uncommonly fair attitude toward the destruction of an idyllic culture by zealous missionaries and rapacious whalers.
An issue of equal importance to DVD buyers is the fact that MGM's budget-priced disc is not the full 189-minute Road Show cut that was such a welcome surprise on laserdisc fifteen years ago. More on that below.
Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) has completed missionary school in New England, but the stern Rev.
Thorn (Torin Thatcher) will not send unmarried missionaries to Hawaii. With her family's blessing, Thorn
arranges for Hale to meet young Jerusha Bromley. Jerusha believes she has been abandoned by a handsome
suitor, whaler Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris), but Thorn and her mother have been intercepting his
letters. Jerusha marries Abner and they set sail for the South Seas in the company of other missionaries,
including Rev. John Whipple (Gene Hackman) and islander Keoki (Manu Tupou), who has also trained to be a
minister. After a treacherous passage around the Horn the ship arrives at the island of Maui, and
Abner and Jerusha meet Queen Malama (Jocelyne LaGarde). She takes to Jerusha immediately and eventually
opts to become a Christian. But Abner is ruthless about forcing the natives away from their heathen practices. Some of the changes, like restraining the whalers from sleeping with the native girls, are obviously for the good. But Abner is also set on destroying all vestiges of the rich Hawaiian culture and religion. The years bring change but not happiness. Other missionaries buy land and go into business. Sicknesses decimate the native population. Abner's bitter intolerance drives away those who love him. And there's still Rafer Hoxworth to contend with. On each of his visits he begs Jerusha to come away with him, before the harsh life in the islands kills her.
Hawaii's only nod to commercial concerns is the casting of the magic name Julie Andrews. After Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music a producer could get funding for almost any project with her name attached, freeing Mirisch and his writers to tell Michener's story without the compromise of happy endings.
Trumbo and Taradash's screenplay covers roughly the first third of the book, from the arrival of the
missionaries to the end of the Hawaiian culture as a distinct tribal nation. The well-intentioned Christians aren't even off the boat before the severe and monomaniacal Abner Hale offends the ruling Queen Malama with his blunt demands. He wants the killing of deformed babies stopped and sex to be regulated along puritan lines. Free love must cease, especially incest in the royal bloodlines, and he's determined to stop the sexual welcome given whaling ships.
Maui appears to be a matriarchy, and even though the stiff-necked Abner is initially rejected, his tolerant and accepting wife Jerusha immediately finds favor. Her rapport with the Malama paves the way for Abner's first success - by convincing the Queen that the missionaries have no desire for Hawaiian land, Abner and Jerusha make a convert, at least in spirit.
But the rest of their efforts have painful results. Abner's intransigence and bigotry alienates his native missionary 'brother' Keoki, who eventually goes back to the old ways and weds his sister. The whalers try to burn Abner's church when they're prevented from sleeping with the young island women. Rebuffed in his efforts to run off with Jerusha, whaler Richard Harris thinks nothing of seducing her housemaid Iliki (Lokelani S. Chicarelli) and whisking her away on his ship, to be used and abandoned in some foreign port.
The missionaries are corrupted as well. Discharged from the sect for taking a native bride, one widower is
followed by others grown contemptuous of the church hypocrisy. Ex- minister and doctor John Whipple (Gene Hackman) starts a lucrative business. Having already robbed the Hawaiians of their religion, the missionaries become part of the systematic theft of the islands themselves.
The stern teachings of Abner Hale demote Malama and her loving husband/brother Kelolo (Ted Nobriga) into guilty
sinners, and the rest of Hawaii covers the island's demise as an Eden-like paradise. Deformed
children validate the warnings against incest, but when an outbreak of measles decimates the native population
even Abner opens his mind to Jerusha's admonition that the islanders deserved something better than the God of fire and brimstone.
Faithful to his principles, Abner refuses to grow wealthy with the other ministers and is shunted aside, alone. But he's helped by a grown islander with a facial birthmark who, as it turns out, was one of the babies that he and Jerusha saved from drowning years before.
Max Von Sydow is excellent as the preacher utterly blind to the natural beauty of a culture he cannot understand. He's unerringly true to his nature, as in the painful scene where he avows his complete love to Jerusha, only to reverse himself with an apology for placing his love for her above the love of God. The character is a great frustration to viewers but the necessary center of a difficult story.
Julie Andrews brings vitality and heart to the movie and her scenes with Jocelyne LaGarde are the best in the film. Jerusha is supposed to be physically frail, the one aspect of the character that Andrews has difficulty projecting.
Richard Harris holds down his end of the romantic triangle as Jerusha's first love. He represents the other life
she might have lived had her mother and Torin Thatcher's missionary director not interfered. Hawaii is really about imperfect Christian policies that not only destroy alien cultures, but blight the lives of innocents like Jerusha.
In interview material for Get Shorty, Gene Hackman confirmed that Bette Midler worked as a child extra in the film, and was an irrepressible performer who often sang on the bus to and from location.
MGM's DVD of Hawaii looks and sounds fine, especially for such a budget-priced release. Colors
are rich and Elmer Bernstein's score is as emotional as ever. 1
The film is truly deserving of Special Edition treatment, but this DVD uses the much shorter general release version. As a background for the Overture music, it slaps on a graphic that looks like a cheap scan from an old VHS master. Both Hawaii and its less notable follow-up The Hawaiians need to be revisited by studio caretakers willing to do justice to United Artists' neglected epics: The Alamo, It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and others.
The full Road Show version of Hawaii was reconstructed for laser disc in 1989 but as with the
films just mentioned, the extended 70mm scenes either were not saved or came from sources unacceptable
for true restoration work. Also, MGM DVD policy was to release DVDs that are marketable in other
languages and other regions. In most cases full audio elements and foreign tracks no longer exist
for the longer versions. 2
The extra half-hour of deleted material enriches every part of the film. Abner is shown bidding a painful
farewell to his family. After her wedding, Jerusha has a scene involving a mirror that prefigures
the death of her sister. Abner cruelly force-feeds Jerusha with bananas during their ship's stormy passage.
Every episode has important material removed. The deletions are skillfully done, but for those viewers who have seen the full film, this general release cut is like a book with many pages culled at random. Interestingly, all of the topless nudity of the wahine is retained: I presume that if the actresses were Anglos, the MPAA would have had a completely different attitude.
I would like to thank Lois Regen of Washington State for her analysis of the film (Hawaii Revisited: Allegories of Culture) and her cataloguing of the scenes deleted for general release.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Video: Very Good (but 27 minutes short of original roadshow version)
Supplements: Featurette The Making of Hawaii
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2005
1. Although it must be
noted that the entrance of a New England coach still cues music reminiscent of
The Magnificent Seven!
2. Savant is told that during a handover from Cannon/Pathé to MGM/UA
in 1989 or 1990, a penny-pinching executive came across an entire studio vault of un-inventoried
"additional elements" for UA films - presumably version trims, stereo soundtracks, mixing elements,
optical negatives. Frustrated restorers believe that items like the
Coffee Break number in
How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and the racy foreign version of
What's New Pussycat? were kept in this
facility. The entire vault was emptied and thrown away. I heard about this in 1994 when it was something
mentioned at MGM only in hushed tones; the closest thing to it happened in the early 80s when the MGM lot
shut down - concerned employees were rescuing priceless materials the only way they could, by stealing them
before they could be incinerated.
On the other hand, I've been told of vault personnel that have purposely
dropped items from inventories and stored them for free, to keep studios from destroying them. A couple of
major restorations of the 90s were made possible in this way ... I'm not comfortable naming names or
specific films, however, as all my information is hearsay.
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson