Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This very popular drama did what every Hollywood producer hopes for: it created a perfect crossover
hit. There's a sensitive quasi-romantic drama for the ladies, and he-man action stuff for the men. It's
also a perfect fit for its actors, with Robert Mitchum playing dumb as the fighting man attracted to
a lady in white, and Kerr making a credible character out of a role that begs to be sensationalized.
There's a whole sub-sub genre of movies that use sisters of the cloth for exploitative thrills, but
this one is firmly on the side of quality. As usual, John Huston's direction of actors is
excellent; of his late-50s Fox films (The Roots of Heaven, The Barbarian and the
Geisha this was his one solid hit.
Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) finds his way to an island, the only survivor of an
attack on his Marine unit. He meets Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), also stranded there, and they try to
fashion a raft for a planned sea voyage to safety. But the Japanese set up a radio station on the island,
forcing the castaways to hide in a cave only a short distance away. The Corps is the only society that
the orphaned, uneducated Allison knows, and he has a few things to learn about nuns.
Working with an intimate story set in a sprawling theater of war, John Huston makes this tale of
two holdouts on a Japanese-held island a very entertaining proposition. Kerr and Mitchum are alone
on screen most of the time, and the little cove on the island is a very pleasant backdrop for their
adventure. The enemy unit that keeps them in hiding is authentic-looking and humanely observed, in
contrast to the savage depiction of Japanese in earlier American films, even ones made after the war.
The script avoids standard battle action, choosing instead a series of unique setpieces. The island
is shelled and bombed with each new wave of occupiers. A naval battle happening over the horizon
is glimpsed only as flashes of light in the sky. The couple hide out in a rather convenient cave,
but the conviction given the characters convinces us that they really are in a tight spot. At one
point, Mitchum sneaks into the enemy camp for some food, and ends up spending an entire night hiding
motionless in a loft while two supply officers play games and drink saki.
There's none of this hide-in-plain-sight nonsense; he's forever on the verge of being spotted.
The Mahin-Huston screenplay carefully charts the progress of the relationship between the nun and the
Marine. Subject A, sex, is built into the story, and soon becomes an issue between them, if only by
omission. Kerr and Mitchum hunt a sea turtle together, build a raft, and keep house, all the while
skirting an obvious mutual attraction. Eventually, the Marine declares himself. Add some liquor to the
situation, and his advances scares her into running out to in the rain, where she catches a fever ...
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is an object lesson in good taste. The producers knew they were
walking a thin line with the censors - uh, apologies, the production code - and it's clear that the
production was closely monitored and 'counseled.' Kerr's character has yet to take her final vows, which
in a modern production would instantly mandate wild sex for the two; here, her commitment to the church
is interestingly compared with Mitchum's pledge to the Marines.
Mitchum's character is just a nice guy who wants to be a gentleman. It doesn't seem too much of a stretch,
even though he's supposed to be an orphan whose pre-service experience was juvenile delinquency. The
Marines 'straightened him out' so he's an OK Joe now - we only get a flash of 'bad boy' Robbie, when he
smells alcohol in a bottle left by the Japanese. The vision of the Armed Forces as the saviors of
rotten youth surely earned the film its Pentagon cooperation.
Deborah Kerr had made a landmark film about nuns, the bizarre Black Narcissus. In that film, her
pristine exterior opened to reveal a mass of contradictions and doubts. Big Hollywood studios didn't make
films like that in the late 50s, if they could help it, but Kerr's expert finesse humanizes the
sweet, amiable Sister Angela with fine touches. This isn't Huston's The African Queen, where the
romantic solution was for Katharine Hepburn to recognize herself as a prissy scarecrow - spinster. Sister
Angela inspires respect without demanding it, and her human weakness isn't a sign that there's something
bogus about her commitment to her faith.
I can imagine the censors going ballistic over scenes like the one where Kerr is raving in a fever, and
Mitchum has to undress her to keep her warm and dry. As played, it not only is 'respectful', it avoids
being ridiculous. I doubt that Huston had ideas for stronger scenes, as his direction repeatedly gives the
material dignity and class.
Mitchum even gets to be an unlikely hero at the end. When the Marines land, he gets an idea of how to
easily cripple the Japanese defenses. In a humorous turnabout, he deflects Kerr's presumed resistance
to his risking his life, by pretending his idea is divinely inspired. It's a fun moment in a screenplay
that seldom resorts to cute gimmicks.
Fox's DVD of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a beauty, and will thrill fans who have only seen it
pan-scanned. Huston was rarely visually fussy but used 'Scope wisely and well. On old telecasts, the
scanning reduced the fairly credible sets to cramped closeups. Here, we get to appreciate Huston's sly
direction. At one point the camera pans abruptly, as if getting ready to let us see the drunken Mitchum
fall backwards from his chair. It's a clever feint that puts us off guard for the rest of the scene.
The sound is clear as well. At this time, much location work was post-dubbed, but Heaven Knows
appears to use location audio tracks, which is a plus.
Several Movietone clips about Tarawa and other actions emphasize the blistering combat that Marines
went through in the South Pacific (I was named after an Uncle who was one). Ms. Kerr
accepts an exhibitors' award in a photo-op situation that Fox always worked into their newsreels.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison rates:
Supplements: Trailer, 4 short newsreel excerpts from South Pacific Marine
battles - Tarawa, etc.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 23, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson