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In 1957 Fox released a WW2-set movie about castaways threatened by the Japanese Army and marooned on a tropical island. One of them is a nun. Despite her vows of chastity there's a lot of heavy breathing and wishful thinking about romantic relations. Half the time this nun is wearing eye makeup suitable for Liz Taylor. The show was called Sea Wife and impressed almost nobody. It starred Joan Collins as the hot-blooded nun and Richard Burton as her equally aroused consort, It By all means catch it if you can.
In the very same year Fox turned around and produced a remarkably intelligent and respectful drama from more or less the same situation. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison plays to the strengths of its director/co-writer, John Huston. It's in essence a return to his major hit The African Queen in a different era, under different rules. Of his late-50s Fox films (the impressive The Roots of Heaven, The Barbarian and the Geisha) this was Huston's one solid box office hit.
The show puts its story elements into the kind of audience-friendly terms that every Hollywood producer hopes for. 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. Sea Wife isn't an isolated case, as a whole sub-sub genre of movies uses sisters of the cloth for exploitative thrills. With actors Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr handling what is essentially a two-actor drama, this one is firmly on the side of quality.
The story limits its point of view to the personal experience of a lone Marine adrift on a rubber raft. The only survivor of an attack on his reconnaissance unit, Corporal Allison (Mitchum) washes ashore and meets the equally stranded Sister Angela (Kerr). They try to fashion a raft for a planned sea voyage to safety. But the Japanese arrive to establish a weather station, forcing the castaways to hide in a cave only a short distance away. The close confinement creates a number of adjustment issues for the unlikely, mismatched couple. The Marine Corps is the only society that the orphaned, uneducated Allison knows, and he has more than a few things to learn about nuns.
John Huston makes this intimate tale of two holdouts on a Japanese-held island a consistently entertaining proposition. Kerr and Mitchum are alone on screen most of the time, and the little cove on the island is a picturesque and 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 set pieces. 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 hides out in a rather convenient cave, but the actors convince us that they really are in a tight spot. At one point, Mitchum sneaks into the enemy camp for some food. He's forced to spend 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 John Lee Mahin-John 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 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 scare her into running out to in the rain, where she catches a fever...
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is an object lesson in good taste that doesn't compromise (or insult) adult values. The producers knew they were walking a thin line with the censors. Sister Angela has yet to take her final vows, which in a modern production would instantly mandate wild sex for the two. Instead, her commitment to the church is interestingly compared with Mr. Allison's own 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 -- the 'bad boy' Robbie only arises 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 already made a landmark film about nuns, Powell & Pressburger's sensual and disturbing 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; the Fred Zinnemann The Nun's Story was a definite exception. This is also not Huston's much lighter The African Queen, in which Katharine Hepburn's prissy scarecrow of a spinster blossoms through the power of love. Thanks to Kerr's expert finesse, Sister Angela inspires respect without demanding it. When she expresses human weakness, it's not an indication of 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.
In a development slightly reminiscent of the "sink the German steamboat" finale of The African Queen, Mitchum also gets to be an unlikely hero. When the Marines land, he realizes that he can cripple the Japanese defense, but to do so he'll have to risk his life. In a humorous turnabout, he deflects Kerr's presumed resistance by pretending that his idea is divinely inspired. It's a fun moment in a screenplay that seldom resorts to cute gimmicks.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a good transfer of film elements that must have required some involved restoration work. Several shots in the first reel suffer from mis-registration alignment that we associate with Eastman composites of Technicolor films; perhaps those shots had to be recovered through work with B&W separations. The granularity is a little heavy throughout as well, but the colors look fine and the transfer is an improvement over the earlier (2003) DVD. Cameraman Oswald Morris filmed in Trinidad and Tobago, capturing the look of overcast and damp tropical skies. Julie Kirgo's liner notes offer a number of amusing anecdotes about the Kerr-Mitchum casting match-up, and John Huston's interest in the project.
George Auric's music is mostly in the clear on Twilight Time's Isolated Music & Effects track. An English trailer is included that offers a class sell. We know the trailer is from the UK because John Huston's name is pronounced, "Hooston." Another extra is an interesting (almost random) selection of Movietone News newsreels, about Marine action in the South Pacific (Saipan, Tarawa) and awards ceremonies in 1957 -- stressing Fox films, of course. A final silent bit seems almost a mistake -- a couple of raw takes of actresses Terry Moore and Dolores Del Rio deplaning from a Mexican airliner.
Just for laughs, John Huston cast Deborah Kerr as a Scottish femme fatale who becomes a nun for his segment of the exasperatingly nonsensical James Bond spoof Casino Royale. I'd report the clever, insightful connection between her roles in the two movies, but I don't think there is one.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.