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Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
Fox Home Entertainment
1957 / color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Street Date May 20, 2003 / 14.98
Starring Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum
Cinematography Oswald Morris
Art Direction Stephen Grimes
Film Editor Russell Lloyd
Original Music Georges Auric
Written by John Huston, John Lee Mahin from a novel by Charles Shaw
Produced by Buddy Adler, Eugene Frenke
Directed by John Huston

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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
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

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