Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Getting to Know “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”

I suppose it’s part of some divine plan that I watched Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison on Good Friday. This 1957 film certainly reflects its era: it’s a widescreen romantic drama  populated by major stars (Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr), using World War II as a backdrop for a tale of love and sacrifice. One of its two central characters is a Roman Catholic nun, and formal religion is treated with all due respect. Sentimental? Yup—but also an appealing reflection of an era when (at least in theory) men were men, and women were decidedly not.

 Adapted from a popular novel by an Australian author, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, was directed as well as co-written for the screen by the great John Huston. His filmography was long and varied, but this film most reminds me of 1951’s The African Queen, which contains a similar sense of opposites attracting under dangerous circumstances. In The African Queen, a prissy missionary (Katharine Hepburn) and a rough-and-ready ship’s captain (Humphrey Bogart) bond while on a life-or-death wartime journey down an African river.

 Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is set in a similarly dangerous time and a similarly exotic place. It takes place on a small Pacific island during the later years of World War II. We open with a desperate American Marine, the only survivor of a Japanese attack, reaching the shore in a rubber raft. Fortunately, the enemy is not present. The island’s sole inhabitant turns out to be a pretty young British nun with her own tale of woe. The only surprise about this meet-cute is that Allison has no apparent beef against the Church, and from the start treats the coiffed and veiled sister with full respect. When it comes to survival tactics (like catching a giant sea turtle for dinner), he’s endlessly capable, and she’s hardy enough to go along with his every scheme. Once a Japanese squadron has returned to the island, Mitchum’s character manages a successful raid on their well-stocked pantry. In addition to canned goods, he comes back with bottles of sake, but then—thoroughly under the influence—makes the mistake of telling Sister Angela that he’s in love with her. Since she has not yet taken her final vows, anything is possible . . . but she flees into the night in total dismay.

Much of the film’s acclaim was directed toward Kerr’s performance as Sister Angela, for which she was Oscar-nominated. (The film’s other Oscar nom went toward its concise, impactful script.) In this era, Kerr was making something of a specialty of playing outwardly prim young women who harbor deep emotions beneath a ladylike surface. (See The King and I, Tea and Sympathy, Separate Tables, and of course From Here to Eternity.) During a long career, she was nominated for six Oscars, always as a leading lady. She never won, but thankfully was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1994 as “an artist of impeccable grace and beauty, a dedicated actress whose motion picture career has always stood for perfection, discipline and elegance.” 

 I tend to associate Mitchum with film noir (like the classic Out of the Past). With his slightly dissolute look and manner, he could be terrifying, as in 1955’s Night of the Hunter. In Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, he’s brash and a bit crude, but there’s a gentle side to his character as well. The film’s ending certainly doesn’t leave us with any hints of  happily-ever-after. Yet this is a feel-good movie, one that seems to suggest that all things are possible. And I say Amen to that! 





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