Over the decades, the classic Hollywood war movie has undergone many a permutation. Rarely however, has one emerged as intimately involved in the genuine affections between two people who come to understand, respect – and yes, even love each other – as John Huston’s Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957); a superior study in the oft’ clichéd opposites attract. And what opposites they are herein; a lumbering he-man/bastard child, left on the orphanage steps at birth, cum strapping, if simple-minded, U.S. marine, Cpl. Allison, USMC (Robert Mitchum) and, the virginal, almost childlike, yet strangely sensual Irish nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). The characterizations put forth herein are about as far removed from The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) or Black Narcissus (1947); movies that cast Mitchum and Kerr in uniform and wimple respectively, and, at least in hindsight, seem to foreshadow their joint participation on this lush and lovely melodrama.
In retrospective interviews, the caustic Huston would frequently bristle over Heaven Knows Mr. Allison as his least favorite movie. But Huston’s contempt for the picture seems to have ripened with time, also having been predicated on his endurance of the puritanical Production Code and National Legion of Decency (formerly the Catholic League of Decency), the latter, breathing hard down his neck and at every step of the production; even sending delegates to the remote Tobago and Trinidad locations to scrutinize his shoot. Huston, of course, was beholding to no one – a very rare breed in Hollywood, particularly then. He did mostly as he pleased, and, on the set of Heaven Know Mr. Allison took the liberty – nee, the great pleasure – to needlessly ruffle a few conservative feathers by staging an impromptu scene never intended for his final cut; Mitchum suddenly taking Kerr in his arms for a few choice moments of passionate groping and kissing. Were that we could have been the proverbial fly on the wall when the censors caught wind, and presumably, a glimpse of this in the dailies!
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison is immeasurably blessed to have both Mitchum and Kerr as its costars. For here is 106 minutes of mostly verbal exchanges – some platonic, others…well…; the John Lee Mahin/John Huston screenplay (based on Charles Shaw’s novel) delicately delineating for the audience a burgeoning ‘relationship’ – presumably taking place in ‘real time’ between these polar opposites; a cleverly concocted/expertly crafted ‘getting to know you’ indeed. For although, by the mid-1950’s, Kerr had taken great pains to escape the ensconced primness dogging her onscreen persona (perennially typecast as forthright figures of patrician propriety in such resplendent to silly offerings as 1951’s Quo Vadis and 1953’s Dream Wife) her more recent breakouts (as sexually liberated women of questionable ethics in From Here to Eternity 1953 and The End of the Affair 1955) nevertheless seemed to run counterintuitive to the public’s misperception, that through and through, Miss Kerr was a lady – first, foremost and always.
It was, therefore, something of a genuine and most welcome surprise for Hollywood’s trademarked bad boy to discover the actress having a playfully, less genteel side; a more relaxed and forgiving personality that effortlessly clicked with his own. (Mitchum’s own reputation had taken a minor hit over a 1948 pot bust for which he served jail time. In the 1950’s he became something of a media darling in the burgeoning tabloid rag-mag, Confidential. Even so, Mitchum return to the movie screen virtually unscathed; unapologetically reassuming his mantle as the laconic tough guy.) For a man usually disinterested in what others thought of him, Mitchum was decidedly reluctant to work with Kerr. Reportedly, Kerr made Mitchum laugh on their first day’s shooting, spouting off a few choice words to their director – again, in fun rather than out of spite, her impromptu dispensing with the niceties enough to break the proverbial ice and immediately earn her the respect of her co-stars’ and Huston alike.
Indeed, one can immediately see how well Kerr and Mitchum mesh in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison; the Mahin/Huston screenplay affording its stars and their alter egos the opportunity to gradually discover each other on their own terms and almost in tandem with the audience. There is an undeniable earthy chemistry brewing; an exchange of ideals and sentiments generating sparks off the screen; Allison’s gradual mutation from selfless protector to interested party in Sister Angela’s repressed womanhood; hers’, an ever-maintained an even-keeled devotion to Christ in lieu of even the possibility to embrace a more worldly romance. Yet, read between the lines; observe the exchange in their body language and bear witness to this saint and her pug ugly. There’s more than a hint of subtext here: psychologically-energized with unadulterated eroticism.
Mitchum’s perpetually twelve o’clock shadowed corporal, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested and sweaty from horn to hoof, embodies all of the brute machismo a woman of any generation can immediately find sexy. But even more fascinating is Kerr’s ability to will a real woman’s heart from underneath her constricting robe and habit, minus the usually anticipated – nee expected – penitence of the female martyring herself to a loftier cause. What starts out as pleasantly restrained congeniality magically morphs into a rather panged expression of entreaty confused, suppressed and ultimately denied by the overriding strength of Sister Angela’s convictions. There is no sacrifice per say – only the everlasting desire to do better.
Huston, an eccentric and a rebel of marathon proportions, known for his frequent mutinies against the system, and, who readily could be called upon to put his talents through the paces – and the ringer – seems to have had no quam, complaints or difficulties with Kerr or Mitchum on the set of Heaven Knows Mr. Allison. The logistics of making a movie on such secluded island paradises were complicated to be sure. Yet, in comparison to Huston’s notorious test of endurance on 1956’s Moby Dick, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison must have seemed almost a vacation; the remote Tobago and Trinidad locations just the sort of untapped natural terrain Huston’s ever-forging adventurist preferred to all the cultural plasticity endured back home. And unlike The African Queen (1951) – another of Huston’s memorable escapes into the jungle, this time his cast and crew were not subjected to inhospitable weather/working conditions or bouts of malaria.
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison begins with an uncharacteristic main title sequence immediately following the 2oth Century-Fox logo and Cinemascope trademark; a desolate raft with a half-conscious body aimlessly floating somewhere in the South Pacific; Georges Auric’s intermittent underscore is punctuated by the sound of crashing waves upon the shore of an island yet to be discovered by our Corporal Allison. Auric’s sparse accompaniment flies in the face of an era marked by bombastic – stereophonic - orchestral overtures and big bloated love themes. Instead, we get descending chords, vaporously fading in and out, the natural roar of the tides more predominantly featured. It is 1944, the height of the Japanese/American conflict. Corporal Allison, the sole survivor of a submarine attack, spots land after many days at sea, swimming a short distance and dragging his raft to the glistening, granulated shoreline to scout - either for friend or foe amidst the dense green foliage.
A strange silence permeates the island. Before long, Allison discovers the remnants of a seemingly abandoned village, a recently dug, single shallow grave not far off, and, a lonely missionary church perched high atop the hillside. To his startle and surprise, a nun emerges in her immaculate white habit, broom in hand, to dust the front porch. For a brief moment the two regard each other with afflicted curiosity; she, suddenly relieved to learn he is an American; he, utterly bewildered to discover she is quite alone. Exhaustion overtakes, and Allison collapses on the church’s wooden floor, awakening hours later to be fed by the nun, who introduces herself as Sister Angela.
Unknowingly, Allison gorges on the last of her supplies; Sister Angela offering him a pipe once belonging to Father Philips, an elderly priest and her travelling companion who has since died, the grave acknowledged by Allison as the one he passed on his way through the village. With sad-eyed clarity Sister Angela recounts how she and Father Philips came to be stranded; arriving in search of fellow clergyman, Father Ryan and quite determined to bring him to the relative safety of Fiji. Alas, Ryan was never found – alive or dead; the village already decimated by the Japanese and seemingly void of any human life. The natives who agreed to row the boat for Sister Angela and Father Philips to get ashore, panicked at the prospect of being captured themselves by the Japanese, abandoned them to return to their homes. Soon thereafter, Father Philips fell ill and died, leaving Sister Angela all by herself.
Having survived on her wits and prayers, Sister Angela’s hopes for an imminent rescue are tested as Allison relates his tale of a Japanese attack that sunk his submarine at sea. Allison also confides in Sister Angela something of his past - an orphan and something of a wayward youth who found purpose in life by joining the marines. In this regard, Allison is not unlike Sister Angela, who has also discovered meaning from without; the screenplay drawing brilliant and soon to be reoccurring parallels between the precepts of the military and the church.
Time passes; Sister Angela and Mr. Allison surviving on island fruit until she spots a giant sea turtle basking in the noonday sun off the coast. Setting out to sea in his raft with Sister Angela aggressively rowing, Allison lassos the amphibious reptile, momentarily pulled over the side and under the waters by this frightened beast who, understandably, doesn’t fancy itself anyone’s dinner. Alas, the turtle has no say in the matter. That evening Allison has a brainstorm - to fix the raft with a homemade rudder and make for Fiji. It’s three hundred miles and riddled with perilous drawbacks, not the least of which is being spotted by the Japanese on the high seas. Sister Angela concurs with Allison, however, and the next day the two begin outfitting the raft with a mast, complete with a hand-woven sail. The pair’s optimism is interrupted by the sudden appearance of a Japanese reconnaissance bomber circling overhead. Allison hurries Sister Angela inside a nearby cave, joining her a few moments later.
The Japanese decimate the small village with bombs. The docks, along with Allison’s raft, are blown to bits; the church destroyed in a hellish blaze. Only the storehouse survives this aerial assault. Afterward, Allison retrieves the metal cross from the church’s smoldering ashes, giving it to Sister Angela. However, Allison’s worst suspicions are confirmed when a flotilla of Japanese ships appear on the horizon; the island soon inundated with battalions of enemy soldiers. Allison assures Sister Angela they are safe inside the cave, although not even he is confident of this; the pair pensively listening to every sound of advancing footsteps and voices that, after a few nail-biting moments, gradually subside. Allison sneaks off to the other side of the island to hunt for fish with a makeshift harpoon; his outing narrowly discovered by a Japanese patrol boat keeping a watchful eye on the coastline.
Returning to the cave, but unable to cook his fresh kills for fear the smoke would draw undue attention to their location, Allison skins the fish for Sister Angela to eat. Regrettably, she cannot bring herself to swallow this raw and decidedly slippery meat. After Sister Angela has gone to bed hungry, Allison elects to sneak off to the storehouse on a daring mission to steal some of the enemy’s canned rations. It’s a fool’s errant, Allison camouflaging his face and hands with fresh mud and slipping into the storehouse undetected, only to become trapped inside, taking refuge atop the supplies after two Japanese soldiers return for a nightcap of Saki. The hours tick away. Inside the cave, Sister Angela awakens to find Allison missing. With each passing moment, her mild concern grows into nervousness, then fear. In the meantime, Allison patiently awaits the dawn, skulking away after the soldiers have assembled for early morning reveille. Allison’s return to the cave is met by Sister Angela’s tears of relief. He makes her a gift of a comb he’s fashioned from a reed using his knife. Although Sister Angela informs Allison nuns do not use combs, their hair perennially cropped and buried under their wimples, she accepts the comb as a token of their friendship. She also makes Allison promise to never again leave without her knowledge.
The last third of Heaven Knows Mr. Allison is devoted to a more introspective exchange between these two captivating beings who, under normal circumstances, would never have found one another in the first place. Allison becomes probative and curious about Sister Angela’s vows, observing that the prospect of a nun breaking her vows would be akin to a Marine going AWOL. Sister Angela is amused by this comparison, confiding she has yet to take her final vows when fate interceded and made her a prisoner of this island oasis. Allison is intrigued to learn as much. Moreover, he somehow equates this fateful delay as perhaps a sign from above. Maybe Angela was never intended to be a nun. Allison now makes his own intensions known; that he has developed affections for Sister Angela far deeper than perhaps even he knew. Impetuously, Allison proposes marriage. Although Sister Angela is most sincerely touched, she confesses no such love has come to her. She is devoted to Christ. No man will ever challenge that love.
An awkward night passes. In the morning, Allison sheepishly makes light of his proposal, claiming it the result of a weakness brought on by loneliness; also, by the prospect they might never be rescued from the island. Again, Angela is sympathetic toward Allison. In the meantime, the Japanese abruptly decamp the island. Better still, they have left behind all of their food stuffs; a formidable stash that should sustain Allison and Angela for many weeks to come. The pair rejoices in their good fortune; the mood turning sullen and ugly as night falls and Allison elects to get quietly drunk on Saki. Bitterly, Allison pushes Angela for answers to his overtures of love. He is crude and hurtful, causing her to flee into the cold rainy night, her face stained with tears and mud. Allison pursues Angela, but cannot keep up in his present inebriation, discovering her some time later, left cowering and half-conscious in a cove and soaked through to the bone.
Falling ill with the chill, Angela hallucinates and shivers uncontrollably. Allison – now sober – carries her back into the cave. Unable to reach her with the suggestion she must take off her sopping wet clothes, Allison elects to return to the village for dry towels, only to discover the Japanese have returned. He quietly sneaks into one of their makeshift tents to steal supplies. Ill timing for Allison, as a Japanese officer, returning from training maneuvers, confronts him. In their ensuing struggle, Allison is forced to kill the enemy, dragging his body a few feet away and tossing it into the surf to conceal the body. Back at the cave, Allison gingerly undresses Sister Angela, gently wrapping her in the clean, warm towels he has stolen. But now, the Japanese have discovered the corpse of one of their own floating face down in the surf. They begin to scour the island, torching its dense foliage in an attempt to snuff out Allison and Sister Angela from their hiding place.
Having discovered the cave, the Japanese are about to toss a grenade inside when Allied bombers descend upon the island. In the ensuing chaos, Allison and Sister Angela are spared capture. In what is perhaps the movie’s most curious moment, Allison claims to have heard a message from God, directing him to disable the Japanese artillery facing the ocean; presumably to lessen casualties for the now imminent Allied amphibious invasion. However, while tossing the breech blocks into the surf, Allison is wounded by enemy fire in the shoulder, but still able to return to the cave with the knowledge they are on the verge of being rescued. Nobly, he bids Sister Angela farewell. Their journey together will soon be at an end. In reply, Sister Angela promises Mr. Allison he will remain in her thoughts and prayers from this day forward; her treasured companion always. As the Allied forces make their stronghold secure, Allison is loaded onto a stretcher and carried away, Sister Angela walking at his side, her hand tenderly clutching his; the American marines tearing down the Japanese flag from its pole and replacing it with the Stars and Stripes.
In these final moments it is near impossible not to be overwhelmed with a genuine sense of loss and regret for these two like-minded companions. As Allison has reiterated from almost the beginning of their unlikely alliance, they have shared far more similarities than differences. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison is, in fact, cut from that ilk of soapy melodrama about impossibly star-crossed ‘lovers’ destined to remain unrequited in their intense human hunger for each other. This is a very sexy picture; the nun and her dubious champion: the bond between man and woman severed by a higher calling and the Holy Spirit. The true merit of Sister Angela’s devoutness is perhaps lost on Mr. Allison; lunk-headed as he claims to be. And yet, here is a will – an inner strength - he cannot break. After his night of drunken self-pity that nearly ends in destroying the only woman he has ever loved, Allison redoubles his efforts, never again to challenge Sister Angela’s faith. He respects her far too much. But we do sense contemplations of a similar sort from Sister Angela; though never weakening.
Hollywood doesn’t make – or even remake – pictures like Heaven Knows Mr. Allison anymore; perhaps because in our present-day selfishness for the proverbial happy ending, some studio executive would see to it the nun forsakes her vows for the prerequisite steamy sex scene, and the marine goes AWOL to satisfy his wanderlust. There is, of course, a morality at play in Heaven Knows Mr. Allison. But it goes far beyond the stringencies imposed on John Huston by the production code and/or Legion of Decency: people genuinely dedicated to each other, to other things as well – placing virtue as its own reward (how long has it been since we’ve seen that on our movie screens?) and altruisms ahead of their mutual respect, this too far above personal feelings and desires for a moment’s reckless/feckless diversions.
Mitchum and Kerr are exactly the stars to carry it off too; his proud-faced/tender-hearted outcast pitted against her deceptively virginal bride of the church, radiating oodles of undiluted purity, but with a decided edge of ‘intentional’ sensuality. In his drunken haze, Allison is able to more clearly see this latter quality for what it is and it severely pangs him; bitterly inquiring why any nun should have had to be so beautiful, so young – and by extension, so sexy; though these latter words are never spoken. Nevertheless, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison never shies away from such considerations; the audience recognizing the base necessities of this man and woman – isolated together, as it were, but decidedly on their own in this modern-day version of the Garden of Eden – trapped by their own conflicted and diverging moralities while coming to an understanding they must operate to survive.
When, as example, Sister Angela discovers Allison has killed for the warm blankets she is swaddled in, her life presumably spared at the sacrifice of another, she nervously reasons her protector had no alternative. Yet, her logic flies in the face of not one, but two Biblical precepts: actually one, a direct commandment ‘thou shall not kill’, the other - ‘turn the other cheek’, assessing the lengths to which she is able and willing to forgive what otherwise should be considered a grave sin. Love, it seems, is the answer – at least for this man whom Sister Angela so obviously cares for, and perhaps, more deeply than even she or Allison will ever truly realize. The proof, alas, is in their parting; or rather, in Sister Angela’s unspoken accompaniment of Mr. Allison toward the American war ships that will divide them forever; her hand gingerly nestled inside his, her heart momentarily away from God, her thoughts, perhaps, reflecting on this penultimate moment of goodbye. Heaven does indeed, know Mr. Allison…and now, so does Sister Angela.
I can’t really get excited about Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray via Twilight Time. In 2002, Fox Home Video gave us a thoroughly unimpressive DVD, marred by what appeared to be the onslaught of vinegar syndrome and some heavy water damage. Alas, the Blu-ray has not fared much better, if, in fact, at all. Yes, things do tighten up and yes, the jungle foliage now registers marginally more green than that ruddy brown mess on the DVD. But color fidelity remains a big issue on this 2.35:1 hi-def transfer. I don’t suppose I’ll ever manage to get through to Fox Home Video in suggesting that if they continue to release undesirable masters that have not been given even the rudimentary time, consideration and/or necessary restoration and clean-up, then their reputation in the market share will likely suffer in the long run. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison sports the same digital and age-related anomalies as its DVD predecessor; proof positive Fox has not been proactively archiving new elements for this release.
The first reel is, frankly a mess; Deborah Kerr’s introduction as Sister Angela marred by severely faded color. Her pure white nun’s habit registers a mustardy-gray. And there appears to be some notorious water damage or issues with the emulsion to boot. In 1080p these anomalies, mildly annoying on the DVD, become glaring and obtrusive. Flesh tones veer from acceptably pinkish to jaundice yellow. Color density is also a serious problem in both the first and final reel – the middle of the movie looking about the most consistently rendered. No untoward tinkering with the overall sharpness, thank heaven. Alas, the image frequently appears less than crisp. Contrast levels are decidedly weak. Fringing and ringing around some of the foliage is present and distracting on larger monitors. Overall, this is a mediocre mastering effort and a grand disappointment.
According to several sources I’ve consulted for this review, including Tony Thomas and Aubrey Solomon’s encyclopedia: The Films of 2oth Century-Fox (pub.1985), Heaven Knows Mr. Allison was recorded in Westrex 4-track stereo, in keeping with the specs of Fox’s vintage Cinemascope output. Alas, what we get here is a 1.0 DTS mono. It isn’t bad, particularly at delineating exchanges of dialogue. But it most certainly suffers during the action sequences. Why Fox never bothered to remaster the audio (unless, of course, no original 4-track master currently exists) is a mystery in keeping with the barebones approach their more recent spate of catalog releases has endured. Twilight Time offers us an isolated 5.1 of Georges Auric’s score, married to SFX. Heaven Knows Mr. Allison isn’t chiefly known for its music. But it is interesting to listen to these stereo cuts and compare them to the flat mono the actual movie has been rendered in. No other extras, except a Fox Movietone and a trailer…oh, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes: as always – not only welcomed but enlightening. Bottom line: recommended for content only. This is a great film. Sadly, the transfer does not live up to expectations or even present-day standards. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)