The rape of the natural world, colonization of its native peoples, and, the pestilence and conflict arising from this clash of cultures and not altogether altruistic motives of the white man, endeavor to bring ‘order’ and ‘religion’ to these uncharted territories; all this and more are given rather short shrift in George Roy Hill’s somewhat apathetic, Hawaii (1966); a profitable, though not very endearing epic. As with all movies based on the works of author, James A. Mitchener, this one proved too unwieldy in breadth and scope to be sufficiently summarized; the screenplay by Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo exclusively concentrated on the book’s third chapter, ‘From the Farm of Bitterness’, detailing the awkward settlement of this island oasis by the first American missionaries, including Calvinist, Abner Hale (Max Von Sidow), recently graduated from Yale University, and his young bride, Jerusha Bromley (Julie Andrews). Unable to resist having Andrews appear in a movie in which she did not sing a note, composer, Elmer Bernstein (together with Mack David) wrote a toss-away ditty, ‘My Wishing Doll’ (embarrassingly Oscar-nominated) – dispensed without fanfare during the first third of story. This chiefly centered on the somewhat tragically comical courtship of the priggish Abner – forcibly sent by his superior, Dr. Rev. Thorn (Torin Thatcher) to procure a wife as prerequisite to his assignment in Hawaii. Along for the fateful voyage is fellow graduate, Dr. John Wipple (Gene Hackman), an infinitely more compassionate disseminator of the gospel, unlike Abner, who is so incredibly blinded by the letter of Biblical law he cannot even warm to the affections of his own wife without first considering his husbandly duties an effrontery to loving God.
Unhappy circumstance, the rest of the movie’s lengthy – and occasionally tedious 162 min. (189 min. in its original roadshow engagement) devolves into rank soap opera, repeatedly testing the doomed Abner’s rigid resolve to its breaking point. Faced with the innocently incestuous relations of the natives (who bed their brothers, sisters, cousins, fathers, mothers, etc. et al – unaware this is a sin), Abner’s determinist ambition to deny the Polynesian queen, Alii Nui (Jocelyne LaGarde) her enduring companionship with Kelolo (Ted Nobriga), her cousin, inadvertently destroys the very souls he is trying to redeem. Interestingly, LaGarde spoke not a word of English; cast for her ‘presence’ and taught to recite lines phonetically. To be sure, LaGarde’s Alii Nui is a force to be reckoned with; belting Abner into submission after he refuses to allow Jerusha to teach the island goddess English ahead of educating her in the Christian principles. Indeed, from the moment Alii Nui is hoisted aboard ship to greet the newly arrived, right on through to her penultimate demise – presumably, dying of a broken heart – LaGarde exudes that intangible star quality the camera quite simply cannot get enough of and is able to radiate it back to the audience with genuineness and authority.
Still, Hawaii is a rather weighty tome to get through; pictorially satisfying, thanks to cinematographer, Russell Harlan’s documentary-styled aerial and stationary master shots of this lush, green island oasis. These are nothing short of breathtaking. In its roadshow engagement, Hawaii at least had the benefit of 70mm projection to enthrall. Given its extensive location work, the verisimilitude achieved is every bit as breathtaking as one might expect. However, like virtually all 70mm productions, reduction 35mm prints, edited for time (deprived of their overture, intermission and entr’acte) were also created to accommodate a much wider theatrical release. Hawaii in its truncated form isn’t quite the mess one might expect, but it does deprives us of the subtleties in Abner and Jerusha’s burgeoning relationship; also, a few all too brief scenes depicting Jerusha’s devotion to younger sister, Charity (Diane Sherry Case); merely glimpsed in the extended cut; alas, all but excised from the shorter version, thus leaving the full impact of her off-screen death on Jerusha (having received a letter from home in Hawaii’s third act) rather perplexedly hollow and emotionless.
Jerusha marries Abner on the rebound after a lengthy pining for the sea captain who first stole, then broke her heart. Too bad the dull and lingering pang of first love will not die, and, as fate would have it, is rekindled when Jerusha comes face to face with her immortal beloved; Capt. Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris) some months after helping to establish Abner’s mission on the island. Rafer’s exuberance at seeing Jerusha again is crushed as he learns she is married to Abner. She confronts him about his inexplicable abandonment and he confesses he never stopped loving her, having written to her family many times, only to have virtually all his correspondences returned unopened. The couple now realizes the likelihood Jerusha’s stern father (Carroll O’Connor) is responsible for keeping them apart, presumably to spare his daughter the unsavory lifestyle of a roving mariner. The better half of Hawaii is devoted to the embittered struggle between Abner and Hoxworth for Jerusha’s heart; Abner realizing his wife will always take him second best to Hoxworth, but Hoxworth equally aware Jerusha’s strict morality could never allow her to be physically unfaithful to any man while Abner lives. Through plague, a hurricane and devastating fire that decimates Abner’s parish, Jerusha struggles to reconcile her feelings with her duties as a wife and new mother.
It’s all rather soapy and glossed over by director, George Roy Hill who is far more invested with preserving the spectacle of several set pieces than exploring the intimacy and moral quagmire of the piece. The Trumbo/Taradash screenplay grapples with its colonization commentary; the infiltration of this undisturbed paradise and its disastrous fallout – a measles epidemic that kills half the native population, including the heir apparent, Keoki (Manu Tupou); interpreted by Abner as God’s reckoning for Keoki having married his sister, Noelani (Elizabeth Logue) in defiance of the natural law. More than likely, the plague is the inevitable outcome from having Hoxworth’s drunken rabble take advantage of the local girls in a nearby brothel. But why quibble over a few STD’s? As such, Hawaii unravels into a series of clumsily strung together vignettes – some, like the fire sequence, exceptionally impressive while others – as the hellish journey to paradise aboard a schooner (shot ineffectively against a blue screen) seem par for the course, merely to satisfy audiences’ expectations for a big and showy Hollywood-ized epic. Apart from Richard Harris’ fiery Hoxworth and Jocelyne LaGarde’s enigmatic Alii Nui, the rest of the cast behave as stick figures with no soul. Depending on one’s perspective, centering the plot around Max von Sydow’s stoic martinet is either the picture’s stroke of genius or that singular and stifling miscalculation, threatening to submarine the entire enterprise. Actually, it’s a little of both; Sydow, an irrefutably fine actor, managing to make something of the curt and morally rigid, Abner, in spite of the largely unappealing and thankless role.
Hawaii’s $34,562,222 box office gross made it the second most profitable picture of 1966, surpassing such impressive competition as Alfie, Grand Prix, The Sand Pebbles, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, A Man for All Seasons, and even, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It is perhaps an even greater oddity John Huston’s tedious tinkering with the Old Testament, The Bible…In the Beginning, proved even more popular with audiences than Hawaii, while curiously suffering from its own creative ennui and elephantiasis. Hawaii opens with one of those big bloated travelogue narratives for which a good many epics suffer to set their tone and tempo; a series of breathtaking aerial shots of the Hawaiian Islands, photographed in the blistering afterglow of sunset; golden beaches, expansive vistas, swaying palms, etc. The voiceover narration accompanying this virgin countryside speaks to the perils of colonization. We regress to a classroom at Yale’s Divinity School where Keoki is addressing the newly graduated missionaries who are intent on bringing Christianity to this virginal utopia. The year is 1820 and Abner Hale is passionately – and naively – resolved to become a part of this process.
Alas, the school will send no unmarried man abroad, lest he be tempted by the devil to lust after its willing native women. And thus, Abner is encouraged to take a wife. Rev. Thorn suggests Abner pay a social call on the Bromleys; his ineptitude at the social graces, and his almost immediate contracting of a terrible cold, resulting in a lengthy convalescence that brings out the mother instinct in Jerusha – the Bromley’s eldest daughter. Jerusha’s mother is dead set against the match. But her father sees Abner as a viable alternative to snap Jerusha from her melancholia. Jerusha has been in love with an adventurous sea captain for almost three years. Knowing her heart belongs to another, Abner is astonished when his feeble proposal of marriage is accepted; Jerusha seemingly come to terms with the loss of her old love and ready to move on to a new life in a new world with her new husband. The journey is anything but promising as the schooner carrying Abner, Jerusha, their good friend, Dr. John Whipple, Keoki, and, a small congregation of hopeful missionaries is rocked by violent seas. Only Abner escapes the perils of sea sickness; exuberantly encouraging the sailors on board to abandon their salty ways and embrace the Lord as their savior. Capt. Janders (George Ross) suggests Abner is wasting his time, while below decks, Jerusha prays for death to take her.
Having endured Mother Nature’s battering tidal waves off the coast of Cape Horn, the schooner lumbers into port, receiving a royal welcome from the Queen, Alii Nui and a congregation of bare-breasted native women. Almost immediately, the Queen takes an interest in Jerusha, escorting her to the royal encampment where she demands to be taught English. Abner’s intervention in this exercise is met with a swift and violent slap that sends him to the ground. While humiliated, Abner is powerless to prevent Alii Nui in her steadfast determination to learn the language first and the precepts of accepting Christ as her savior second. But Abner is both shocked and appalled to discover the natives are all related to one another, having intermarried and casually consummated their affairs with members from their own family. Abner orders Alli Nui to give up her beloved, Kelolo, as it is a sin for her to engage in an incestuous marriage. Her willingness to do so will become an example for the rest of the tribe. But only after a span of several years, and Jerusha’s enduring, if far more tender influence on the Queen, is Abner successful at convincing Alii Nui to make a series of proclamations, banning the worship of their once sacred pagan idols. The native girls are taught to cover their bodies, and, the practice of intermarriage is discouraged.
Meanwhile Jerusha’s true love, Capt. Rafer Hoxworth, resurfaces on an expedition to the island. Abner confronts Hoxworth’s laissez faire attitude about his crew taking advantage of the native women. Thoroughly surprise to be reunited with the only man she has ever truly loved, Jerusha admits to a bewildered Hoxworth she is married Abner, and comes to his aid after Hoxworth knocks her husband to the ground. It seems Hoxworth wrote Jerusha many times in the years since their separation, only to have his letters returned. Jerusha now realizes her father has intervened in their romance. Interestingly, she does not regret her decision to have married Abner and elects to remain his loyal wife, despite his many character flaws and her enduring affections for Hoxworth. Sometime later, Hoxworth’s drunken rabble set fire to Abner’s church in protest over his ban on their engaging in sexual relations with the native girls. Jerusha leads the natives to the cause of putting out the fire. Her dress catches fire, but she is spared being burnt alive by Kelolo’s quick thinking and ability to extinguish the flames. The church, however, is lost and will need to be rebuilt. Hoxworth arrives on the scene, realizing Jerusha’s strict sense of propriety will not allow her to be unfaithful to her husband. Together with his crew, Hoxworth retreats in abject shame and sails away. Alas, the island will not remain uncharted for much longer as more settlers arrive to commercialize and corrupt the Polynesians’ simple way of life.
Deprived of Kelolo’s companionship, Alii Nui falls ill, but makes good on her promise to become a Christian. As such, Abner gives her a proper baptism. She dies and is buried. However, a short while later an embittered Kelolo exhumes the body, disposing of it in the traditional pagan manner. An embittered Keoki defies Abner by marrying his own sister, Noelani; the hellish measles epidemic that breaks out a short time later, self-righteously proclaimed by Abner as God’s divine retribution against their incestuous union. Time passes, though it hardly heals all wounds. Jerusha bears Abner three sons and redoubles her efforts to be a buffer between her husband and the natives. She is anointed with honorary respect for her efforts by the natives. However, Jerusha sternly suggests Abner ask for his own forgiveness from God for the much sorrow he has brought to this land. Jerusha also receives a letter from home, informing that her beloved younger sister, Charity, has since died. The news does much to weaken her resolve and strength. Meanwhile, Hoxworth has an entire prefabricated New England home brought aboard his ship as a gift for the Hales; though chiefly, because he cannot bear to think of his beloved Jerusha living in Abner’s missionary hovel. Alas, his arrival to Abner’s church is bittersweet and too little too late, learning Jerusha has since quietly died. The aged Abner and Hoxworth come to blows, but each is spared his dignity as Abner’s youngest son intervenes, restoring the peace between them. In the film’s epilogue, we advance seven years into the future; Abner, now infirmed, but still refusing to depart the island, despite having been relieved of his commission by the ministry. Instead, he sends his three strapping adult boys aboard the latest schooner departing for England with the promise their lives will be enriched, but very likely never again to see their faces.
In this penultimate farewell, Hawaii attains a wan hint to having become a rather sorrowful generational familial saga. Its success at the box office practically ensured a sequel, also based on Mitchener’s novel; 1970’s altogether less effective and less profitable, The Hawaiians, directed by Tom Gries. Viewed today, Hawaii is an unprepossessing and lengthy movie, lacking the narrative scope to match its grand visuals. The Trumbo/Taradash screenplay touches upon Mitchener’s thematic proses but never goes beyond the surface of his storytelling. We lose Mitchener’s internalized commentary, given a very minor nod in Jerusha’s forthright admonishment of her husband’s religious blind-sidedness. It still might have worked, except that the characterizations in the movie are weak at best, and downright nonexistent in some cases. Gene Hackman’s empathetic doctor meanders in and out of the story without much staying power. The native population is essentially ‘white-washed’ under the oft popularized cliché as ‘the noble savage’. Julie Andrews adds warmth to the character of Jerusha, but is hampered by far too little opportunity to make her presence anything more than token estrogen in this otherwise male-dominated tale of pillage and plunder. Clearly, director, George Roy Hill’s verve is situated on the adventurous aspects of the picture. There are echoes and shades of MGM’s failed second attempt at Mutiny on the Bounty (1962); by comparison, an infinitely more attractive and cohesive viewing experience (although audiences did not think so at the time). In the final analysis, Hawaii is a footnote rather than a headliner from a decade’s worth of roadshow epics that effectively wore out their welcome by 1969.
MGM Home Video has never done right by Hawaii and this new 1080p offering via Twilight Time is no exception. While markedly improved from the careworn and non-anamorphic DVD releases, Hawaii in hi-def is still one of the worst looking discs I have seen in a very long while. For starters, this scan is derived from a 35mm reduction print, not the original 70mm source which would have yielded truer colors and more refined grain with infinitely better detail and contrast. Dirt and scratches are noticeably more obvious, owing to Blu-ray’s higher resolution. I could have suffered through as much if MGM had at least made the effort to balance the color before slapping these careworn elements to disc. But no, we have color fading – severe at times – rendering flesh tones a garish orange. Foliage that ought to be a vibrant green is instead muddy brown/green. Overall color fidelity is mostly dull, flat and uninspiring, all but emasculating Russell Harlan’s one-time gorgeous cinematography. There is also water mark damage that sporadically crops up in the dead center of the 2.35:1 frame. The image is very soft in spots. The DTS 2.0 mono fares better, but only marginally – Elmer Berstein’s score lacking the enveloping atmosphere that must have accompanied the original roadshow release. TT does give us an isolated score in stereo and a theatrical trailer derived from 70mm elements which, after viewing this disastrous 35mm reduction print, just seems like a dishonest slap in the face to those who were hoping the actual movie would look half as good. It doesn’t.
Honestly, I could not be more disappointed. MGM has included the roadshow cut of Hawaii as a non-anamorphic ‘extra’ – riddled in excessive edge enhancement with further color implosion that renders the viewing experience virtually impossible. Am I supposed to be grateful Hawaii has finally made the leap to hi-def? No, I don’t think gratitude is the right word. Personally, I see NO point in releasing ANY movie to Blu-ray that has not first been given even the most basic consideration and restoration. The argument herein will likely be – MGM does not have the funds to reinvest in their deep catalog. Okay…I’ll buy that. But what is stopping MGM from turning to Fox or outside sources like The Film Foundation for additional funding? Hmmmm.
I do not presume to speak for anybody else – but it seems to me if the general public is expected to invest in collecting and/or repurchasing movie memories on any new format, then the quality of the transfer ought to be of paramount consideration and a primary part of the marketing strategy. Again, personal opinion: but I am not buying movies on Blu-ray simply to own them on Blu-ray. I am buying them to improve my overall viewing experience. This Blu-ray never rises above mid-grade drivel with woefully subpar color saturation and very weak contrast. Badly done! Pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)