Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (VHS, 2003, Fox War Classics)

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Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) - A DVD Review

Nov 2, 2009 (Updated Nov 3, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Mitchum at his best; Good character/relationship story

Cons:A couple special features that could've been there, aren't

The Bottom Line: I think this is Mitchum's best film.  Iconic director John Huston and award winning screenwriter John Lee Mahin both considered this one of their best.


Let's state it right up front, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) is probably my favorite Robert Mitchum movie.  While modern critics have used descriptors such as ‘quaint,' ‘mature performances,' ‘entertaining but shallow,' and ‘engaging,' they seem to mostly miss the mark; often writing the movie off as yet another in director John Huston's litany of man/woman character studies such as The African Queen (1951).  Worse, some have actually written off or condemned (explicitly or implicitly) this work as simply Huston's, or the studio's, cynical attempt to replicate this earlier critical and financial success.  In a sense, given the Hollywood of today's lack of creativity in churning out sequels, it is difficult to entirely blame modern critics for such a jaundiced view.  But, such analysis fails in perspective; not only chronologically, but as regards the panoply of works for the individuals involved.

The Basic Story

Warning: From here on out, there will, inevitably, end up being spoilers; although, how much one can ‘spoil' a fifty-two year old movie is a subject of debate...

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr play Corporal Allison and Sister Angela, a Marine corporal and a Catholic nun who are stranded on an island in the Pacific during WWII.  Based on the novel by Charles Shaw (more on that in a moment), the basic story is about how their relationship develops and how they survive while avoiding temptation along with a Japanese force sent to occupy the ‘tiny' island; eventually being rescued by U.S. Marines who recapture the island at the end of the movie.  If such a basic formula is the focus of your attention, then it might be understandable how the movie could be written off as somewhat ‘formulaic;' regardless of the performances provided.  The problem is that such a basic synopsis of the storyline ignores the subtleties, not to mention the back story, which make this one of the best of several genres.

Adaptation

Charles Shaw's novel of the same title came out in 1952.  Frankly, there are places where it is a little racy; though not necessarily by today's standards, bear in mind we're talking about a rather different era.  When the Catholic Church became aware that an Hollywood production was in the works, concern was expressed regarding how it might portray issues involving the nun vis a vis how they appear in the book.  After all, in the book, Allison sees Sister Angela's naked back while bathing; has some pretty vivid dreams involving her bare shoulders; has to will his left hand from touching one of her breasts (severely chastising himself for such a thought); "his eyes feasting on that small strip of white flesh" when a seam on your habit gives way, showing "the satiny gleam of her white skin" (p. 131); then there is the moment where "He stepped to her, put up his hands and pushed the hood from her head, grasped her strongly in his arms, and kissed her lips, pressing his mouth hard against hers, forcing her body against him..." (p. 134)

Now, nothing more sordid than this happens in the book (significantly less than this happens in the movie); unless you count the fact that when Sister Angela catches the fever, Allison has to replace her rotting, wet habit with his own utilities ("the good American cloth which had so far resisted the Philippines fighting, the sea, and this wet jungle" - p. 165) and he spends a certain amount of time in a loincloth made from the remnants of her robe.  (She later utilizes the uniform of a Japanese soldier killed by Allison.)  In the movie, while Allison still must kill the Japanese soldier, this is handled more delicately using blankets rather than swapped clothing and loincloths.  (Sorry ladies.  Mitchum doesn't wear a loincloth; but, he does spend a certain amount of time without his shirt.  It is the tropics you know.   Which, by the way, made Deborah Kerr's lot in life a bit uncomfortable; having to wear the heavy habiliment of a nun.)
  
As I said, pretty racy stuff for the mid-1950's.  Which is precisely why it was that, according to author Lee Server in Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care" (2001)-

"...the Catholic Legion of Decency, the self-appointed censorship board.  Invited by Fox to verify that the film's depiction of Miss Kerr's nun character was entirely respectable, the Legion sent a suitably severe man of the cloth down... to observe the filming.  He soon began making complaints and demanding changes, perceiving something smutty in the most innocent line and gesture." - p. 310  (If you're curious, there is an amusing incident and a typically Huston-esque moment recounted right after this section which explains how the filmmakers responded to this.  But, I'll leave you to discover it.)

Such ‘indecency' or, more accurately, the potential for an untoward portrayal was precisely why the book was adapted for the silver screen by John Huston himself and screenwriter John Lee Mahin (No Time For Sergeants [1958], Quo Vadis [1951 - also starring Deborah Kerr], Captains Courageous [1937], et al.).  While the screenplay relies heavily on the book and, in fact, follows it fairly closely, Huston and Mahin worked very hard to play down the ‘romance' or ‘lustful' portions; instead focusing on giving the characters slightly more nuance and thereby more fully developing a character study.  As John Huston himself relates in his work An Open Book (1980):

"...Adler then sent me a script written by John Lee Mahin, who had been a star writer during the old days at Metro.  The script showed considerable promise, although it was taken from a very bad novel which exploited all the obvious sexual implications of a marine and a nun cast together on a South Pacific island.  For that reason I had earlier rejected it as a possibility for a film.  But Mahin's approach revived my interest.  He had laundered the story tastefully, and I saw how - with additional changes - it could be made into a good picture..." - (p. 260)

Long story short, "good picture" became an understatement.  Not just for me.  As Stuart Kaminsky states in his book John Huston: Maker of Magic: "In 1970, Mahin told Gene Phillips that of all the films he had written, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison gave him the most satisfaction as script and film." (p. 111)  If you consult the films in which Mahin was the sole or a contributing (often uncredited) screenwriter, such an admission makes for a considerable statement.  Further, as Huston himself states: "Allison is seldom referred to, but I think it is one of the best things I ever made.  It was unostentatious, had very simple, clean dialogue and was built on a first-rate foundation.  We escaped the cliché of the nun and the marine, and the material was treated with great delicacy of feeling..." (An Open Book, p. 263)  Once again, considering the films Huston had a hand in, it makes one stop and think.

Performance Becomes Reality

The movie centers almost solely around Corporal Allison and Sister Angela; with Mitchum's character garnering more air time.  The Japanese (not all of which were actually Japanese) are almost props; an almost ‘faceless' adversary providing that ‘obstacle/goal' which, by all that working together to overcome/achieve, helps a man and woman ‘grow together.'  (As a note: While this film may have been made in a somewhat ‘puritanical' era, it was not the same "PC" era of today.  Allison constantly refers to the enemy as "Japs;" a very common reference of the period [included as part of the title to one of the special feature extras on the DVD] which, today, is sometimes upsetting to the more PC-sensitive types.  Remember, this film was made less than a generation after Pearl Harbor and, to this day, many of the "Greatest Generation" still use this particular name.)

Corporal Allison

Robert Mitchum plays Corporal Allison, U.S. Marines.  That is how he introduces himself and that is how the character is credited.  No first name is ever given in the film.  In the book, he introduces himself as an United States Marine, then gives his first and last name; noting that he had been with a number of individuals, giving the number of each rank in the group - without ever mentioning his rank.  (His rank is only mentioned, almost in passing, late in the book.)  This is one of those subtleties often missed by critics.  It also shows the deft hand that Mahin and Huston used in developing the character study.

In a conversation with Sister Angela, Allison (Mitchum) notes that he had no parents and figures he's "illegitimate."  He left the orphanage (on "Allison Street" in Milwaukee - ahem) when he was 14 and got into several scrapes with the law.  Then he joined the Marines; an allusion to the idea that many such young men were often given a choice by a judge.  (This is not mere conjecture in that Mitchum himself was offered that very choice in early 1945; i.e., "In those days of war it was not unusual for the court to offer certain miscreants a patriotic alternative to jail time, and after some consideration this is what Judge Holland did.  Mitchum would be allowed to go into the armed services, in return for which his sentence would be rescinded..." [Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," p. 91])
 
Now what do you see when you look at him - Corporal Allison - "besides  a big, dumb guy?"  A Marine - all through.  "It took a lotta workin' over... But, they're the ones ta do it."  He talks about how his D.I. said he'd make Allison hate him; and he was right.  Then he saw the light.  As he points out to Sister Angela: "You got your Cross.  I got my Globe & Anchor."

It's this last line regarding the Cross and Globe & Anchor which causes some to think this is the basis of the ‘character study;' i.e., how two different cultural views learn to accept and interact with each other.  Once again, that is too shallow a ‘reading' and misses the point.  Yes.  It does point to the difference in cultural reference between the two primary characters; leading to some cute interplay, such as when Allison is trying to explain the Pacific Theater's "island hopping" strategy as the ‘scuttlebutt' - you know, the ‘poop.'  However, while this cultural difference is a layer, it is really only a superficial one; opening the door for a much more deeply nuanced character than the book provides.

Allison's very identity, right down to his first name never being cited, is that of an United States Marine.  He thinks he was illegitimate.  His own name was taken from the street on which the orphanage resided.  His teenage years were ‘troubled' as a result of his lack of roots.  But, the Marines provided him a home, a self image, a very identity; thus, his rank means more to him, and the story, than a first name (which is precisely why I ain't gonna tell you the name used in the book).  What this means to the story is much, much more subtle than most seem to realize; a credit to Mahin and Huston, but also to Mitchum's portrayal of the character.

In Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," Server quotes Mitchum's assistant/secretary, Reva Frederick, in claiming that Mitchum's portrayal of Corporal Allison was based "entirely on Tim Wallace" (p. 308); Wallace being Mitchum's "stand-in and play pal... a dese-dem-dose Brooklynite, an easygoing bruiser..." (p. 157).   In other words, Allison is a street smart, troublesome, big guy who, while not considering himself to be the brightest crayon in the box, is, nevertheless, a good Marine; eager and willing to fight, comfortable with his ‘kind,' but somewhat lost in the company of a ‘good' woman.  It is simply something outside his experience.  (For example: Allison only refers to Sister Angela, by that name, three or four times throughout the movie.  The rest of the time, it is simply "Ma'am.")
 
But, that is the basic struggle of the character.

Rather than a referendum on cultural rituals (Catholicism vs. the Marine Corps), a sketchy ‘romance' that is doomed from the start because of the dedication of each to their ‘culture,' or an ‘engaging story' of two individuals facing adversity, at its core, the story is that of a man coming to realize that he's every bit as good a MAN as he is a Marine.  It is deftly and subtly handled; without the hand-wringing, gut-wrenching paroxysmal display of self-loathing and values denigrating which modern actors/directors/screenwriters seem to feel are essential elements to journeys of self-enlightenment.  (Which is probably why many modern critics seem to miss it.)  Instead, it is a creeping, gradual realization which dawns upon the good Corporal when he must care for Sister Angela as she is gripped by fever.

This growing awareness is something which is interesting to watch progress.  The audience is given to know exactly what kind of man Allison is within the first two minutes of dialogue.  It's a single line and it's easy to miss; but, it is there.  Without going into detail, I will say the following...  Ladies - If you don't know exactly what kind of man Corporal Allison is by the end of the first two minutes of dialogue and haven't fallen for him, I'd suggest you reevaluate your perceptions of what you're looking for in a man.
 
Sister Angela

Younger movie goers may only be tangentially aware of Deborah Kerr as a result of the movie Sleepless In Seattle.  In that film, the movie An Affair To Remember provides a touchstone for many of the female characters as regards romance; not to mention providing context for the final sequence.  You only see her for a couple of seconds, but Deborah Kerr is female star opposite Cary Grant in An Affair To Remember (which was released on 11 July 1957, with Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison having been released almost exactly four months earlier on 13 March 1957).  To older movie audiences, she is known for films such as From Here To Eternity (1953) and The King and I (1956).  Even more relevant to the movie under review was her role as the Sister in Charge, an Irish nun trying to forget a failed romance, in the film Black Narcissus (1947); significant in that virtually every critic seems to feel that she got the role - not to mention the basis of the character - in Allison because of that previous role.

Yes.  Sister Angela is Irish (as opposed to Canadian in the book and Kerr being Scottish).  Yes.  There were similar run-ins with the Catholic Legion of Decency.  Yes.  The character in both films wears a white habit rather than the more recognizable black usually associated with nuns; and the color of the habit worn by the character in the book.  But, in the end, Kerr's character in Black Narcissus (Sister Clodagh) bears only slightly more physical resemblance and about as much substantive relationship as Kerr's Sister Mimi (from the farcical version of Casino Royale [1967] - which also involved John Huston by the way) does to Sister Angela.   In other words, not much.

In Shaw's book, Sister Angela describes herself as follows:

"I'm a rather simple person... I - well, I'm not a woman of the world.  I have been a nun these ten years since I was a young girl.  There are many things we nuns know nothing about - many things we don't think about.  I'm trying to understand... I want to understand it because I'm sure that if I can understand it I may be a more tolerant woman and a better nun.  More tolerant of the world, I mean, and a better nun because of it..." (p. 181)

While the movie version of Sister Angela has yet to take her final vows, Kerr plays the character much the way the character describes herself in the book.  The key difference is found in the subtle twist given to the thought that, through understanding, she'd become a more tolerant woman and a better nun.  What Kerr's Sister Angela is confronted with, though not as prominent as Mitchum's Corporal Allison's self enlightenment, is the concept that she can embrace her "womanhood" and have an intimate, though platonic, relationship with a man while not violating her vows or compromising her integrity as a nun.

Kerr is a particularly good choice for this role in that her ‘sex appeal' was well established at this point.  Thus, while it is fairly ‘hidden' under the robes, it still underlies the character based on the allusion to it from the ‘curves' which are hinted at occasionally when reclining or running and the movie maker's play on the psychology of the audience; i.e., that old standby of ‘less is more' - with the audience already knowing how good Deborah Kerr looks in a swimsuit (From Here To Eternity) and thereby letting the audience's imagination do the work.  Of course, such an approach means that the viewers, particularly the males, intuitively understand what's going through Allison's mind.  This ‘less is more' sex appeal also provides the ‘delicacy of feeling' and ‘tastefulness' that Huston was referring to; forestalling objections from the critics and satisfying Huston's own desire for avoiding the cliché and not overtly ‘exploiting' the obvious.

Sister Angela is neither completely naïve nor is she a totally submissive female foil for the muey, mucho, macho Mr. Allison.  What she evolves into is a fit companion; each having their respective role in the relationship.  He serves as the physical protector/provider; knowledgeable regarding survival and the ways of the enemy.  She serves as the lodestone (and I use that word deliberately) which not only gives him purpose, but provides the foundation for his growing self awareness of himself as something more than a good Marine; i.e., a good Man.

To be fair, this evidently didn't require Academy Award winning acting (though Kerr would receive an Oscar nomination for her role in this movie).  As Server points out in Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care:"

"Kerr and Mitchum were a magical team.  The actress likened their work together to a perfect doubles pair in tennis... Kerr recalled finding herself ‘listening to an extremely sensitive, a poetic, extraordinarily interesting man... a perceptive, amusing person with a great gift for telling a story, and possessed of a completely unexpected vast fund of knowledge... Bob was at all times patient, concerned, and completely professional, always in a good humor, and always ready to make a joke when things became trying.'" - p. 309

If that's the way Kerr felt about Mitchum, then Server is a bit more blunt regarding Mitchum's esteem for Kerr: "Deborah became Bob's great platonic love.  He would speak of her ever after as his all-time favorite actress and the ‘only leading lady I didn't go to bed with' - an exaggeration in any case, but meant somehow as a compliment." (pp. 309 - 310)  In the end, this pair would join forces again in The Sundowners (1960), as well as pairing the two with Kerr's other leading man from 1957, Cary Grant, in The Grass Is Greener (1960), and Reunion At Fairborough (1985).   All of this, their personal relationship and the successful creation of another ‘romantic' duo, beginning with Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.

Action?

With all this emphasis on personal growth and relationship development, is there any action?  I mean, after all, many consider this to be a war movie.  Once again, this is handled with a deft touch.  There is one scene, as you near the climax of the movie, where Allison is forced to deal with a Japanese soldier; something he'd been actively avoiding so as to prevent discovery.  There are explosions and shooting.  As Mr. Allison tells Sister Angela: "Oh, you gotta have shootin'.  It wouldn't be a proper landing if they didn't have shootin'."

However, these scenes aren't really the typical ‘battle' confrontations.  Remember, it's escape and evade; not Rambo.  That doesn't mean there's not suspense.  As an example, the scene where Allison raids the Japanese storehouse for food that Sister Angela will be able to stomach (as opposed to raw fish) is tension wrought precisely due to the inaction forced upon him.  (A scene, by the way, which is rendered much better in the movie than in the book.)  It is this almost Zen-like "action through inaction" which draws the audience into the suspense of the moment; i.e., "fight or flight" has kicked in, but neither the characters nor the audience member can do either.

In that context, if you're looking for a shoot ‘em up - bang, bullets flyin', deafened by too many gratuitous explosions, non-stop action flick... This isn't it.  If you're looking for a movie that will occasionally have you munching your popcorn a bit quicker as you slide to the edge of your seat... Well, it doesn't happen often, but it will happen. 
 
Bonus Features

The DVD version currently available is a "Fox War Classic."  It comes in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1); which is fitting in that, according to Kaminsky, this was "Huston's first film in Cinemascope, the wide-screen process that only a few directors... were comfortable with." (John Huston: Maker of Magic, p. 112)  It is adaptable for English, Spanish, and French.  The 1 hour and 46 minute movie is divided into 15 scenes which can be selected individually from the main menu.  There are four, short, black & white MovieTone NewsReels in a Special Feature section.  Interesting is the fact that there is a black & white, British MovieTone NewsReel documentary on the making of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison available on You Tube; as well as the actual movie trailer.  Yet, neither the documentary nor the movie trailer is present on the DVD. 
 
Wrapping It Up

Any comparisons to other John Huston films such as The African Queen were addressed, perfunctorily, by Huston himself: "This was even more of a two-person story than The African Queen." (An Open Book, p. 261)  Left-handed acclaim such as "mature performances" misses the reality that Mr. Allison and Sister Angela were simply the on-screen incarnation of the relationship that was developing/had developed between Mitchum and Kerr.  For those who think of it as ‘quaint,' remember, this is the ‘timeless' story of a developing relationship between a man and a woman; the ‘quaintness' only being relevant in terms of the somewhat ‘puritanical' time period it comes from.
 
The ‘shallowness' often ascribed to the screenplay is simply critics not grasping what Huston referred to as "unostentatious... very simple, clean dialogue."  As Sever describes it: "The film was a beauty.  It was a movie that was stripped to the bare essentials, but not a thing was lacking... Mitchum... gave a deceptively simple performance that was in fact a fully created characterization of inestimable grace and charm." (Robert Mitchum: "Baby, I Don't Care," p. 311)  It is this very austerity which, much as with Tom Hanks' performance in Cast Away, allows for a greater depth; where additional dialogue or cinematic ‘tricks' would have only gotten in the way.
 
The DVD is commonly available for around $10 - $15.  Is it worth it or should you be waiting for it to hit the $5 bin? 

I can truthfully say that, for me, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is one of the very small group of movies which turned out better than the book...      


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