A Marine and a Nun, both shipwrecked on a Pacific Island, find solace in one another as the two wait out the war.
In the mid-1950s, the widescreen CinemaScope process - much to the glee of panicked studio executives - enticed television-addicted audiences to return to movie theaters and experience entertainment on a grand scale. Multi-million-dollar biblical epics, splashy musicals, and action-packed adventure tales dominated the format, so it must have been with a bit of trepidation that 20th Century Fox green-lighted 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,' a largely inert dual character study set on a deserted South Pacific island during World War II. Though a couple of aerial attack sequences briefly enliven the plot, this John Huston-directed drama explores ideas and relationships in a claustrophobic setting and features a principal cast of exactly two. Contemporary viewers were most likely surprised by the film's intimacy and limited focus, but once the shock wore off, they were treated to a meaningful, engrossing, at times humorous, and very affecting tale, expertly performed by its two stars, Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. And though it creaks a little around the edges today, it remains a well-constructed and engaging work.
Oil and water don't mix, and at first glance, neither do Corporal Allison (Mitchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr). The gruff, tough marine was cast adrift in the Pacific after his submarine was attacked, and following several days at sea, his raft washes up on the shores of what seems to be a deserted island. While investigating the vacant outpost, he unexpectedly comes upon the calm, serene, and circumspect Sister Angela, who was left stranded on the tropical isle when her jittery comrades fled during a rescue mission. After an awkward beginning, the two strike up a friendship borne of necessity, but it grows into a deep bond, made all the more intense by the encroaching Japanese, who come ashore looking to make the island one of their army headquarters. Allison and Sister Angela seek refuge in a dank cave to escape their notice, and in its dark recesses they each shed light on their respective dreams, desires, and perspectives.
On the surface, the marine and the nun make one of the oddest couples in movie history, but the literate screenplay by Huston and John Lee Mahin beautifully and subtly develops the relationship, making it believable and touching without wallowing in sentimentality. Some censorship issues apparently softened the tale's frankness (Allison's affection for his companion of the cloth goes a bit beyond the platonic, but presenting that on screen within the confines of the rigid production code proved challenging, much to Huston's chagrin), but the story's soul remains unvarnished and its power lies in its simplicity. Though comparisons can be drawn between 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' and a more iconic Huston production, 'The African Queen' - both films feature unlikely couples battling World War II foes and overcoming substantial odds - 'Heaven Knows' seems more real and immediate, with a unique sexual tension and more meaningful struggles of conscience. Both Allison and Sister Angela belong to an order defined by discipline and commitment, and watching them grapple with breaking their respective solemn vows in a situation of heightened danger is both thought-provoking and entertaining.
Sustaining such a tenuous narrative thread is difficult enough for the screenplay, but the actors bear the brunt of the pressure. Exceptional chemistry, finely etched performances, and some good old-fashioned magnetism are essential for such an intimate film to succeed, and thankfully, Kerr and Mitchum earn high marks in all departments. Kerr portrayed quite a memorable nun in Powell and Pressburger's riveting English noir classic 'Black Narcissus,' so she was familiar with the requirements of the role, and her sincerity, conviction, and plucky spirit earned her a well-deserved fourth Best Actress Academy Award nomination. (The underrated Kerr holds the unfortunate distinction of garnering the most Best Actress nominations - six - without a win. Thirty-four years following her final nomination for 1960's 'The Sundowners,' the Academy gave her a long overdue honorary Oscar in 1994.)
Also underrated, Mitchum files a marvellously nuanced portrayal that combines gruff macho sex appeal with a surprising amount of senstivity and vulnerability. Alone with Sister Angela, Allison can let his hair down, exposing the insecurities and feelings that lurk beneath his well-polished armor, and proving manliness isn't necessarily a byproduct of ego, swagger, and brute force. Over the course of his long career, many viewers have labeled Mitchum's low-key, brooding, and subtle acting style as thinly veiled apathy, but his finely etched work here will convince any doubters of his true talent. He and Kerr - on screen and off - are classic opposites, yet they attract not only each other, but also the audience, and their symbiotic relationship makes this movie.
Huston mostly stays out of their way, gently guiding them without exerting a heavy hand. The cinematography by Oswald Morris and location shooting on the island of Tobago also lend the film an authentic feel, and though the leisurely pacing, lack of plot, and decidedly '50s vibe may disengage some viewers, those who stick with this simple story will be richly rewarded. Chance encounters, difficult choices, and adhering to one's moral and ethical code are all vital aspects of life, and 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' encapsulates these large issues into one small, beautifully constructed package. It's not quite a diamond in the rough, but it's still a gem of a picture.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Typical of Twilight Time releases, the limited to 3,000 edition includes a handsomely produced eight-page booklet that features an essay by historian Julie Kirgo and an array of both color and black-and-white photos. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' was unfortunately produced soon after the shift from three-strip Technicolor to the cheaper, less lustrous single-strip format, and the absence of vibrancy and lushness is all too evident in this intermittently faded, occasionally bold 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer from Twilight Time. Though the source material is free of any nicks, lines, or scratches, and possesses a natural-looking grain structure that maintains the appearance of celluloid, a washed-out dullness pervades the print and prevents the tropical island from even remotely resembling paradise. Clarity is quite good, with details in the foliage and costuming coming across well, but contrast is often weak, lending the image a flat, monochromatic look, especially in shots featuring the pale-skinned Kerr in her all-white nun's habit. In addition, moments of jarring softness and excess grain stun the senses and make one long for a consistent, well-restored presentation that maximizes the rugged natural beauty on display.
The verdant greens of the island plant life, especially when framed against the principals in close-up, possess some welcome pop, but blues appear wan and fleshtones tend to vary from scene to scene. Black levels are rich and deep, whites are generally crisp, and fine shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, but close-ups lack the sparkle we've come to expect. Thankfully, digital doctoring has been kept to a minimum and any tinkering escapes notice, yet this is still a largely disappointing effort. It's just a shame a higher quality print wasn't made available to Twilight Time, so we could see 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' in all its original splendor.
Though the packaging lists the audio as two-channel mono, only the center speaker emits any sound during playback. That wouldn't be a bad thing at all, except this DTS-HD Master Audio track lacks any oomph or pizzazz. Flat and anemic are the best ways to describe the dull audio that fails to capture the atmosphere of the exotic tropical setting. A constricted dynamic scale doesn't help; there's no bass to speak of, and its absence becomes glaringly evident during the various bombing and artillery scenes. The music comes across well, and dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, but subtleties are lost, and any sonic accents are devoid of presence or depth. Hiss and crackles have been removed, but a few errant pops also dot the mix, distracting us from the action on screen. While 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' is an intimate drama, high quality audio is essential to add power and nuance to the story, and this disappointing track doesn't allow the film to reach its true potential.
Just a couple of supplements are included on the disc.
Fox Movietone News (SD, 10 minutes) - This conglomeration of vintage clips from the venerable newsreel series juxtaposes scenes of American forces fighting the Japanese on such remote Pacific islands as Saipan and Tarawa during World War II with more frivolous Hollywood stories, which focus on the 1957 awards season. Look-ins at the 30th annual Academy Awards (where Deborah Kerr lost the Best Actress Oscar to Joanne Woodward for 'The Three Faces of Eve'), the Photoplay Awards (where Kerr was honored for her work in 'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison'), and the Golden Globe Awards allow us to catch glimpses of several legendary stars, including Clark Gable, Natalie Wood, June Allyson, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Rock Hudson. An odd silent clip of actress Dolores Del Rio arriving at an airport completes this collection, but doesn't correspond to any of the other footage, making one wonder whether its inclusion was a mistake.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 3 minutes) - Director John Huston provides some voiceover narration for this preview, which is filled with plenty of typical Hollywood hyperbole.
Isolated Music and Effects Track - An isolated music and effects track is also included on the disc.
'Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison' is an anomaly among 1950s CinemaScope pictures, as it uses the broad widescreen format to frame an intimate tale of courage, devotion, commitment, and understanding. Directed in a forthright manner and without any frills by John Huston, this tale of a Marine and a nun marooned on a tropical island during the height of World War II - and how they forge an improbable friendship and persevere against incredible odds - focuses on character over plot, and thanks to satisfying performances from Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, becomes an endearing and affecting film. It's difficult to maintain a two-character story and keep it interesting, but the formidable talent involved in this production accomplishes the task. Though this Twilight Time release doesn't live up to the company's previous efforts, due to subpar video and audio transfers, the movie itself is still worth a look, especially for fans of the actors and director.