' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

Friday, December 02, 2011

Friday's Old Fashioned: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

So if you make a movie that puts a Marine and Nun on a small South Pacific island in the late days of WWII you know to surely expect a movie that will play up the disparate differences between these two but that they will eventually learn to co-exist and in dealing with some sort of ready-made crisis will come to discover that deep down where it counts they have more in common than they ever realized possible. Except, of course, "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison" (1957) was directed by the maverick John Huston and John Huston don't play that. If you stop and think about it, Marines and Nuns right off the bat have a whole lot in common. They both have a uniform. The marine gives himself over to his drill instructor, his commanding officer. The nun gives herself over to Christ.  They lead extraordinarily regimental lives. There is a wonderful moment when the Marine indicates he's going to sleep but that he'll be up early, probably too early for her, since he had to get up at 5:30 with the core. The nun replies she had to get up at 5:00 at the convent. The marine replies: "Sounds like you run a pretty tough outfit, ma'am."

The Marine is Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) who took fire from the Japanese when trying to exit his submarine and was forced to flee and drift for days on a rubber raft before encountering this island, this island where Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) and Father Philips came to evacuate another priest only to land and learn the Japanese had already attacked the island and either killed or taken the island's priest with them. Not long after, Father Philips passes away, leaving Sister Angela, who has not even taken her final vows yet, to fend for herself. There is food and there is water. Fiji, the closest inhabited island, is a good 300 miles away. Yet Allison thinks it best to give it a shot anyway and Sister Angela says it's worth a shot, too. They go about constructing a top-notch raft but before they can finish it, the Japanese, as they must, fly over the island, scout it, and then bomb it, and then take it over with the intention it seems of turning into a weather reporting outpost. Luckily, Allison has found a cave at an out of the way high point cleverly obscured by the brush and he and Sister Angela will hide out there as their quiet sanctuary is overrun.

Being trapped in a cave could easily lead to marital-esque bickering that could easily lead to a sappy, star cross'd romance. John Huston, however, is too smart and too tough to stand for such nonsense. Most of the business inside that cave solely centers around survival, like an extended passage when Allison sneaks out and down to the enemy encampment to gather food, and there are no flickers of potential love until a sneaky scary passage that occurs in a rainstorm after the Japanese have fled the island in the wake of what appears to be an American naval victory way, way off in the distance. Allison and Sister Angela graciously retire to an abandoned hut, fix a little something to eat, and stumble upon a bottle of Sake. (Oh, Sake. In my experience, nothing has ever gone right on account of Sake.) Allison has a few shots too many and in no time at all he asks, in slurred words, if Sister Angela might forsake her final vows to accept his hand in marriage.

In real life, of course, Robert "Baby, I Don't Care" Mitchum was a renegade that made all other renegades look like choirboys and an unapologetic hard-drinker and so when he flips the switch in "Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison" from a stand-up guy to a drunk, it's genuinely frightening and, in turn, you can feel Kerr's terror which prevents her fleeing into the rain from melodrama. She just wants the hell outta there - and you can't blame her - and she wants the hell outta there because she made a commitment to which she will adhere. We all make commitments, occasionally those commitments will cause regrets, yet stay committed we must. Or else. For desertion, a marine gets shot. For desertion, a nun loses her immortal soul.

Eventually the Japanese, as they must, return to the island and Allison and Sister Angela return to the cave and this time they will be discovered. But they are spared their moment of reckoning via one of those classic cinematic last-second coincidences. Yet I ask, is it really so coincidental? Make note of what Sister Angela is doing in the moments right before this coincidence - praying. Don't we all want to believe that maybe, just maybe, someone up there, up above, really is listening?


Anonymous said...

This sounds interesting, Nick, I might check this out. I've never seen a Deborah Kerr film before besides some scenes of An Affair to Remember.

Nick Prigge said...

My favorite Deborah Kerr film is From Here To Eternity but she isn't featured quite as frequently as she was in this one, and this was a really good film.

Anonymous said...

Oh I really need to see From Here to Eternity as well, curious to see that iconic kissing scene by the beach in context. Btw, I gave you a shout out on my post today in regards to your love for Joanne Woodward, I feel like you're the only one who'd understand my um, obsession w/ Peck lately :D

Nick Prigge said...

From Here To Eternity always gets categorized as a "Man's Movie" but I've never thought that's completely accurate. Kerr is really good and Donna Reed is even better.

Andrew K. said...

Can you blame me if I always compare this in my head to The African Queen (and decide what your response will be wisely, Nick, for if you say the unthinkable and that you have NOT seen The African Queen I shall ....).

Anyhow, Deborah is lovely. I sort of forget who Mitchum is like, always. I don't want to call him forgettable, but I don't always remember.

ANYHOW, this write-up is great. Love that final paragraph.

Nick Prigge said...

Fear not. I have seen "The African Queen", a movie I liked but I didn't necessarily LOVE. It amused me and "Heaven Knows Mr. Allison" moved me a little bit more.