Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)
Directed by John Huston
Produced by Buddy Alder, Eugene Frenke
Screenplay by John Lee Mahin, John Huston
Cinematography by Oswald Morris
Edited by Russell Lloyd
Music by Georges Auric
20th Century Fox
The first seven minutes of John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison show an exhausted, haggard Robert Mitchum, bobbing up and down on a rubber raft, headed toward an island in the South Pacific in 1944. Upon reaching the shore, his physical turmoil might be over, but emotionally he’s in store for a real workout.
I’m not sure how this scene was filmed (although this image looks pretty tame, not representative of most of the opening shots), but I suspect it was shot from another raft or boat behind Mitchum. However it was done, it’s very effective, putting us in Mitchum’s point of view, giving us a first-hand look at his conflict and anxiety, more of which we’ll see later in the film.
Constantly looking over his shoulder for the presence of the enemy, Mitchum discovers an abandoned settlement with a chapel with one lone occupant: a nun named Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). The two exchange stories and we learn that the Mitchum character is named Corporal Allison of the USMC, a man who survived a Japanese attack on his submarine, jumped on a rubber raft, and washed up on the shore. Angela relates the story of how she and a priest named Father Philips came to the island to carry a local priest to safety, but were abandoned by the island’s natives when the presence of the Japanese became dangerously evident. Father Philips died, leaving Sister Angela alone on the island with an almost-depleted store of food and supplies.
Sister Angela informs Allison that they’re on the (fictional) island of Tuasiva, about 300 miles from Fiji. (They were actually filming in Tobago, where Mitchum had just finished work on Fire Down Below. Welcome back, Bob!) Allison informs her that it’s only a matter of time before they’re discovered by the Japanese, that they should build a raft and try to make it to Fiji. But before they can work together on the raft, they have to find food. In one of the film’s best early scenes, Allison and Sister Angela attempt to catch a 300-pound turtle (which nearly smashed Mitchum, doing his own stunts, against a coral reef).
It soon becomes clear that both characters are vastly different from each other, yet similarly dedicated; Allison to the Marines, Sister Angela to her vows. Although there’s mutual respect, neither character fully understands the other. Allison – an orphan who took his name from the street where his orphanage was located – is uneducated, but has obviously been around the block. Sister Angela, conversely, knows little about the life outside of the Catholic Church. In fact, she’s not even fully a nun yet, not having taken her final vows.
This, thinks Allison, is very interesting. Especially since he’s falling in love with her.
Now at this point you might think you know what’s going to happen, but you’d be wrong. If you know anything about the Production Code from this era, you know what’s going to be allowed and what’s not going to be allowed. Credit Huston and Mahin for writing a script that avoids any shenanigans (which, no doubt, the Production Code, the Catholic Church and the U.S. Marines were closely watching) yet delivers a world of interest and drama.
“Me, I got the Corps like you got the church,” Allison tells Sister Angela. When Sister Angela asks Allison about his faith, he answers, “Anyone with any sense believes in God.” Although he doesn’t fully understand the depth and theological implications of Sister Angela’s faith, Allison respects it, just as he respects the Marine Corps. Perhaps it’s that level of dedication that attracts him to her. And is she equally attracted to him? Watch the film. The testing of beliefs alone makes the film essential viewing.
Based on the novel of the same name (aka The Flesh and the Spirit) by Charles Shaw, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a real showcase for Mitchum and Kerr. I haven’t seen that many of Kerr’s films, but I have seen quite of few of Mitchum’s and although he played servicemen many times, I can’t think of another Mitchum role quite like this one. Mitchum here shows Allison’s lack of education, but also his determination, resourcefulness, spirit and vulnerability.
Roger Ebert said of Six Days, Seven Nights (another “two-people-on-an-island” film), “If you want to see a movie that knows what to do with a man, a woman and an island, see John Huston’s Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in which Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr create atmosphere where [Harrison] Ford and [Anne] Heche create only weather.”
Again, Huston has done a masterful job of giving the audience a compelling story that’s loaded with drama, action, and symbolism, none of which become overdone at any time. If you haven’t seen Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, you’re missing a real treat. I would love to see the Cinemascope film on Blu-ray, but unfortunately the only version I know of is the wildly overpriced one from Twilight Time, one I’m not willing to pay $75 for.
You can read more about the film from this excellent post from Wonders in the Dark.