Talkin’ Oldies: Heaven Knows Mr. Allison (1957)
It’s always interesting to hear what movie stars and directors think of their own work, especially their opinions on the “bests” and “worsts”. Michael Caine often referred to Ashanti: Land Of No Mercy as the worst film he ever made (which it isn’t) and the only one he did purely for the money (which it may well be). Frank Sinatra mocked The Kissing Bandit as “the absolute nadir of my career! Hell, it was the nadir of anybody’s career!” Hitchcock always maintained his best movie was the not-so-well-known Shadow of a Doubt, ahead of some of his more famous and celebrated works.
In his twilight years, John Huston made a very insightful comment about his 1957 film Heaven Knows Mr Allison, which he made for 20th Century Fox:- “Allison is seldom referred to. But I think it was one of the best things I ever made”.
Huston has hit the nail squarely on the head with this comment. It is – just as he states – a film that has faded into obscurity as the years have passed. It is also, paradoxically, one of his great works. True, movies like The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, The Asphalt Jungle and Treasure of the Sierra Madre rank in the director’s very top tier of work… but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is definitely the front-runner in the second tier.
The story is extremely simple, but absorbing. American marine Allison (Robert Mitchum) is washed ashore on a Pacific island during WWII. The only other person on the island is a nun named Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). Although they are totally different types of people who, under different circumstances might well have looked down their noses at each other, they find that their mutual plight draws them together and creates a very close friendship.
Their situation worsens, however, when a Japanese force arrives and stations a garrison on the island. Allison and Sister Angela find themselves in even graver danger. Whereas before they were merely shipwrecked, the arrival of the Japanese task force places them in the very midst of the enemy with nowhere to run and almost nowhere to hide. They faced a tricky enough job surviving against the elements; now they face the near-impossible job of surviving against the enemy.
As it was made in 1957, the filming was fraught with censorship complications because at that time the Catholic Church still carried enough clout to impose strict regulations on what could and couldn’t be shown in films. Movies dealing with religious situations or characters were particularly prone to delicate scrutiny from the Church.
In the original Charles Shaw book on which the movie is based, the marine and the nun fell in love…. but it would have been deemed offensive in 1957 if that were to happen in a film. Therefore, Huston had to create a revised resolution in which the marine and nun gain strength, hope and determination from each other without ever physically consummating their relationship.
The performances are simply brilliant; the under-rated Mitchum shows what depth and sensitivity he could bring to a part when given something meatier than his usual man-of-action role; Kerr is even better as the righteous nun, earning a thoroughly worthy nomination at the Oscars where she lost out – probably undeservedly – to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve.
Photographer Oswald Morris shoots the film splendidly, ensuring that it is always pleasing to the eye, while veteran screenwriter John Lee Mahin provides a very literate and intelligent script. It’s all handled expertly by Huston, who juggles the suspense and the sensitivity with a master’s touch.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a first-rate film and how sad it is that such a likable and impressive motion picture has been virtually forgotten.
FMV Rating ****½