Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is flat and distanced. You sense very gifted people attempting to do an honorable job with hokum, and while you respect those ambitions, it’s possible that a zestier film might’ve sprung from a cruder approach. “Zesty” is a word that can be confidently applied to many of director John Huston’s films, particularly The Man Who Would Be King and Prizzi’s Honor and the classics he made with key collaborator Humphrey Bogart. But Huston also had a tendency to seemingly nod off when dealing with esteemed novels (his unsatisfyingly aloof Under the Volcano is an example) or with material that testifies too intensely to the goodness of man. A prankster with despairing eagle-eyed wit, Huston often appears to be as bored with Heaven Knows’s earnestness as you’re likely to be.
The film concerns a tale of straightforward survival that should theoretically fall right into Huston’s wheelhouse. In the South Pacific in 1944, U.S. Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) washes onto a small island after an American submarine had to abandon him to flee the incoming Japanese. On the island, Allison meets Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), a Catholic nun who has yet to take her final vows, which is to say that it’s possible that she could still be swayed by a man’s charms to defect to a more conventionally romantic life. Allison and the Sister initially plan to build a raft in the hopes of getting to Fiji, where there should be friendly faces, but that idea, in a clever deviation from adventure-film routine, is discarded as hopeless. Soon, the Japanese storm the island, presumably setting it up as a scout post for future campaigns against the allied army, forcing our heroes to hide in a cave, where they wrestle with a blossoming attraction that tests their respective faiths.
That last sentiment underlines the film’s initially refreshing sense of perspective, as it casually synonymizes the military with the clergy as cultures that equally require leaps of commitment that defy immediate earthly senses of self-honor and propriety, but that premise isn’t allowed to really go anywhere. One can picture the feverish, claustrophobic faith parable that Ingmar Bergman might have made of such a scenario, but Huston takes Allison and Sister Angela’s duties for granted, as a matter of course. This pragmatism is strikingly devoid of self-indulgence and pity, but it also blanches the film of urgency. Allison and Sister Angela are saints who always rise to a challenge with little in the way of temptation or weakness, and so there isn’t much for the gifted and immensely charismatic Mitchum and Kerr (who fares best) to play.
The island never asserts itself as a significant character either, as it might have in a film by Terrence Malick or John Boorman, who directed the similarly themed and much greater Hell in the Pacific. The compositions are often fatally remote: The cave appears to be a set, and the stretch of sand that represents the Japanese forces’ occupation of the island could be any quasi-civilized beachside. There’s no element of strangeness to this Pacific, no suggestion of the alien sense of away-ness that Allison and Sister Angela must feel, particularly as they’re surrounded by enemy soldiers who’re constantly on the verge of discovering them.
The prevailing problem is that Heaven Knows is an inherently passive story of a couple waiting patiently for a deus ex machina, and that doesn’t suit the temperament of an artist who consciously defined himself as a legendary filmmaker, big game hunter, erudite rabble rouser, and resident man’s man. This film bears a superficial resemblance to Huston’s The African Queen, another odd-couple romance set among high stakes with a big historical war backdrop, but those characters were allowed to reveal themselves through evolving action in a dynamic river setting that’s so vividly rendered that you’ll be able to recall the bugs and flop sweat years after seeing the film.
Tellingly, the best scene in Heaven Knows finds Allison taking action, when he infiltrates the Japanese beach camp in order to procure canned food for Sister Angela, who can’t bring herself to eat raw fish in the cave. On this self-appointed mission, Allison watches his Japanese enemy drink and play games for long silent stretches as a rat the size of a small housecat threatens to chew at his ankles. Remarkably devoid of propaganda considering the film’s close proximity to the end of World War II, this sequence allows Allison to share an empathetic experience with his enemy through vicarious, tangibly physical near-telepathy. It’s a great, definitively Huston, moment of revelation and grace, because it allows a man to have a say in how he chances the fates.
The image is appropriately soft and somewhat grainy without sporting any blatant evidence of contemporary revision. Colors are lush and earthy, particularly the greens, and the background information is impressively clear. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track is a little flat, perhaps unavoidably, and the dialogue doesn’t always appear to be correctly mixed in relationship to the score (you have to turn the volume way up to catch Sister Angela’s description of how she wound up on the island). For the most part, however, the track is audible and competently clean of aural hisses and cracks.
Per Twilight Time tradition, there’s an isolated music and effects track, which suits this largely observational film. There’s also a Fox Movietone News segment and the original trailer. Not much to see here.
This unusually optimistic, and unsatisfying, John Huston film receives competent, not especially memorable treatment from Twilight Time.