About 6 years ago as I was channel surfing one Saturday afternoon and the children who needed to nap were napping and the older children were occupying themselves, I found a great film to view. The film was released in 1957 by 20th Century Fox: Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and it starred only two people: Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum. The film was directed by John Huston, who also wrote the screenplay with John Lee Mahin, adapting it from the 1952 novel of the same name by Charles Shaw.
The setting is 1943 on an island in the South Pacific. Mitchum portrays U.S. Marine Corporal Allison. He had been on a submarine and as his reconnaissance team was preparing to leave the sub, a Japanese plane spotted them and rained down artillery. The submarine’s captain was forced to dive and leave the Marines behind. Allison manages to get to a rubber raft and after several days of drifting in the Pacific Ocean, he lands the raft upon an island. As his dazed eyes search the beach for inhabitants, he can see a chapel and a figure clad all in white standing in front of the chapel. Then he passes out.
When Allison regains consciousness, he finds he has been removed from the raft and cared for by the person clad in white, a nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). Sister Angela tells Mr. Allison, as she calls him, that she and Father Phillips had been asked to leave Fiji and to find the priest who served at this island’s chapel and take him back to Fiji with them. When she and Father Phillips arrived at the island, they could find no inhabitants or the priest. The natives who had sailed them to this island were frightened by the idea of being captured by the Japanese, so they left Sister Angela and Father Phillips stranded. Just a few days later, Father Phillips, who was quite elderly, fell ill and died. Sister Angela managed to bury him properly, and she informs Mr. Allison that she is only a novice nun, that she hasn’t taken her final vows yet. Allison laughs at that news and says that it’s just his luck, to be stranded on an island with a woman who turns out to be a nun!
For some time, they have the island to themselves and are starting to appreciate each other’s strengths in surviving while waiting to be rescued. Allison shares with Sister Angela that he was an orphan and that he never knew what his real last name was, so he took the name “Allison” from the street sign that the orphanage was located on. He joined the Marine Corps as soon as he could and allows as it’s the closest thing to a family that he’s ever known. Sister Angela shares about her faith, but never is pushy about it with Mr. Allison. One day, a group of Japanese soldiers arrive at the island and Allison and Sister Angela hide in a cave. The Japanese soldiers have arrived to set up a meteorological camp and are there for several days setting up their equipment. When Sister Angela cannot stomach eating the raw fish Allison has been sneaking out to catch for them, he decides to sneak into the camp at night and steal food for Sister Angela. He successfully steals some food and later that night they can see a naval battle happening in the distance.
The Japanese soldiers leave the island and Sister Angela and Allison explore the soldiers’ supply hut. It is full of food supplies and sake. Feeling like rejoicing over the supplies, Sister Angela makes a lovely meal for the two of them and serves the sake. Mr. Allison drinks too much of the sake and in a dramatic moment, proclaims his love for Sister Angela, telling her that they don’t know how long they’ll be stuck on the island, that she hasn’t taken her vows, that they’ll be like Adam and Eve! As he makes a move towards her, Sister Angela tells Mr. Allison that she has made her decision to give her heart to God. As he continues to drunkenly stumble to her to grab her, Sister Angela runs into the jungle, despite a thunderstorm booming around her. After a while, Allison comes out of his drunken state and feeling ashamed of himself, goes out into the jungle to find Sister Angela. He finds her but she is feverish and quite ill. In carrying her back to the Japanese supply hut, he sees that the soldiers have returned so he quickly runs for the cave. Knowing that a wet person with a raging fever needs to have the wet clothing removed and dry blankets for warmth, Allison sneaks into the Japanese camp to steal some blankets for Sister Angela. A Japanese soldier sees Allison and Allison has no choice but to kill the soldier and flee to the cave. Other Japanese soldiers find their fellow soldier’s dead body and they know that someone else is on the island and they set fire to the vegetation in order to smoke that someone out. Days go by and Sister Angela, her fever broken, finds herself lying in the cave, her nun apparel not on her, and blankets covering her. She gives Mr. Allison a questioning look and he reassures her that he’s sorry for what he said to her when he was drunk, that he found her feverish and wandering in the jungle in the middle of a thunderstorm, that the Japanese had returned and he had to get her to the cave, and that he removed her wet clothes without looking, and then covered her with the dry blankets. Sister Allison is touched by his apology and care of her while she was so ill.
A Japanese soldier out on patrol discovers the cave where the two have been hiding in. Sister Angela and Mr. Allison know they have two choices: surrender or face a hand grenade being tossed in upon them. Before they can make their decision, bombs begin landing on the island! U. S. Navy ships have begun bombing the island before attempting a landing. Allison knows that the Japanese have 4 artillery pieces hidden in the jungle which will make it hard for the landing parties to be successful. Telling Sister Angela that he has a task to do, that God has sent him this task, Allison leaves the cave and despite the risk to his own life, he disables the 4 artillery pieces, getting wounded in the process. The Americans successfully land and take control of the island. Allison is being readied on a stretcher to be taken to the ship and receive medical treatment for his wound. He tells Sister Angela that he understands her devotion and heart belonging to God and she reassures him that to her he will always be a close companion wherever her life takes her. She walks alongside his stretcher as he is taken to the ship.
Oh this is a great film! The tense scenes of hiding out from the Japanese soldiers, wondering if they’ll be found out and what will happen to them if they’re caught. The poignancy of the two characters developing feelings towards one another but not being able to act upon those feelings. I found this film to be tough and tender, one that would appeal to the guys in an audience and to the ladies.
Trinidad and Tobago were the stand-ins for the island, during the filming. The Catholic Church sent their National Legion of Decency representatives to watch the movie being filmed to ensure that no objective content between a Marine and a nun would happen. One day, as a joke, Mitchum and Kerr were shooting a scene and they grabbed one another and started kissing! The National League rep was not amused! The USMC provided actual troops for the landing scene and 6 Japanese men who happened to be living in Brazil at the time played the main Japanese soldiers. The film cost $2,905,000 to make and earned 20th Century Fox $4.2 million. Audiences liked it and Deborah Kerr earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, director Huston and co-screenplay writer Mahin were also nominated for Best Writing, adapted screenplay.
Turner Classic Movies will be showing Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison on Saturday, May 18th at 5:00 CST. It is available through Amazon and there is a two part look at the making of the film by Movietone News that someone has put up on Youtube.