Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

2011 #7
John Huston | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG

Heaven Knows, Mr AllisonThe title may sound like a ’40s rom-com or a ’70s TV sitcom, but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is nothing of the sort. It’s set in the south Pacific in 1944, at the height of World War II, and begins with titular US Marine Allison (Robert Mitchum) washing up on an island that’s occupied only by a novice nun, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). He was the only survivor of a Japanese attack on a submarine; she ultimately the only survivor of a Japanese raid on the island. With no hope of rescue they must plot their own escape.

If this were made today, Allison and Angela would surely turn out to be dead and in purgatory; 50 years ago, however, all is as it seems. What we get is almost relentlessly a two-hander. Some Japanese turn up, and (spoilers!) some Americans, but there’s only one line of English dialogue spoken by someone other than the two leads. Luckily, Mitchum and Kerr are talented enough to carry a film alone, while Lee Mahin and John Huston’s screenplay (from a novel by Charles Shaw) has enough events to keep things ticking along — this isn’t the kind of two-hander where a pair of characters sit around and natter until something turns up to end their conversation.

As well as playing on their plans for escape and the tension of survival once the Japanese occupy the island, the film also draws a lot of thematic weight from the interesting comparison between the Church and Angela’s devotion as a nun, and the Marines and Allison’s devotion as a soldier. Though one may be opposed to violence and the other created purely for it, the kind of loyalty and rituals they both entail reflect each other intriguingly.

Heaven Knows, Mr AllisonThere’s also a kind of burgeoning romance between the two — as a novice nun she has yet to take her final vows — which creates a different kind of will-they-won’t-they than the usual love-hate dynamic. It all leads to a pleasing ending, where your expectations for what a Hollywood film will do (especially with the groundwork that’s been laid) are subverted in favour of a more plausible turn of events. It’s not the kind of ending that makes the film — it’s already done more than enough to hold one’s interest — but if done wrong I think it would have undermined the rest.

The idea of a two-hander can be off-putting — how can just two characters sustain a whole film without it becoming overly philosophical or overly dull? Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison does have some elements of the philosophical, but there’s enough action going on to satisfy the need for dramatic momentum, and Mitchum and Kerr are effortlessly watchable. It could’ve done with a better title though.

4 out of 5

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