Granted, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr Crusoe-ing it on a Pacific atoll sounds like an SNL sketch stretched to the limits of credibility. That said, 1957’s HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON (now on limited edition Blu-Ray from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment), directed by John Huston, unspools a beautifully-realized drama of two folks finding compassion and trust as they battle the elements (and the Japanese) during the final lap of WWII.
The above, in a nutshell, basically comprises the entire plot of the picture. How it came together is just as entertaining, and definitely far more unbelievable. Watching ALLISON today, the CinemaScope adventure-drama looks like a slam-dunk. Bummy Mitchum, sole survivor of a torpedoed destroyer, washes ashore on a supposedly deserted island. There he meets nun Kerr whose superior died, leaving her the only human inhabitant. This oil and (holy) water mix eventually blends nicely and, buttressed by some laffs, seems like this pair could likely sit out the war in ham…errr harmonious comfort. Until those pesky Japanese arrive to build a camp. As the pair elude, take advantage of and even help defeat this armed-to-the-buck-teeth battalion, ALLISON moves from intimate two-character piece to incendiary action suspense pic. Indeed, the wind-up comprises a large-scale pyrotechnic tour de force, worthy of the space CinemaScope was hyped and designed for – and it truly doesn’t disappoint.
Natch, this African Queen combo couldn’t have suited Huston more; yet, he was among the last to be tossed the project.
In the wake of Huston’s 1951 smash Bogart-Hepburn hit, Hollywood moguls paced their cells like the predatory animals they are in an effort to replicate Queen’s success. The publication of the ALLISON novel by Charles Shaw set off a feeding frenzy. John Wayne and his Batjac Production company was the first to bite, then William Wyler took a flyer, seeing it as a vehicle for his Detective Story star Kirk Douglas. The most interesting of the what-could-have-beens was when the picture was announced as a Clark Gable title, to be directed by Anthony Mann.
Finally, Fox’s foxy Buddy Adler threw his hands up in a “WTF-were-we-thinking?” display of shameless lightning-strikes-twice promotion and Frisbee-ed the concept to Huston, whom they should have approached in the first place anyway.
John Huston, who didn’t want to repeat himself, was nonplussed by the idea, to say the least. Nothing about HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON appealed to him except the paycheck. Huston, by this time, had relocated to Ireland, where he lived a Lord of the Manor lifestyle in his own castle. This didn’t come cheap, and, reluctantly, the writer-director signed a multi-picture deal with Fox, which he regretted before the ink was dry. He considered all three completed Fox pics disasters, and, yes, each was beset by horrific problems of logistics and personality clashes – although the triad kept him out of Hollywood (which was a prime incentive aside from the moolah, as it was the land that bastardized his Red Badge of Courage), taking him to Tahiti (ALLISON), Japan (The Barbarian and the Geisha) and Africa (The Roots of Heaven). Actually, I like all of these movies; in fact, I love the latter two. Barbarian was long-considered the worst experience ever endured by either Huston or star John Wayne. Roots had multiple scheduling mishaps, resulting in the loss of a major star lead.
Why ALLISON was so frowned upon by Huston can only be attributed to the repeat performance/African Queen analogy, as it was the only one of the Fox pictures to garner critical and audience approval.
With great trepidation, Huston jettisoned the original treatment and took off for San Francisco with cowriter John Lee Mahin in an attempt to fashion a suitable screenplay. The arrival of a fellow Huston cohort (aka, drinking buddy) turned the tide, as the assignment quickly devolved into a drunken orgy – the kind “dreams are made of.” So much so, that Huston barely remembered how he got home one night – a minor detail when later told that he paraded naked through the lobby of one of Frisco’s premier hotels. Things were looking up.
Finally convinced he had a shootable script, Huston prepared to nail down the Tobago and Tahiti locations, after securing an appropriate cast. Deborah Kerr as Sister Angela was a given, possibly because Huston bought in to the theory that post-Black Narcissus, she came with her own nun’s habit (he would parody her prim and proper screen persona in the loopy 1967 Casino Royale, where her nun character is revealed to be a sexually deviant spy).
Mitchum was another matter entirely. Having just finished four months in Tobago (filming Fire Down Below with Rita Hayworth, which should have been the complete title), he was instructed to repack his Bermuda shorts and for a return trip. This was okie-dokie for Bob, as he enjoyed himself immensely traipsing amongst the islands, immersing himself in the culture with such fervor that he would record an LP entitled Calypso – Is Like So. He was also pleased to be working with Huston, which soured slightly when the actor discovered that the director had secretly campaigned for Marlon Brando, who was unavailable.
The director had heard that Mitchum was a problem, and didn’t warm to the idea of being a wet-nurse to a belligerent loudmouth bastard (generally assumed to be Huston’s sole domain).
But Robert Mitchum was an unusual animal – a man of many masks. The Robert Mitchum on an Otto Preminger or Henry Hathaway picture was not the Robert Mitchum on a Nick Ray or Vincente Minnelli show. Huston, at least on the outset, was somewhere in-between. The director was absolutely awed and thrilled by the star’s work, particularly following an especially grueling sequence where Mitchum had to belly-crawl shirtless through a marsh (a specialty, later reprised in Cape Fear). Not satisfied with takes one, two and three, (“a little bit more, Bob – a little bit more…”) Huston commanded a fourth run (or slither) and nearly fainted at the conclusion, when, after his approval, noticed that his leading man was drenched in blood, having been sliced and diced by wreaths of nettles. “Difficult, my ass!”, shouted Huston, who, thereafter, couldn’t sing his praises high enough. Mitchum’s response was his typical shrugged assessment of his profession, “It sure beats working.”
Yet, Mitchum, too, had his reservations about the picture, primarily his costar Kerr. Buying into her screen hype, Mitchum wasn’t looking forward to walking on eggshells for a couple of months around some puritan bluenose. This ended memorably after a rather torturous scene, where Kerr went off on Huston, spewing epithets that even Mitchum had never heard. Doubled up with laughter, he fell backwards into the surf. The two stars bonded admirably after that, becoming lifelong friends and costarring in three more movies (and one TV-movie).
Huston likewise formed friendships with both leads, noting Kerr’s “nettles” moment in a swamp. Having to remain motionless in a mound of mud and ooze, and, to quote Huston “full of snakes and queer little animals” unnerved her to the point of passing out. Kerr said nothing and performed like the trouper she was. Only years later, on Night of the Iguana, did she tell Huston that the experience gave her nightmares, some recurring to that day.
One of the other foibles that occurred during HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON was the wily natives’ insistence that the movie people try their local cuisine, specifically a local delicacy known as long pig. Long pig, it turned out, was island slang for human flesh, and, in the case of the ALLISON company, rumored to categorically be relegated to white meat. Decades later, in 1983, when Huston received his AFI Life Achievement Award, he recounted this anecdote – disturbingly underlined by a cut to Mitchum in the audience, silently mouthing the words “lonnnggg pig” with way too much uncomfortable lip-smacking amusement (the idea of cannibal Robert Mitchum is far too frightening to contemplate).
Another more lethal aspect of HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON came from the negligence of Huston & Co. themselves. In the aforementioned action sequence, special effects and detonation crew members heinously miscalculated the numerous explosions and fireworks (due, in part, to wires soaked during a previous night rainstorm). As Huston recounted in his posthumously published 1994 autobiography “(T)he whole damned thing went up, all at once. Not bang! bang! bang! like a string of bombs, but a great explosion that blinded and deafened us all. The blast rocked our platform so violently that we were almost thrown off. The camera was chained down, but it tore loose. Rocks and debris showered all around us. By some miracle, none of us were hurt, and the ‘troops’ had run clear of the blast area.” Huston being Huston, he waited for the ground to dry, and demanded a retake, which “went off without a hitch.”
As the picture was a huge success, one wondered why it stuck like a craw in Huston’s side. When pressed for an answer, he couldn’t really say (after all, it was a box-office winner and forged long-lasting friendships with his two leads). Lamely, he at last admitted that the denial of pursuing a more adult approach to the situation hindered the narrative. Had he been able to make the picture twenty years later, it would have been a more rewarding endeavor; of course, Huston is referring to sexual shenanigans, therefore we must offer divine thanks he didn’t make it twenty years later! Nevertheless, once the production was announced – with Sister Kerr on a male-dominated location with revelers Huston and Mitchum – Fox immediately dispatched a censor to keep tabs on the goings-on (and offs). At least according to one account, it was the censor who ended up needing a censor.
The stunning cinematography in HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON is due to the bravura work of the great Oswald Morris (who had previous teamed with Huston on the landmark color productions of Moulin Rouge and Moby Dick). Despite the hardships of the protagonists (including the Japanese occupation), the movie looks like a vacation picture, awash in picture-postcard blue skies and waters and green, swaying palm trees (especially when compared to the horrors of the Ceylon shoot, concurrently inflicted by David Lean on River Kwai). Theatrical prints of ALLISON tended to fade rather quickly, the result of the awful and unstable DeLuxe Color. Film collectors fared better; DeLuxe wasn’t equipped to do 16mm work until mid-1957, so all scope prints were bussed over to Technicolor. These (now rare) copies always looked terrific, and much of that luster was effectively rendered onto the 35mm-transfer DVDs Fox mastered in the early 2000s. Suffice to say that the Twilight Time Blu-Ray obviously enhances the clarity to 1080p High Definition, popping the ebullient colors even more. The audio is nicely replicated as well, and contains a fine Georges Auric score (available as an isolated music and effects track). The movie was a US/UK co-production and Auric was a ubiquitous staple to 1950s British/French/Italian film music.
As Huston penned his memoirs, he apparently had a change of heart. Today, he stated, the movie “…is seldom referred to, but I think it was one of the best things I ever made.” HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON finally beat the devil.
HEAVEN KNOWS, MR. ALLISON. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. CAT# 903RJ0046HK; UPC # 851789003948. SRP: $29.95.
Limited edition of 3000. Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment: www.screenarchives.com