by Pierre de Plume
Throughout this World War II tale of unusual love under extraordinary but credible circumstances, a huge elephant is left to linger in the room: The sexual tension between a streetwise soldier and an attractive young nun — marooned on a South Seas island — could not have been more strongly implied. The novel on which this film was based already had taken a plunge into moral turpitude, not just by portraying an explicit sexual relationship between the unlikely pair but also by underscoring their carnal activities in Biblical terms:
For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. [Galatians 5:17]
— From The Flesh and the Spirit, by Charles Shaw (1952)
“What’s this world coming to?” Movie depictions of sexual expression during the mid-1950s were tame by today’s standards. However, that era’s primary agents of film censorship, the industry’s Production Code Administration (PCA) and the National [Catholic] Legion of Decency, were seeing their authority increasingly undermined with the release of button-pushing movies such as The Moon Is Blue, Baby Doll, The Man with the Golden Arm, and Island in the Sun. So no one was surprised, certainly not veteran filmmaker John Huston, that this tale of a pretty Irish nun alone in the South Pacific with a strapping, hairy-chested Marine would command the attention of censors.
It wasn’t just the premise of the proposed plot of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison that raised concern but also the casting. The public images of the cast (Mitchum and Kerr pretty much comprised the entire show) were not altogether wholesome: Mitchum much of the time played flawed, dangerous characters from the wrong side of the tracks and had the reputation of a Hollywood bad boy who boozed, caroused with “loose” women, and even served time in jail for marijuana possession. Kerr, though well regarded professionally since her 1940 film debut in Britain, emitted a “fire and ice” persona through such roles as a doubt-plagued nun (Black Narcissus), an adulterous wife (From Here to Eternity, The End of the Affair, King Solomon’s Mines), and in her most recent portrayal, on the Broadway stage in Tea and Sympathy, as the wife of a prep school coach whom she cuckolds by seducing, albeit nobly, a student troubled by sexual identity issues.
From real life to novel to screenplay. In his first-person account of the filming of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, PCA censor Jack Vizzard appears to confirm that Charles Shaw based his novel on a true-life event that occurred during World War II. In his book, See No Evil: Life Inside a Hollywood Censor, Vizzard recalls Huston describing a historical incident in which the bodies of a nun and Marine were found on a beach in an Army mop-up exercise at an otherwise uninhabited island in the Pacific. Shaw apparently used these facts as basis for his fictional tale. (Huston’s subsequent argument to Vizzard, that the film was based on a true story, proved later to be a factor in persuading censors to give the finished film its most favorable, “will offend no one,” rating.)
The rights to Shaw’s novel were purchased soon after publication in 1952 when John Wayne wanted the property as a starring vehicle. After Wayne gave up, Kirk Douglas became interested but the project stalled. In 1954 Twentieth Century Fox bought the rights for Clark Gable to star and William Wyler to direct. In this version the nun was an imposter posing as a nun only to protect herself from harm by Japanese soldiers. Despite this contrivance, PCA censors rejected the script. Another attempt, written in 1956 for director Anthony Mann, likewise failed to satisfy censors.
Huston became involved in the project in 1956. He and Mahin developed a new script — with Marlon Brando as first choice for the lead — no doubt keeping in mind that previous attempts had struck a brick wall. With Kerr already on board, Huston certainly was aware of her previous role as a nun in Black Narcissus and how that film earned a “condemned” rating by mingling sexuality with sisterhood. For whatever reasons, Huston and Mahin agreed on a story in which sexuality would be relegated to subtext. This freed the two to reimagine themes. For example, the screenplay is set in 1944, 2 years later than in the novel. This would allow the Allison character more time to have outgrown his checkered past and would give the Marine Corps more opportunities to “make a man out of him” by instilling its revered code of “Honor, Courage and Committment.”
The result, despite censorship problems or maybe even because of them, seems to be a deeper, more meaningful work than the source material. Although one reviewer characterized the writing of Shaw’s 174-page novel as “economical” and easily adaptable for the stage, Huston himself is quoted as saying that Shaw’s story was “a very bad novel which exploited all the obvious sexual implications of a Marine and a nun cast together on a South Pacific Island.”
It may be that the Huston/Mahin screenplay succeeded well because they were compelled under duress to expand their focus to matters beyond sex. Huston’s ultimate message may be that most of the drama of sexuality in any individual’s life has to do with nonphysical aspects of human interaction: affection, attraction, devotion, jealousy, passion, restraint, desire, sublimation and transformation. His film may be asking: How can we truly stand by our beliefs until they’re tested? Whether it’s love of man, love of one’s god, or confronting one’s need to fight or refrain during wartime, Huston may be exploring the nature of belief and its power.
Film critic Roger Ebert may have simplified it in his 1998 review of Six Days, Seven Nights: “If you want to see a movie that knows what to do with a man, a woman and an island, see John Huston’s ‘Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,’ in which Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr create atmosphere where [Harrison] Ford and [Anne] Heche create only weather.”
Off to a rocky start. Huston selected Tobago off the coast of Venezuela to serve as the story’s fictional island of Tuasiva located 300 miles from Fiji. Using the British West Indies allowed Huston and the studio to obtain funds and financing from Britain. Censorship issues had been resolved to the extent that filming began in August 1956. The first day of shooting, however, did not go well for the film’s lead actor.
Although Mitchum was enthusiastic about his role, he was unhappy to return so soon to Trinidad and Tobago, where he’d just finished Fire Down Below under tough conditions. He received only 3 weeks notice before having to return there to shoot Huston’s movie. Mitchum didn’t know Brando had been Huston’s first choice all along. According to the film’s cinematographer, Oswald Morris, “Brando wasn’t at all keen to do the film, a personal rebuff that John [Huston] seldom met.”
The first day on location, Mitchum didn’t show up for the first shot, the scene where he washes ashore after drifting in a life raft for several days without food or water. Crew members discovered Mitchum in his hut, angrily sulking and drunk from a bottle of vodka he had downed in the 2 hours since learning he’d been Huston’s second choice after Brando. Morris’s memoir continues:
By now it was 10:30 am, the sun was already lethal, the humidity was high, and Bob was full of vodka. Huston insisted the dinghy should float out much farther than was required — it soon became obvious that Bob was going to be made to pay the penalty for playing us all up. ‘Let’s try another take, coming in a little faster,’ Huston said. Bob obediently turned the life raft and paddled out even further. He was going through absolute hell, bobbing around like a cork in the heavy swell. By the time he was finished, there was no doubt he knew who was the guv’nor.
Huston’s harsh tactic — which occurred during the island’s hottest, most humid season — apparently worked. From that point forward he and Mitchum got along fine. The strong, sensitive performance Huston elicited from him has come to be regarded as some of Mitchum’s best work.
Because filming was monitored by a censor stationed onsite, director Huston was obliged to find subtle ways to convey meaning. Here Sister Angela presents Mr. Allison with Father Phillip’s pipe. Cinematographer Robert Surtees, a veteran of 73 films who worked with Kerr in King Solomon’s Mines, said of Kerr, “She acts with her eyes more than anyone else I’ve worked with.”
Huston sets the stage. The film begins with a view of a life raft on a sea of blue. As the credits roll, the sounds of waves are heard between chords of sonorous music (Georges Auric’s effective score). As each musical interlude grows in intensity the sound of the waves begins to resemble a drum roll. For 7-1/2 minutes not a word is spoken as the camera approaches the drifting raft several more times before getting a glimpse of what’s inside: an unconscious Marine. When he wakes up, he drags the raft ashore as the camera assumes the point of view not of the Marine, but of the raft, somehow evoking a sense of immediacy and urgency.
We follow the corporal as he scurries like an animal into the trees. He finds a lagoon, drinks from it, then swims across. He sees abandoned huts, a makeshift grave, and climbs a hillside to a small chapel. From the doorway sweeps a young nun swathed in white, startled by his presence. With boots tied around his neck and shirt unbuttoned, the Marine is at his scruffiest and hunkiest. “Let’s keep it quiet, ma’am.” The nun asks if the Americans have landed. No, it’s just him. He asks if she’s alone. “God has been with me,” she replies in Irish brogue. He slumps to the floor. Before collapsing he asks, “Are you all right?” Only then does he pass out from exhaustion.
The next day they exchange stories of their circumstances. Mr. Allison learns that Sister Angela’s companion, an old priest named Father Phillip, died shortly before Allison’s arrival. When he asks for a cigarette she brings him the pipe of Father Phillip.
Sister Angela and Mr. Allison alone together. The remainder of the film consists of intimate scenes of a developing relationship between the two. These moments are interspersed with scenes of harrowing adventure, mostly involving Allison. We are heartbroken to learn that Allison was abandoned at birth in an egg crate on a doorstep on Allison Street. Life for him has been a succession of orphanges, detention halls and jails. He tells her he’s “just a big dumb guy” and that the Marine Corps “made a man out of me.”
We see them scurry to chase a 300-pound sea turtle. We watch as the turtle yanks Allison into the water and drags him toward a dangerous reef. We see Sister Angela paddle furiously and pull him back into the raft. While feasting on their catch he explains military slang such as “scuttlebutt,” “poop” and “mackerel snappers” as she listens intently. He’s impressed when she agrees to his proposal: a perilous 300-mile journey by raft to Fiji. They discover similarities in their belief systems: “I’ve got the Corps — you’ve got the Church.” He tells her she’s pretty.
Their travel plans are aborted when enemy planes bomb the island, forcing them to retreat up the hillside to the safety of a cave. When Sister Angela trembles he comforts her: “Nothing to be ashamed of, ma’am — even a Marine gets the shakes.” Later, Allison digs a crucifix out of the rubble and presents it to her, but when the Japanese arrive they must retreat to the cave and set up housekeeping. He slips away while she’s asleep and sneaks into the enemy’s camp to find food. Trapped there, he hides until morning. When he returns she becomes agitated and makes him promise to never leave her again without telling her.
Allison whittles a comb for her and wraps it in a palm leaf with red hibiscus. He imagines her hair to be “long and blonde.” Even though she can’t use the comb because nuns wear their hair short, she accepts it saying “I will cherish it always as a keepsake.” A moment later Allison asks whether nuns can “change their mind.” She tells him she’s a novice and hasn’t taken her final vows. “You mean you could pull out?” he asks. “I could if my heart and my mind were not made up,” she tells him.
At night they hear a sea battle in the distance and discover the next day that the Japanese have left the island. As Allison and Sister Angela explore the abandoned camp they dance together while singing “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).”
A proposal of marriage. As they sit in the moonlight, Allison again sings “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree.” She expresses surprise that “a big handsome fellow like you” doesn’t have a girlfriend. She accepts his offer to pick more of “them big red flowers.” Impulsively he announces, “Ma’am, I just got to tell you. Please don’t do it. Please don’t take those final vows.” His tone deepens: “I never loved anybody before, never lived before. I want to marry you, look after you. . . .” He hangs his head and adds, “I couldn’t keep from saying it, ma’am. Tell me if there’s a chance. . . . Is there?” “No, Mr. Allison,” she replies. I’ve already given my heart to Christ our Lord.” She points to her “engagement” ring. He apologizes for “speaking out of turn” and leaves as the camera lingers on Sister Angela’s face.
The following day Sister Angela watches from across the lagoon as Mr. Allison paces the beach. He turns to her. The camera cuts to crashing surf. Later he apologizes, “I must’ve been off my rocker last night.” She walks away and the camera cuts to foaming surf.
Too much truth. Later that night Sister Angela discovers a bottle of sake left by the Japanese. Allison’s eyes brighten and he offers her some. She agrees to “just one” and becomes flushed. He becomes drunk and sings his song, this time more aggressively. “What do you wanna be a nun for? If you have to be a nun why couldn’t you be old and ugly — not with big blue eyes, a smile . . . freckles?” She tries to divert his attention but his tone turns angry as he laments they could be stranded for years, “like Adam and Eve.” She bursts into tears. He approaches her as if to console, but she pushes him away and flees, sobbing, into a torrential downpour.
The next day Allison finds Sister Angela lying unconscious in a swamp. He lifts her into his arms. At that moment he sees Japanese ships approaching so he carries her to the cave, where she develops chills, fever and delirium. He comforts her and puts his hand on her forehead. When her condition worsens, he places his life in danger by returning to the enemy camp during daylight for food and a blanket. A Japanese soldier discovers him and Allison kills him during a struggle.
Divine intervention. When Sister Angela awakens from her trauma, she notices her wet clothes have been removed and she’s wrapped in a blanket. Allison tells her, “I had to, ma’am. You’ve been 2-3 days out of your head. It’s my fault you got sick.” She replies, “I wasn’t running from you, I was running from the truth. There’s a lot of truth in what you said.” She pauses and adds, “Dear Mr. Allison, we’re living from hour to hour.”
After the Japanese discover one of their troops has been murdered they search the hillside shouting, “Hey Joe — come out with hands up.” Explosions are heard — not a Japanese grenade but bombs from American planes. Allison rejoices by singing his song and dancing his jig. As the bombing continues, Allison tells Sister Angela he’s had a divine revelation: a plan to disarm the enemy’s howitzers. She assures him, “If it’s God saying it and not yourself, then He’ll protect you.” Allison slithers through the darkness and disarms the cannons but gets hit by schrapnel. When Sister Angela sees his silhouette in a cloud of smoke, he announces, “Mission accomplished — I ain’t killed or nothin.’” She notices his bleeding and helps him to the ground.
“Marriage” vows. Before Sister Angela removes Allison’s shirt to tend to his wounds, a smile darts across her face as if to say she accepts, or at least acknowledges, the physicality and depth of their respective feelings. He says he has something to say and she looks into his eyes as he determinedly recites, “Ma’am, we’ll be coming to the end of our time together. It won’t ever be just the two of us again, maybe, so I’d like to say this now.” She listens intently as he continues, “I’m very pleased to have met you. It’s been a privilege to know you.” He falters: “I wish you ev- . . . every happiness.” In a voice that’s softer . . . breathier, he says, “Goodbye.” She answers, “Goodbye, Mr. Allison. No matter how many miles apart we are, or whether I ever get to see your face again, you’ll be my dear companion always. . . . Always. . . .”
In the early morning light we see an American flag being raised. Sister Angela walks beside Mr. Allison as fellow Marines carry him on a stretcher down the charred hillside. Members of the landing party turn to watch as Sister Angela holds a cigarette to Allison’s mouth. Knestled in her other arm is the scorched crucifix. As Sister Angela drops back to follow the stretcher we see she’s carrying the comb Allison made for her. She smiles proudly as they cross the footbridge over the lagoon. Several Marines bathing in the lagoon below look up to watch the 2 survivors as they continue toward their rescue boat. A crescendo of music begins as the end title appears. It reads: “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.”
Notes from the author. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is one of my favorite films, certainly one of my favorite romantic films. Although I can’t say it’s better than Huston’s other World War II romance The African Queen, I believe the story of Mr. Allison and Sister Angela is a better romance than that of Charlie and Rosie. This may be because I prefer the chemistry of Mitchum and Kerr over Bogart and Hepburn. I think the Bogart/Hepburn film has enjoyed more success not just because its stars were “bigger” in Hollywood terms but also because their roles in that film were more protagonistic in nature. They had a mission — to get their boat down the river so they could destroy the German gunboat. Their romance sort of happened along the way.
In contrast, Mr. Allison and Sister Angela weren’t focused on an overriding goal other than their survival. They were bystanders to the war more than protagonists, and the action between them was more internal (emotional) than external (physical).
I believe that some film goers and critics in 1957 may have misunderstood Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. For example, Bosley Crowther’s review states, “It is inevitable that, at one point, the Marine should think it love. This crux of the personal drama is treated with tenderness and tact.” These words suggest to me that either a) Crowther didn’t think Sister Angela loved Allison back, or b) neither Allison nor Sister Angela was really in love. Either choice seems to be missing the point. To me, one of the key lines of the film is uttered by Sister Angela after she has recovered from her delirium: “Dear Mr. Allison, we’re living from hour to hour.” This suggests to me that she really does love Mr. Allison. She seems to telling him that, if they end up staying on the island for any length of time, she may very well change her mind and enter into a husband/wife relationship with him.
But you see, I personally don’t care how the film ends in that regard. For me that’s soap opera stuff and not the real point. What’s more important is that, by knowing Mr. Allison she became a whole person and, in the process, learned she could love another human being. Armed with this realization she could be more confident in her decision to take her final vows. And for the rest of her days she would have — in her mind, heart, body and soul — an entirely human love that would never cease to exist.
John Huston didn’t say or write much about this film, probably because of the ongoing difficulties he had with the censors. He has been quoted, however, as saying this film is “one of the best things I ever made.”
After this film was completed, Mitchum and Kerr went on to star together in 3 more: The Grass Is Greener (1960), The Sundowners (1960), and the TV movie Reunion at Fairborough (1985). Although “Sundowners” is a better film than the others, the plot of “Fairborough” indulges sentiments that are rooted in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison.
While researching this article I came across a number of entertaining anecdotes surrounding the making of the film. The one that touched me the most is quite simple and involves the personal relationship between Kerr and Mitchum. In Lee Server’s biography of Mitchum, “Baby, I Don’t Care,” Server writes of Mitchum and Kerr: “The two had remained, in that show business extended family way, warm but not close friends through the years. Deborah occasionally penned a note to him, always addressing it, “Dear Mr. Allison. . . .”
And so it was until Mitchum passed away in 1997, just as Sister Angela had said to Mr. Allison 40 years earlier: “No matter how many miles apart we are, or whether I ever get to see your face again, you’ll be my dear companion always. . . . Always. . . .”
Critical and popular reception. Upon the film’s release, reviews were generally favorable with some dissension. New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther wrote, “In the hands of a writer and director less skilled than Mr. Huston, . . . this obviously delicate story might have been pretty badly abused. At least, in its hints of budding romance, it might have been quite embarrassing. But Mr. Huston has kept it free of nonsense.” The Hollywood Reporter admired the “chaste approach” the film took to “a subject that has been taboo, the possibility of romantic love for a man.” Film Daily saw the film as an edifying and spiritual story “of moral strength of character played against the uncertainties of war.”
Yet other reviews were not so respectful. Time dismissed the film as “one more theological striptease,” citing Kerr’s earlier performance in Black Narcissus. Monthly Film Bulletin was uncomfortable with the film’s “near-blasphemous contrivance.”
A Variety reporter remarked there were potentially 2 audiences for this film, one secular and the other Catholic. The first might be drawn to the erotic “implications inherent in throwing the Marine together with the nun on a lonely and dangerous island.” The second, he assumed, would find pleasure in the nun’s goodness, in her “steadfast rejection of the Marine’s advances and in the glowing description of her firm faith.”
Box office. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was successful at theaters but was not a top hit. With a budget of $3.0 million, its domestic rentals in 1957 were $4.2 million. In comparison, the top grossing film that year was The Bridge on the River Kwai ($25.3 million). The American public apparently had a stronger taste for melodrama (Peyton Place, $16.1 million).
Awards. Best Film: Nominated for BAFTA Award — Best Director: Nominated for Directors Guild Award — Best Screenplay:Nominated for Writers Guild of America Award and for Oscar — Best Foreign Actor: Nominated for BAFTA Award — Best Actress: Won New York Film Critics Award; nominated for Oscar and Golden Globe Award.
Kerr received the Photoplay magazine Gold Medal Award for Most Popular Actress (based on Gallup polling and reader voting). According to Inside Oscar by Mason Wiley and Damien Bona, Barbara Stanwyck lobbied for Deborah Kerr to win the Oscar. (Joanne Woodward won.)
Online critic and user ratings. Turner Classic Movies User Rating: 4.5/5 — Internet Movie Data Base User Rating: 7.4/10 — Rotten Tomatoes Critic Tomatometer Rating: 88% — Rotten Tomatoes Audience Rating: 82%.
For additional reference:
Marriage proposal/storm scene:
Original 1957 trailer:
Bosley Crowther’s New York Times review dated March 15, 1957:
Review of Charles Shaw’s novel, The Flesh and the Spirit