Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

It’s a strange thing, but I’ve noticed I invariably end up watching one actor again and again—often unwittingly. I saw Deborah Kerr in Vacation from Marriage a couple of weeks back; last week, I saw her in The Prisoner of Zenda, and then today, in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. This is a film I hadn’t heard of till a few days back, and now I can think of few films that I’ve loved more. It’s superb.

It’s 1944, somewhere in the South Pacific. Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), of the United States Marine Corps, is drifting along in a rubber raft after the submarine he was on came under attack while he and his colleagues were transferring to rafts for an assault. Allison is all alone when he washes up on a small island. He wanders around, getting his bearings…

Allison sets out to explore the island

…and comes face to face with the island’s sole human inhabitant, Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr).

Sister Angela sweeps the church porch

She tells him she used to work at a mission on an island, but the threat of a Japanese invasion made everybody leave for Fiji. Sister Angela however came with the elderly Father Phillips to this tiny island to help the resident priest. They arrived four days earlier, only to discover that everybody had already fled—and Father Phillips, old and frail as he was, died.

Allison and Sister Angela

Allison realises there’s little hope of anybody coming to their rescue on this godforsaken isle, so he decides to risk all on sailing his raft 300 miles to Fiji. Sister Angela, aware that they’ve nothing to lose, agrees. They set about rigging up the raft—he starts crafting a rudder, she thatches together a sail.

Making the raft ready for sailing

But fate has other things in store for them. The Japs arrive, and Allison just about manages to get both of them into the safety of an underground cave he’d discovered earlier.

Allison and Angela retreat to the cave

He tells her he’s no good; an orphan who’s spent much of his life in correction homes or jail. But to Sister Angela, he’s a good man. He carves her a comb (little realising that her hair under her wimple is cropped short), looks after her, gives her a hibiscus flower. And when she can’t bring herself to eat the raw fish he’s caught, he even sneaks into the Japanese camp to steal food for her, although he has an encounter I personally wouldn’t care for:

Allison and the rat

There’s a respectfulness through it all; he calls her Ma’am; to her, he’s Mr Allison. But there’s a depth to their relationship too, a result of their shared experiences and the fact that both are devoted to their vocations, and though diametrically opposite, share a basic humanity that endears them to each other. When Sister Angela tells him she’s a novice and yet to take her final vows, Allison summons up the courage to confess his love for her, and asks her to marry him.

Allison proposes to Sister Angela

She refuses—and Allison tries to convince both of them (unsuccessfully) that marriage to a Marine would anyway be a bad idea. Meanwhile, the Japs have left, and in such a hurry that some of their stores, including a large bottle of very potent sake, are still around.

Allison hits the saki

Allison consumes most of the bottle, and ends up telling Sister Angela that the island’s a bit like the garden of Eden, with just the two of them—Adam and Eve—around. Not much point her being a nun, is his view. She’s so shaken up by what he says, she runs out into the rain and spends the night outside, catching a bad chill and fever in the bargain.

Allison looks after the ill Angela

Allison, remorseful, carries her back into the cave the next morning. She’s wet and delirious and muddy, and Allison realises he’ll have to care for her if she has to survive… and the Japs are back too.

What happens? Do they outwit the Japs? Do the Marines come and rescue them? And, most important, does Sister Angela decide she’d rather be a wife than a nun?

What I liked about this film:
The chemistry between Mitchum and Kerr. It’s superb—and a good example of how a very platonic relationship can be deep romance too. There’s not even a single kiss in the film, mind you, but you can feel the love between Allison and Angela. Both Kerr (who got an Oscar nomination for the role) and Mitchum (who should’ve got a nomination too!) are excellent.
John Huston did a magnificent job with what is basically a very simple story—no complex plot and no truckloads of characters (unless you count dozens of Japanese soldiers or Marines). Just the tale of a Marine and a nun who find friendship and more in an unlikely time and place. Unforgettable.
And yes, the seascapes. Lovely.

Sister Angela looks out to sea - and Allison

What I didn’t like:
No, I’m not going to say this. If you’re an out-and-out romantic like me, you’ll probably guess what it is when you see the film. But till then, my lips are sealed.

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4 thoughts on “Heaven Knows, Mr Allison (1957)

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