The other day I watched “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957), a wondrously windswept, sand-in-your-eyes, nun-luvin’ movie set in the World World II South Pacific and starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. Now I'm not one for wartime flicks. It's never been a genre of film I gravitate to, but speaking plainly – this film was a joy, even with deaths, bombing, and drunkenness. Here's why.
Let's meet the players. Robert Mitchum is Mr. Allison, a gruff U.S. Marine Corporal who floats ashore in a raft onto a remote tropical island after surviving a tumultuous reconnaissance mission against the Japanese. Deborah Kerr is Sister Angela, a novice Roman Catholic nun with an Irish accent who has been on the island for just four days. Her “wartime travel partner” of sorts, an old priest named Father Philip whom she had accompanied to the island to evacuate a clergyman (only the Japanese got there first), died shortly before Mr. Allison’s arrival.
Both Mr. Allison and Sister Angela have come to this now-deserted island under harsh wartime circumstances, and out of necessity they become friends. They forage for food together. There are bananas in the trees, then a giant sea turtle in the ocean. The sea turtle scene is particularly entertaining as you see these two (Mr. Gruff Puppy and Proper Sister Ange) paddling out into foamy blue waters only to discover that this giant sea turtle is not “going down” without a fight. Truth be told, all I kept thinking was – “I hope no sea turtles were killed or harmed during the making of this film!”
Anyway, there went Mr. Allison! He is yanked off the raft by his makeshift fishing net, which is helmed by this feisty prehistoric reptile whose small head is bobbing up and down in the water as he tries not to become turtle soup. (Alas, fast-forward to this turtle being served up barbecue-style on the beach.) And that's one of the things most endearing about this movie – its humor. There is a lightheartedness to “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” which belies its serious wartime setting.
“Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” is one of those great old-timey movies that you can get lost in – it deftly balances atmosphere, plot, and character like complex ingredients in a tasty bowl of hot and sour shrimp soup (hailing from the South Pacific itself). Never did I think I would see the oft-described “lovely and reserved” English actress Deborah Kerr say “poop” on-screen (let alone while wearing a white nun’s outfit).
And there’s more. She drinks sake (Japanese rice wine). She also gleefully dances with Robert Mitchum after the Japanese have come and gone again (while these two hid out safely in a nearby cave). The song? “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me).” Aw, we're talkin' cute.
There’s also romance, sweet romance. Mr. Allison starts falling in love with Sister Angela, and he whittles a wooden comb for her hair. He wraps it in a big banana leaf, and places a gorgeous red hibiscus flower on top. Sister Angela is touched, and it’s clear that “something” is happening between these two.
Earlier in the film, Mr. Allison, who is portrayed as being the ultimate “simple” guy who comes from the wrong side of the tracks and was orphaned as a child before finally gaining balance and success in the Marines as an adult, says something surprisingly insightful to Sister Angela. He confesses that the Marines were “his church.” It’s what saved him, and what makes him feel most secure and of use.
These two are not all that different in their sincere devotion to an important cause. Theirs becomes a love story that explores “the flesh and the spirit,” but the spirit most certainly wins out. (Sorry, diehard romance fans, hoping for a salaciously taboo love scene involving a nun.)
Still, it’s a pleasant, special journey to take with these two wonderfully cast actors. Robert Mitchum plays in this film what some critics call “the oaf” character extremely well, and so much so that my heart melts when Mr. Allison confesses his love to Sister Angela – “I never loved anybody before, never lived before. I want to marry you, look after you…” This comes after he learns that Sister Angela has not taken her final vows yet, and can still leave the sisterhood behind without eternal damnation. My heart melts again when she delicately rejects him.
At the film’s finale, however, all is not lost between them. After a few tense days of hiding from the Japanese, and Mr. Allison getting drunk on sake, then Sister Angela running away from him and getting sick in the rain when she realizes her confused feelings for Mr. Allison, the church, and the solitude on the island, these two are finally saved.
In a flash of bombs, and smoke, and confusion, the Allies rescue Mr. Allison and Sister Angela, with Sister Angela saying – “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…” Deborah Kerr plays it beautifully. It’s subtle, yet passionate. She captures the essence of this nun, delivering her to the audience with both sturdiness and sweetness. Her big blue eyes, beautiful smile, and freckles that Mr. Allison liked so much also shine through here. Sure, these two never even kiss, and you wish that they did, but it’s still touching.
Then, in keeping with the lighthearted tone of the film, when Mr. Allison is carried away injured on a stretcher and Sister Angela is kindly holding a cigarette up to his mouth to allow for a few puffs (gotta love the ubiquitous nicotine haze of our grandparents’ generation), I couldn’t help but think – “Post-coital smoke?” I am bad. Who would think reserved, polite little old me would say “post-coital?” Well, these two likeable characters keep you naughtily imagining and wishing for more. “Deborah Kerr, you were one rockin’ actress.”
This post is dedicated to Deborah Kerr’s September 30th birthday, and her good pal and frequent co-star Robert Mitchum.