HAWAII, the Alaska-sized #1 hit from 1966, took on one part of James A. Michener’s blockbuster 1959 novel. Published the year Hawaii became a state, the third chapter “From the Farm of Bitterness” makes up 280 of the book’s 1,045 pages. The rights to the book were bought before it was published, for a then-record $600,000. That was based on the track record of movies made from earlier Michener work: Return To Paradise, The Bridges At Toko-Ri, Sayonara and South Pacific. Seven years later, an arduous shoot on locations in Oahu, Tahiti, Massachusetts and Norway brought the $14,000,000 visualization clocking in at 189 minutes. That “roadshow” version was then trimmed to 161 for general release: the longer edition is best. George Roy Hill directed a screenplay begun Daniel Taradash, finished by Dalton Trumbo. *
“When Captain Cook discovered these islands 50 years ago, they were a true paradise. Infectious disease was unknown. They didn’t even catch cold! And there were 400,000 of them – now there are less than 150,000. You and I may well live to see the last Hawaiian lowered into his grave – with proper Christian services, of course.”
Woefully unprepared except for their ardent faith, Christian missionaries come to “pagan” Hawaii in the 1820s, hell-bent to win the “heathen” over to Jesus. The most pious thumper is ‘Abner Hale’ (Max Von Sydow), who’s sincere but severe, an Old Testament God-fearer—and fear dispenser—whereas his newly-wed wife ‘Jerusha’ (Julie Andrews) wins converts through her gentleness and tact. Over the years, the Hale’s earn the trust of ‘Malama Kanakoa’ (Jocelyn LeGarde) the sacred and beloved matriarch ‘Aliʻi Nui’, a fictionalized embodiment of Queen Ka’ahumanu (1772-1832). They and their hosts endure plague, gales, riots and childbirth (Andrews excruciating delivery scene makes the other troubles look trifling). Further complications come from Jerusha’s former suitor, rowdy whaling captain ‘Rafer Hoxworth’ (Richard Harris), a lusty rascal at odds with the inflexible Abner on an subatomic level.
Even with focusing on just one part of the book’s saga, and pruning a good deal out of that to make it fit a 3-hour telling, the last part of the script rushes years and incident to get to a suitable conclusion. Like the same year’s The Sand Pebbles, the plot and theme served a challenge to the colonial mindset and its resultant effect on those at the receiving end: it’s not the most flattering advertisement for evangelism. Though Abner’s a “good man”, his dogmatic blindness causes a tremendous amount of pain to those “sinners God loves”. Von Sydow’s marvelous performance makes the unpalatable man pitiable, and a bracing counter to his loving Christ from The Greatest Story Ever Told. Flush from joyful mega hits Mary Poppins and The Sound Of Music, Andrews is similarly superb here: her startling work in this (and the little-seen The Americanization of Emily) make you wish she’d shelved her subsequent trio of bloated musicals that effectively sideswiped critical and public opinion. Harris is very good, strong but not yet hammy, though his offscreen behavior during the shoot created nearly as much havoc as the attack on Pearl Harbor: a little self-impressed drunken raging goes a long way, mate.
Tahitian amateur LeGarde is powerful and endearing, and there are numerous emotionally wrenching moments throughout, as well the expected ‘big stuff’ like storms, fires and fights. The scenery is, well, Hawaii, so that aspect is grand, and Elmer Bernstein gives the beauty, danger, loss and hope a stirring music score.
Academy Award nominations went up for Supporting Actress (LeGarde, her first and only acting role), Cinematography, Music Score, Costume Design, Sound, Visual Effects and Song (“My Wishing Doll”). Box office receipts said aloha to $38,900,000.
With fine support from Manu Tupou (‘Keoki’), Ted Nobriga (as ‘Kelolo’), Gene Hackman, Elizabeth Logue, Torin Thatcher, Lokelani S. Chicarell, John Cullum, George Rose, Lou Antonio, Michael Constantine, Malcolm Atterbury, Heather Menzies. Blink and you’ll miss 19-year-old Bette Midler, making her debut as a lineless extra.
* Hawaii led a slew of class-act ’66 epics: The Bible, The Sand Pebbles, Grand Prix, The Blue Max, Khartoum, Is Paris Burning? For good measure add A Man For All Seasons, Cast A Giant Shadow and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
The 1970 sequel, with Charlton Heston playing the grandson of Harris’ character, covered the book’s 4th chapter, ‘From The Starving Village”, but it didn’t fare nearly as well.
An ironic commentary on how the 50th state had changed since the time-setting of the story comes through a sampling of ‘authentic’ props rounded up for the production. Pili leaves no longer exist in Hawaii, so thatch came from Japan. The Philippines gave up rooster feathers for costuming, royal cloaks were provided from Hong Kong. Ireland yielded woven tapa cloth, Mexico straw mats, adorning bracelets and necklaces arrived from India, silk via Taiwan. Statues of Tiki gods, drums and weapons were crafted in California. Two dozen outrigger canoes were restored, as well as a pair of Danish-built sailing ships, the 1936 brigantine ‘Grethe’ (later known as ‘Romance’) and the 1921 barque/whaler ‘Wandia’, rebuilt from the hull up as the ‘Carthaginian’.