I don’t know about anyone else out there, but I really love watching films focusing on two very different characters who get thrown together by chance. I love watching such characters work to overcome their differences, and in the process of doing so slowly begin to like and trust one another.
The most famous example of this type of film has to be John Huston’s The African Queen (1951). I like that film quite a bit, but despite my fondness for it, the film has never been able to claim the place in my heart which is held by Huston’s later film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. I find that I care far more about Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum’s characters, than I have ever cared about Bogie and Hepburn’s characters in The African Queen.
I also like Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison more because I think that it is the more serious and touching film of the two. The film is part war film and part romantic drama. The film also features a good mix of action, suspense, drama and comedy.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is based upon the 1952 novel of the same name by Charles Shaw. John Huston co-wrote the screenplay for this film with John Lee Mahin. The film was shot on location on the islands of Trinidad and Tobago.
The film is set in the Pacific during WW2. The story begins with an American Marine, Corporal Allison(Robert Mitchum)floating on the ocean in a life raft. He has become separated from his comrades during a naval battle. The corporal’s raft washes up on the beach of a remote island in the South Pacific.
The first meeting between the Marine and the Nun. Screenshot by me.
While he is walking around exploring the island, he comes across a small building and he is astonished to discover that it is occupied by a Catholic nun called Sister Angela(Deborah Kerr). Only after he has been assured that she is well and in no danger, does the corporal lie down and take a well deserved sleep. What a gent he is! 🙂
Sister Angela is alone on the island, she has only been living there for a few days herself. She has been alone since the death of the priest she was working with a few days earlier. The pair had been taken to the island by some natives to help evacuate another priest who lived on the island.
When Sister Angela and the priest had arrived on the island, they soon discovered that the other priest had already been removed by Japanese forces, and then they were stranded there when the natives who brought them over got frightened and abandoned them.
Sister Angela and Corporal Allison are hesitant of one another at first, but as they spend more time together they begin to start liking each other very much.
The Corporal’s feelings deepen into romantic love and he tells Sister Angela that he wants to marry her, so that he can take care of her forever.
We can see that the pair like one another very much, but Sister Angela, in a firm but very gentle way, makes it quite clear to Corporal Allison that she has devoted herself to serving God and that she will never marry or have physical relations.
Corporal Allison struggles to get his head around her decision to never allow herself romantic love. This leads him to deliver this funny and touching outburst: “If ya gotta be a nun, why ain’t ya old and ugly? Why do ya gotta have big blue eyes, a beautiful smile and freckles?”
I find Corporal Allison’s outburst to be very moving because we have seen him pluck up the courage to express his feelings to her, and he feels hurt and embarrassed that he has opened himself up like that only to be rejected. She is kind to him afterwards and they both try not to let things get awkward after that declaration of love and longing.
Things are further complicated when Japanese forces land on the island. The Corporal must try and protect the two of them from the Japanese soldiers who are moving around the island.
Later in the film the Corporal must do all he can to save the life of Sister Angela when she becomes seriously ill with a fever.
As the film goes on Sister Angela slowly begins to leave her rather naive belief that all humans are good far behind her. Sister Angela begins to understand and accept the darker and harsher realities of life. She may not approve of Corporal Allison killing people, but she understands that his actions are necessary for their survival.
With the Pacific war going on around her, Sister Angela is also becoming more aware of the evil acts that humans are capable of. She never loses her belief and hope that people can change their ways and become more decent, the time she spends with Corporal Allison proves to her that people are capable of changing for the better.
Corporal Allison in turn tries to alter his behaviour and manners so that he doesn’t offend or upset Sister Angela. He starts out as a very gruff and blunt man, yet as the film goes on he becomes a much gentler and thoughtful man. Through spending time with Sister Angela he also begins to see that not all human beings are cruel and out for whatever they can get.
By the end of the film Corporal Allison has become a very different person than the one we saw at the beginning. He may well not be able to give up his life in the corp(which is all he has ever known), but I have a strong suspicion that he will be a very different person with a very different outlook on life when he returns home.
Sister Angela and Corporal Allison can go back into society at the end of the film, with each of them having acquired a far better understanding of the human condition than they had before they encountered one another.
Interestingly the film also shows us that Corporal Allison and Sister Angela are both similarly devoted to the institutions they each belong to (Sister Angela to the Catholic Church, and Corporal Allison to the United States Marine Corps), and that both of these institutions are somewhat similar, both in terms of their rituals and traditions, and also because of how people involved with both institutions devote themselves to living that way of life.
The performance of Deborah in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is amazing. She totally convinces as Sister Angela. She radiates decency and warmth.
Deborah also has an innocence and sweetness about her in this which I think perfectly contrasts with the rugged, world-weary personality of Robert’s stranded Marine.
Deborah is particularly excellent in the scene where the island is being bombed and Sister Angela is very frightened by the loud noises. She also totally convinces us that her character is seriously ill during the fever sequences.
Robert Mitchum is equally as good as the worldly Marine. His performance here has all the toughness and don’t mess with me attitude present in so many of his Noir films, yet Robert is also at his most vulnerable here.
Robert’s performance lets you see how much the Corporal is struggling with his feelings for Sister Angela and struggling with himself as to whether he should bring his feelings out into the open. It’s one of my favourite performances from Robert. This film is said to have been his own personal favourite from his own work.
Deborah and Robert would become good friends after working on this film. Robert had initially thought that Deborah would be very prim and proper like many of her screen characters had been. His assumptions were happily proven wrong after she swore at director John Huston during a take, this caused Robert to collapse laughing and after that the pair got on just fine. 🙂
Deborah and Robert would go on to star alongside each other in The Sundowners, The Grass Is Greener and Reunion At Fairborough(TV film). Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr are in my top five acting screen teams. I like them together so much because they always manage to convince us of the emotional bonds developing between their characters in their four films.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a lovely and moving film.I highly recommend it, not only to fans of Deborah and Robert, but to anyone who appreciates a well told story with a strong focus on the characters and actors.
My favourite scenes are the following. The corporal’s confession about his feelings for Sister Angela. The scenes where he is nursing her when she has the fever. The scene where he comforts her in the cave during the bombing. Sister Angela watching Corporal Allison standing on the beach looking out to sea. Where he tells her it has been a privilege to know her, and she says he will always be her dear companion. The scene where he sings Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree and they dance on the beach. The scene where he is drunk.
As well as the great acting to enjoy, there are also some lovely locations to look at and there is a good score by Georges Auric to enjoy.
Any other fans of this one? What are your thoughts on Deborah’s performance in this one?