John Huston begins Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957) with an ocean, an island, a raft, a man, and no dialogue. For seven and a half brilliant minutes, not a single word is spoken as the camera approaches the same drifting raft at least five times before finally getting a glimpse of what is inside: an unconscious marine. This is Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), and he has not seen land for days. When he wakes up, he walks on shore and drags the raft behind him--as the camera takes the point of view not of Allison, but of the raft. Then we follow Allison as he plunges into the forest and crawls agonizingly on piles of sharp, unseen debris scattered around on the sand. He reaches a lagoon, drinks from it, then swims across it to a small cottage on the other side. Out of the doorway sweeps Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr), startled by his presence. Allison has the first line of the picture: "Let's keep it quiet, ma'am." He asks her if she speaks English. She does. She asks him if the Americans have landed. No, it's just him. He asks her if she's alone. "God has been with me," she replies.
They walk into the cottage for some shade, talk some more, and then Allison, exhausted, slides down the wall. "Excuse me, ma'am, I'm real beat," he explains. He entered the picture exhausted, and now he's exhausted again. For Allison is a marine, and as we will learn throughout the course of the picture, he can only do so much--for his country, for a woman--before tiring. "Now, you look at me, ma'am," he tells her in a scene later on, "what do you see besides a big, dumb guy? I'll tell you: a marine, that's what I am. All through me, a marine--just like you're a nun. You got your cross, I got my globe and anchor." Yes, but he's not a marine incapable of losing his strength.
They both came to the island, called Tuasiva, under horrible circumstances that Huston wisely decides not to dramatize for the picture. Allison was the survivor of an attack launched on his submarine by the Japanese and, we figure, the only survivor of his crew. Sister Angela landed on the island four days ago with one "Father Phillips", a very old man who was in his 70's. They were supposed to rendezvous with another colleague from their church and set off for Fiji, but then the Japanese scared their colleague off--and then Father Phillips died. Of exhaustion, perhaps.
The narrative of a man and a woman banding together in the middle of wartime is a concept that Huston had, of course, already used in The African Queen (1951), and the similarities between the two pictures are impossible not to notice--from Allison's drunken tirade inquiring why Sister Angela ever became a nun (recalling Charlie Allnut's "skinny old maid" speech), to the heroes being saved from destruction by another form of destruction, as when a bomb dropped by the U.S. Navy intervenes just before the Japanese can threaten Allison and Sister Angela with a grenade (recalling the African Queen torpedoing the Louisa before Charlie and Rose can be executed). Or the symbolism of fire and water in the two films: fire eliminates Rose's village and Sister Angela's cottage (and the getaway raft to Fiji), while water transports Charlie and Rose to their destination in one piece and safely washes Allison onto the shores of Tuasiva.
These similarities and more are all covered in Professor Lesley Brill's John Huston's Filmmaking (1997), an invaluable piece of literature for those seeking out auterism in Huston's work. Brill writes that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison "brings to the dramatic situation of two people isolated in a world at war slightly less fantastic assumptions and more realism... generically, Allison has less of romance and more of irony than The African Queen. Mythologically, the consequences of the Fall are more present in Allison than they are in the earlier film. The civilizations that exist elsewhere and that periodically impinge upon the protagonists' solitude in both films have more power to affect the lives of the central figure in the later one. Sister Angela and Mr. Allison are less able than Rose and Charlie to recreate themselves in a latter-day Garden of Eden, to escape the effects of history and of the world beyond the jungle, or to achieve a personal, private salvation."
Less than a decade later, Huston would literally dramatize the Garden of Eden in his The Bible... In the Beginning (1966); but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is decidedly a much more clearly defined Hustonian version of the Adam and Eve story: Huston doesn't look at it from an exaggerated perspective, as he did with The Bible, or as he did with the more damning, atheistic perspectives on display in later works like Wise Blood and The Dead. Consequently, Brill argues in his book that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is the most sympathetic of Huston's films to regard Christianity--not just in how it respects Sister Angela's beliefs more than it does champion Allison's nonchalant attitude towards religion (despite his claim that "anyone with any sense believes in God"), but in the ways Huston looks upon the complicated romance between Allison and Sister Angela. It's a matured perspective of the ways the real Allison and Sister Angela might have behaved. There is no sex, no amorous signs of affection--not even a kiss between them. This is Huston's idea of what Adam and Eve could have done right.
Allison and Sister Angela are two different people, and they have wildly different perceptions of things like nature and war. Looking around for food on the island, Sister Angela spots an enormous shell relaxed on the ocean's waves, and happily beams, "Look at the turtle, Mr. Allison! Sunning himself!" Allison sees not a creature of God but a bare necessity: "We're gonna catch that turtle, ma'am!" A Japanese spy plane (a "meatball") soars over the island and Sister Angela's first intuition is to run, while Allison immediately pulls her down to the ground and covers her from sight with palm fronds; her white dress is so attractive to enemy eyes that Allison will have to keep her out of plain sight, "even at night--if there's a moon." And when Japanese troops invade the island, forcing them to retreat to a hidden cave, Sister Angela decides that the most peaceful option would be for her to turn herself over; Allison begs her to reconsider "for the sake of my morale."
Huston, cinema's greatest adapter of literature, wrote the screenplay with John Lee Mahin from the book by Charles Shaw (described by Huston as "a very bad novel which exploited all the obvious sexual implications of a marine and a nun cast together on a South Pacific island"), and covers the film's production in a mere four pages in his autobiography. He tells the familiar story about the dangerous stunt Robert Mitchum had to perform in crawling along the sharp debris along the island's sand--a stunt that left Mitchum bleeding from the neck down. He tells a lesser-known story about Deborah Kerr reportedly having nightmares for years and years over the sequence in which she had to lay down in the swamp at night, during the sequence in which she flees from Allison in the middle of his drunken tirade. Huston also writes in great detail about the film's difficult finale, in which Tuasiva is ravaged by explosive warfare delivered from both sides: one explosion was so hazardous that it came very close to harming him and his crew.
One of the most delightful aspects of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is how well it plays as a two-character drama. Even more so than The African Queen, this is a film where there are only two principal characters; indeed, with the exception of some occasional lines from the American navy soldiers who occupy the final scenes, Allison and Sister Angela have all of the (discernible) lines of dialogue in the screenplay. The Japanese soldiers do much of their own talking, but Huston avoids subtitles and keeps their dialogue in untranslated foreign language.
What's great about the portrayal of the Japanese in this film is that these are not the kind of stereotyped bad guys that, say, Bogie mows down with a machine-gun turret at the end of Huston's early studio picture, Across the Pacific (1942), but disciplined soldiers who are only playing their part in the war. Huston milks tremendous suspense out of a sequence in which Allison sneaks into the Japanese compound and has to hide in food shelves overnight when soldiers nearby begin playing a game of draughts; the soldiers themselves are human, enjoying their moment of free time while Allison waits for them to leave (a curious rodent almost spoils his hideout). And there is some tragedy to a scene in which Allison is forced to stab a Japanese soldier who spots him fleeing from a food tent, but, then again, they are trained soldiers with the objective of having to kill one other--and this is war. At the same time, there is some comedy to the fact that this enemy soldier is in Karate gear when he spots Allison and attempts to slice down his foe with his fighting tools (and in a sly Hustonian touch, Allison disposes of the body in the ocean, only for the waters to expose this secret to the enemy a short time later--a plot point recycled from Key Largo).
That water is both a benevolent and betraying force in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a testament to Huston's complex study of this natural element as a plot device. Brill argues throughout his book that water is a principal element in Huston's filmography, and talks most in-depth about how it is employed around the scene in which Allison proposes marriage to Sister Angela. After this scene, Huston bookends each of the following scenes with images of waves crashing along the island's shores. Brill suspects that Huston got the inspiration for this imagery from the prose in Chandler's The Big Sleep describing how "the surf curled and creamed, almost without sound, like a thought trying to form itself on the edge of consciousness." In other words, the changing tides of the waters surrounding Tuasiva reflect how Allison and Sister Angela's emotions surrounding Allison's marriage proposal are constantly changing.
The marriage proposal scene itself is an interesting one. The Japanese have left the island--permanently, it seems--and Allison and Sister Angela are free to be alone again after an evening of witnessing a series of sky bombings equivalent to "a Joe Louis fight". Sitting together the next day, Allison celebrates by singing "Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)", and Sister Angela listens carefully to the song's lyrics. "Ah, this terrible war," she mutters, "taking young men away from their sweethearts." She tells him that he should have a wife and family. Then, after hesitating, Allison asks Sister Angela to be his wife. She tries, politely, to decline the offer, as she is technically already married to Christ. As of now she wears a silver ring, and once she has taken her final vows, she'll wear a gold one. Embarrassed, Allison tries to get her to forget he ever asked such a silly question... but the raging waters around the island suggest that his irritation with her refusal can only get worse, and that she can only get more uneasy over his concealed, but no less apparent, frustration.
Allison's impatience finally pops during the scene in which he gets drunk on a bottle of burning sake (which, as Brill cleverly notes in his book, lies uncertainly somewhere between Huston's contrasting symbolism of water and fire displayed throughout the film), and then complains to Sister Angela about her unnatural beauty. Why did she have to be a nun? Nuns shouldn't beautiful. He sings the apple tree song again, but this time out of drunken spite: he's angry at Christ for taking his sweetheart away from him. "We don't belong to nothing beyond this island!" he cries. "All we got is each other--like Adam and Eve. Like we was the first two people on Earth, and this is the Garden of Eden!" Sister Angela bursts into tears and flees out into the rainy wilderness, and Allison has to recover her quivering body the next morning when the Japanese return (Brill, himself a Hitchcock scholar, suggests that Allison's eloquent rescuing of Sister Angela may have inspired the sequence in Vertigo, released the next year, in which Stewart saves Novak from drowning in the San Francisco Bay). When she wakes up, Sister Angela, impressed with Allison's valiance, hints that "perhaps God doesn't intend me to take my final vows". Well, does he?
Huston believed that Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison was "one of the best things I ever made." He continued that "the picture-maker's life is subdivided into many lives. When one of those lives has been a joyous experience, as Mr. Allison was, I hate to see it end. Nor do I like to say goodbye... in the case of this picture, I lined up the last shot and left before the take." So, for that matter, do Corporal Allison and Sister Angela part company before reaching any sort of amorous climax. Unlike Huston, they wish each other goodbye--although the intrusion of the U.S. Navy will interfere with any romance they could have had together. But they will exit the picture together, and Sister Angela will follow closely behind the navy soldiers carrying Allison across the miniature bridge and off the island. She will not be his wife. But like a guardian angel, she will hold up her cross, and she will make sure that he is transported to sanctuary while he recovers from their past days of hard work, exhausted. Or, as Allison himself might put it, "beat."