Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Directed by John Huston

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In Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison a marine and a nun find themselves stranded on an island together.  This sounds like it’s leading to a punchline, but John Huston’s film is much more empathetic to the internal code of each character, the respective forces by which they abided that have stranded them on an island facing what could very well be death.

The marine is Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum), and the nun is Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr).  Set during World War II, they have both seen various degrees of war’s destruction, and now they find themselves in a certain kind of paradise, given ample time to contemplate what has gotten them here and whether or not they might do things differently next time.

There is certainly a romantic element to Allison’s and Angela’s relationship, but it never crosses the line that you imagine a studio movie might.  When Allison, already smitten with the attractive woman, learns that she has yet to take her vows, he sees this as a sign that maybe he can convince her to change her mind and marry him (he will eventually propose).  Sister Angela, however, reminds him over and over again that she has decided in her heart what to do, and nothing which follows will convince her otherwise.

When challenged about her own beliefs she will turn it around on the marine.  Surely he understands the forces that have shaped her considering his own devotion to the core.  They will then compare and contrast their own experiences, leading to one of the funnier lines of the film.  When Allison asks why she can’t simply turn her back on her vows, Angela asks him what would happen were he to turn his back on the marines.  She says the punishment for her would be worse.  Allison: “They’d shoot you?”

The story of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison isn’t all fun and games, of course.  While there is a playfulness to the way they meet and soon attempt to catch a sea turtle, the film introduces to them the Japanese forces.  When they take over the island our two heroes will hide in a cave from which they can only really leave when the soldiers leave.

The Japanese arrival cuts short their plans to build a raft and escape, and after a brief departure they return as the walls begin to close in.  Just in time, however, the U.S. forces will begin to bomb the island, and in an effort to help quell the soon to follow bloodshed Allison will venture out into the danger to neutralize the Japanese machine guns.  He will be convinced to do so, to perhaps sacrifice himself for the greater good, by Sister Angela.

I suppose the film is about the internal codes given to us as well as the external forces which we have no hope of controlling.  For the entire film Allison and Angela are beholden to strict moral codes which they have been instructed to follow but now adhere to on their own accord.  Then for much of the second half of the film they will be forced to comply with (or hide from) the Japanese forces, with no hope of stopping them, only of hiding.  Their eventual goal then is only to wait it out and hope that some other deus ex machina awaits on the horizon (which it does).

The final message it seems is to simply stick to your metaphorical guns and have some faith.

Up Next: Wildlife (2018), Ride in the Whirlwind (1966), Total Recall (1990)

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