Tuesday 9 April 2019

Movie Review: Hawaii (1966)

A historical epic about Christian missionaries, Hawaii aims for a spectacular scope but has to settle for competently stodgy.

It's 1819 in New England, and the strictly idealistic Calvinist Reverend Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) heeds the call from Hawaii's Prince Keoki (Manu Tupou) and volunteers for a Christian mission to the islands. The Reverend Dr. Thorn (Torin Thatcher) insists that Abner first get married, and connects him with the eligible Jerusha (Julie Andrews), the daughter of church member Charles Bromley (Carroll O'Connor).

Jerusha is still nursing a heart broken by whaler Captain Rafer Hoxworth, who loved her and abandoned her. After a brief and awkward courtship she agrees to marry the stiff and clumsy Abner. They travel to Hawaii on an arduous sea journey including traversing the Magellan Strait. Upon arrival they are welcomed by Keoki's mother Malama (Jocelyne LaGarde), the local ruler considered sacred by the natives.

As per tradition to preserve the purity of bloodlines Malama is married to her brother Kelolo (Ted Nobriga), one of many examples of adultery and incest that Abner immediately starts raging against. Jerusha is more patient and teaches Malama how to write, while Abner builds his first church and slowly starts to exert influence, although changing deeply entrenched local customs proves difficult. Abner and Jerusha start a family, but further complications arise when Captain Hoxworth (Richard Harris) appears in Hawaii and reinitiates his romantic pursuit of Jerusha.

An adaptation of one chapter from James A. Michener's 1959 book, Hawaii is ambitious in scope and proficient in execution but hamstrung by dry subject matter and an aloof protagonist. The beautiful scenery and grand Elmer Bernstein music score ensure a base level of entertainment. But the story of humourless missionaries browbeating locals into redefining themselves as worthless sinners is grating.

While Julie Andrews receives top billing after achieving stratospheric success in The Sound Of Music, Jerusha is very much the secondary character. Instead the script by Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo chooses Reverend Abner Hale as the focal point. His uncompromising view of the world and Bible-thumping attitude defines the fire and brimstone style of proselytizing, and makes for an exceptionally dour central character. Three hours is a long time to spend with anyone, but three hours with Abner are more than enough to capitulate and buy whatever he is selling just to avoid his continued wrath.

Relatively unknown at the time, director George Roy Hill replaced Fred Zinnemann and was himself reportedly fired and rehired several times during the course of the troubled production. To his credit, Hill does tease out the agonies (including loss of culture and rampant diseases) experienced by the natives due to the missionary invasion, and raises questions as to whether the locals ultimately benefited from welcoming and trusting the social and religious fundamentalists.

With Max von Sydow in full preacherman mode, it is left to Andrews to prove she can handle dramatic roles. She effortlessly passes the test in the two key scenes, first Jerusha explaining to Abner intimacy's place in marriage, and much later awakening him (somewhat) to the power of love over dogma.

Native Tahitian Jocelyne LaGarde earned an Academy Award nomination for her one and only screen role as Malama, who injects much needed spirit whenever she is on the screen despite LaGarde not knowing any English and reciting her lines phonetically. As Abner will spend a lifetime learning, sometimes what matters is not what needs to be said, but how the message is conveyed.

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