Julie Andrews, Max von Sydow and Richard Harris bring James Michener’s true saga to life — but it’s the story of the destruction of paradise. A huge success just the same, producer Walter Mirisch’s film testifies to the skill with which he brought together big talent for a show that doesn’t compromise with a happy-happy historical revision.
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 161 min. / Ship Date January 19, 2016 / available through Twilight Time Movies / 29.95
Starring Julie Andrews, Max von Sydow, Richard Harris, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor, Jocelyne LaGarde, Manu Tupou, Ted Nobriga, Elizabeth Logue.
Cinematography Russell Harlan
Production Designer Cary Odell
Art Direction James W. Sullivan
Film Editor Stuart Gilmore
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by Dalton Trumbo, Daniel Taradash from the novel by James Michener
Produced by Walter Mirisch
Directed by George Roy Hill
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Well, fans of James Michener that missed the 1990 laserdisc can now see the Road Show version of George Roy Hill’s Hawaii as an extra on this new Blu-ray. It’ll still be the old low-res NTSC transfer, however. The HD encoding of this big 1966 show is the shorter, general release version.
Michener’s sprawling saga of the history of our 50th state is woefully unsuited to film adaptation, and it’s to the credit of producer Walter Mirisch that such an intelligent and uncompromising picture resulted. Hawaii was a substantial hit, which says a lot for a film where uplifting moments are outnumbered four to one by scenes of misery and sadness. The performances are commendable and George Roy Hill’s direction avoids decorative travelogue effects. The script by Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash has an uncommonly fair attitude toward the destruction of an idyllic culture by zealous missionaries and rapacious whalers. The only preaching comes from the main character, a Calvinist from New England.
The adaptation takes on only a section of the epic novel. Freshly schooled New England seminary student Abner Hale (Max von Sydow) has volunteered to go to Hawaii, but the stern Rev. Thorn (Torin Thatcher) will not dispatch missionaries that are not married. Thorn arranges for Hale to meet young Jerusha Bromley. Jerusha believes that her handsome suitor whaler Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris) has abandoned her, but Thorn and her mother have been intercepting his letters. Jerusha marries Abner and they set sail for the South Seas in the company of other missionaries including islander Keoki (Manu Tupou) and Rev. John Whipple (Gene Hackman), a doctor. After a treacherous passage around the Horn the ship arrives at the island of Maui, where Abner and Jerusha meet Queen Malama (Jocelyne LaGarde). The queen takes to Jerusha immediately and eventually opts to become a Christian. But Abner is ruthless about forcing the natives away from their heathen practices. Some of the changes, like restraining whalers from sleeping with the native girls, are obviously for the good. But Abner is also set on destroying all vestiges of the rich Hawaiian culture and religion. The years bring change but not happiness. Other missionaries drop out, buy land and go into business. Sicknesses decimate the native population. Abner’s bitter intolerance drives away those who love him. And there’s still Rafer Hoxworth to contend with. On each of his visits he begs Jerusha to come away with him, before the harsh life in the islands kills her.
Hawaii’s only nod to commercial concerns is the casting of the magic name Julie Andrews. After Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music almost any project with Andrews’ name attached could get funding, freeing Mirisch and his writers to tell Michener’s story without the compromise of a happy ending.
Trumbo and Taradash’s screenplay covers roughly the first third of the book, from the arrival of the missionaries to the end of Hawaii as a distinct tribal nation. The well-intentioned Christians aren’t even off the boat before the severe and monomaniacal Abner Hale offends the ruling Queen Malama with his blunt demands. He wants the killing of deformed babies stopped and sex to be regulated along puritan lines. Free love must cease, especially incest in the royal bloodlines, and he’s determined to stop the sexual welcome given whaling ships.
Maui is a functioning matriarchy, which riles the stiff-necked Abner. Jerusha’s rapport with Malama paves the way for Abner’s first success. By convincing the Queen that the missionaries have no desire for Hawaiian land, Abner and Jerusha make a convert, at least in spirit.
But the rest of their efforts have painful results. Abner’s intransigence and bigotry alienates his native missionary ‘brother’ Keoki, who eventually reverts to the old ways and weds his sister. When the whalers are prevented from sleeping with the young island women, they retaliate by attacking Abner’s church. Rebuffed in his efforts to run off with Jerusha, whaler Richard Harris thinks nothing of seducing her housemaid Iliki (Lokelani S. Chicarelli) and whisking her away on his ship, to be used and then abandoned in some foreign port.
The missionaries are corrupted as well. Discharged from the sect for taking a native bride, one widower is followed by others grown contemptuous of the church hypocrisy. Ex-minister John Whipple starts a lucrative business. Having already robbed the Hawaiians of their religion, the missionaries become part of the systematic theft of the islands themselves.
The later chapters cover the island’s last days as an Eden-like paradise. Abner Hale’s stern teachings make Malama and her loving husband/brother Kelolo (Ted Nobriga) feel like guilty sinners. The deformed children validate the warnings against incest, but when an outbreak of measles decimates the native population even Abner opens his mind to Jerusha’s admonition that the islanders deserve something better than the God of fire and brimstone.
Faithful to his principles, Abner refuses to grow wealthy with the other ministers and is shunted aside, alone. But he’s helped by a grown islander with a facial birthmark who, as it turns out, was one of the ‘unfit’ babies that he and Jerusha saved from drowning years before.
Max Von Sydow is excellent as the preacher utterly blind to the natural beauty of a culture he cannot understand. He’s unerringly true to his nature, as in the painful scene where he avows his complete love to Jerusha, only to qualify the statement with an apology for placing his love for her above the love of God. The character is a frustration for viewers but the necessary center of this difficult story. Frankly, that the Abner character’s harsh edges were not removed is a major credit to producer Mirisch. A more feel-good Hawaii could surely have been a much bigger hit.
Julie Andrews brings needed vitality and heart to the movie; her scenes with Jocelyne LaGarde are the film’s best. Jerusha is supposed to be physically frail, the one aspect of the character that Andrews has difficulty projecting. Richard Harris holds down his end of the romantic triangle as Jerusha’s first love, representing the more romantic life she might have lived had her mother and the missionary director not interfered. Hawaii is not very kind to the Christian life, as its policies destroy foreign cultures and blight the lives of its own faithful innocents.
It would be difficult to film on Hawaiian locations without coming up with breathtaking images, so it’s no surprise that Hawaii was nominated for Best Cinematography. It lost to A Man for All Seasons. The New England scenes are also impressive, as are the Oscar-nominated special effects of the ship passage in a violent storm. The flashier Fantastic Voyage picked up that award.
In interview material for the film Get Shorty, Gene Hackman confirmed that Bette Midler worked as a child extra in the film, and was an irrepressible little performer who often sang on the bus to and from location.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Hawaii is something of a surprise. The main HD standard-length version (161 minutes) looks okay but not exceptional. The image is rougher, duller and softer throughout than we might expect. I saw occasional fringing on dark objects, and some of the bright reds on the Hawaiian costumes come across as monotone patches that almost look separated from the background. The transfer is not very old, but it was made from separations, and is several generations away from the negative.
The special extra the 189-minute Road Show version is literally an encoding of the old laserdisc master, formatted flat letterbox. It has the full overture missing from the HD version, playing in front of the same rough freeze frames for background images. It of course looks pretty terrible, which makes me smile — when I rented the laser in 1994 I remember thinking, ‘what a great transfer.’ The additional half-hour of content is there, with the same chapter stops in the same places. By writing down the times for each chapter, those interested can quickly determine exactly how much was cut, and from which chapters.
The deletions were skillfully done, but the general release cut of Hawaii is like a book with many pages culled at random. The extra half-hour of deleted material enriches every episode of the film. Abner Hale is shown bidding a painful farewell to his family. After her wedding, Jerusha has a scene involving a mirror that prefigures the death of her sister. Abner cruelly force-feeds Jerusha with bananas during their ship’s stormy passage. It’s all good material. Interestingly, all of the topless nudity of the wahine is retained: if the actresses were Anglos, I presume that the MPAA would have had a completely different attitude.
Only the long version communicates the full sense of Michener’s book. Telling the full story back in Honolulu is necessary to place Abner Hale in his proper context – his ex-minister colleagues became the biggest landholders on Oahu. The long version shows that Abner’s folly pales beside the effect of larger forces out of his control. The short version could be re-titled, ‘Stubborn Abner Ruined Hawaii.’
Both versions, interestingly, come with full Isolated Score Tracks. Twilight Time is very, very into soundtracks, I kid you not; Elmer Bernstein’s main theme expresses both high adventure and an emotional yearning.
I don’t know what the chances are for a full restoration of the long version of Hawaii. Until a slowdown in big studio restorations kicked in more or less about ten years ago, we in Hollywood regularly saw special screenings of lavish 70mm restorations: not just Lawrence of Arabia and Spartacus, but Ryan’s Daughter, El Cid, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Khartoum, and Lord Jim.
Not every Road Show film was cut down for subsequent ‘now at regular prices’ release. The general release prints for Grand Prix didn’t change that much, if at all. There’s quite a bit of clamor for the extended The Alamo but not enough for titles with longer Road Show versions like The Hallelujah Trail and The Fall of the Roman Empire. And there are many 65mm-filmed movies that few people realize are in need of restoration: Porgy and Bess, Krakatoa East of Java, The Last Valley and The Big Fisherman. When Warners restored The Wild Bunch in 1993, they put back the Road Show cut scenes but not the original Intermission break, which was at one time viewable in Sam Peckinpah’s personal print.
The web-based uproar asserts that studios are trashing their own history by not restoring all of their holdings, especially as the precious original film elements won’t last forever. A restoration of the Road Show of John Wayne’s The Alamo hasn’t proceeded for various reasons. Criterion pasted together a (rough but interesting) longer video-only version of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
The problem is of course money. Restorations in 70mm can cost millions. Today’s studios are not eager to spend money on unprofitable programs. I think it was 2002 when Warners screened an incredible, to-die-for restoration of Ryan’s Daughter at the Academy. It must have cost a pretty penny. The print probably played some festivals (?) but it really hasn’t been heard from since — not even in a Blu-ray release. The studio accountants can surely prove that most of the titles mentioned above are no longer commercially viable. One excuse I’ve heard is that in many cases, foreign language tracks no longer exist for the Road Show versions, limiting the ability to market them abroad. I’m pleased that the studios and the restoration departments do as well as they do, with what they are allowed to do.
Have a few millions to spend? The full length Hawaii stands ready to be restored. The long version can now at least be viewed, thanks to this release. Twilight Time finishes its package with an original Trailer. Julie Kirgo’s liner notes introduce us to James Michener and then relate the film’s convoluted production story: with director Fred Zinnemann attached, writer Daniel Taradash tried to condense the entire book into one movie. Then Zinnemann and writer Dalton Trumbo got the idea to divide the story into two movies. Zinnemann left to direct A Man for All Seasons and George Roy Hill took and filmed the first half. Kirgo tells us that Hawaii became the highest-grossing movie of 1966. A sequel, The Hawaiians followed four years later; it will arrive from Twilight Time next month.
The only reason I can think for retaining MGM Home Video’s old 2005 DVD is its featurette, entitled The Making of Hawaii.
I would again like to thank Lois Regen of Washington State for her helpful analysis of the film (Hawaii Revisited: Allegories of Culture) and her cataloguing of the scenes deleted for general release. I hope she is doing well.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Hawaii Blu-ray rates:
Video: Good — disappointing
Sound: Excellent English 1.0 DTS-HD MA
Supplements: Isolated Score Track; Original Road Show Version (189 Minutes) in Standard Definition; Original Theatrical Trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 24, 2016
Text © Copyright 2016 Glenn Erickson