Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

Directed by John Huston

I have always liked Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. It stars Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr and is directed by John Huston and it is characterized by restraint and warm humour.

You can’t help but like the characters Mitchum and Kerr play.

Those two characters, Corporal Allison (Mitchum) and Sister Angela (Kerr) are the whole of the movie – the only two actors with speaking roles in it, I believe – and yes, Mitchum plays a Marine and Kerr plays a nun stranded on an island in the South Pacific at the height of World War II.

Given that it is set during war time, and bombs and guns go off frequently, it is a remarkably quiet film. I think this is a very specific directorial decision Huston must have made. The war elements are minimized and restricted to setting context rather than being a focus for action and providing the film energy.

Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) and Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum).

Huston’s drama relies entirely on his two characters and what they say and do.

In that way, and a few others, it is very similar to his The African Queen, made several years earlier (1951). There are also significant differences, however.

Huston is attracted to the idea of disparate characters thrown together.

What will they do? How will they get along? What kind of relationship will develop between people who are apparent opposites?

One of the keys for Huston, and present in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is in finding that while the characters seem to be opposites on the surface they are at the core very similar.

Robert Mitchum as Corporal Allison adrift in a raft prior to arriving at the island.

Mitchum as Corporal Allison, in a beautifully understated performance, plays a man who is parentless, was a child of orphanages and as a young man lost and in trouble with authorities, until he found the Marines. They gave his life meaning and so at the time we see him in the film, his life is entirely about being a Marine.

We get a similar sense with Kerr’s Sister Angela, though her background isn’t detailed in the movie to the same degree as Mitchum’s character. But her life only has meaning with the Church. She is devoted to Christ, without whom her life has no meaning.

Both having found purpose and stability in their respective commitments are now faced with something outside those foundations that provide meaning. That something is a fundamental human relationship – love, sexuality, family and so on.

The characters each retreat into their chosen lives when the relationship between them develops and throws them off kilter. Both are faced with a struggle between what they find in the other and the thing that gives their life meaning.

Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum in the two actor movie Heaven Knows, Mister Allison (1957).

And it is all done so quietly; it is all so understated.

You can’t help but admire the movie’s restraint. In a sense, it’s a minimalist film.

I also found it a beautiful movie to look at. The DVD transfer I have is excellent with great contrasts and gorgeous blue sea and skies and lush greens. I wasn’t expecting it to look this good.

Although so may people love The African Queen, I have to say I prefer Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. However, despite some surface similarities (like a religious character and a secular one thrown together), they are very different and make for intriguing companion pieces.

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