John Huston loved pairing two differing personalities and filming the results, and six years before Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison hit theaters Huston placed two titans of the Golden Era, Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, in The African Queen. The African Queen is a worthwhile film (although not my favorite), but Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison affected me deeper. If you thought Robert Mitchum could melt an igloo with just a glance, put him on an island with Deborah Kerr as a nun! After his submarine sinks, Mr. Allison (Mitchum) barely makes it into a raft with his life. He washes up on a desert island where the only inhabitant is Sister Angela (Kerr). As the two come to learn about each other they end up fighting off the Japanese.
Because Bogart and Hepburn had become iconic caricatures of their former glory by 1951’s release of The African Queen, the movie has a hokey quality to it that turned me off. (Its been several years since I’ve viewed it, so I’m interested in a rewatch later on down the road.) Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison plays on a near-Biblical canvas from the minute Allison washes up on the island and discovers Sister Angela. In a drunken confession of love for her later on, Allison mentions them as “Adam and Eve.” The primitive nature of their interactions, the moments of sheer silence, and the lush tropical setting lend an aura of reverence and mystery to this ecclesiastical narrative.
Director John Huston, well-regarded for action and manly leading men, defers to the script, co-written by himself and John Lee Mahin, which is where the magic of Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is contained. The differences, and eventual similarities, between the military and religion is a core tenet within the film. Too often in cinema – and in life – the military is at odds with religion, and this was especially poignant during post-WWII, when the movie was released (even moreso in Vietnam in a few years), the rise of pacifism would inextricably link the two. Allison is enchanted by Sister Angela’s prayers, a source of subtle comedy is his belief she’s talking to him when she’s saying them; both bond over tough drill sergeants (his literal, hers figurative), and their mutual close-cropped hair. Later on, when their romance blossoms, they realize they’re each duty-bound to their calling; his to the military, hers to God.
Huston claimed he hated this movie because of the limitations imposed by the Legion of Decency and the Production Code, but it all works in the movie’s favor. The story of a nun and an army man on a deserted island has the trappings of a cheap paperback novel, but Huston and Mahin’s script enhances the romance by having the characters sit down and talk to each other; a rarity in movies, both today and back then! As Julie Kirgo mentions in her essay accompanying Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, the characters learn about each other at the same time we do. A true romance unfolds because everyone is on the same page. There are no grand realizations of some bizarre personality trait coming out of nowhere. Allison and Angela remain, at their essence, who they were at the beginning, leaving their romance to stand out because it’s isolated from their personalities. The realism never subsides, even at the movie’s conclusion when Angela and Allison say goodbye to each other. To have them forsake their mutual vows (to religion and country, respectively) would be a disservice to the characters as they’re written and as we’ve come to know them. Allison and Angela are too strongly bound to their ideals to throw them away on a romance, even if it’s the romance of their lives.
If all this sounds too touchy-feely there’s plenty of action to keep your heartstrings safe. The Japanese are a constant threat, and several times Allison comes up against them, especially in a pulse-pounding sequence where he’s trapped in a pantry above the Japanese. The final bombardment of the island is what the movie’s leading up to, even if it takes away from the stronger character analysis preceding it. It’s a climax that feels earned, predominately because Allison learns the meaning of faith. This was Robert Mitchum’s favorite role, and it shows a softer side to the actor, despite his retaining the hard edge of action he’s best known for. His chemistry with Kerr (the two would reteam three more times) is palpable, shocking considering the two don’t so much as share a kiss or hold hands. I’m no Deborah Kerr fan, but her quiet vulnerability sells the role of Sister Angela, a performance garnering her a Best Actress nomination. Sister Angela is inquisitive, quiet, and doesn’t put up with Allison. When she gets a cold and Allison takes her veil off, it’s more sexually charged than a touch could be, and yet Angela denies her fear or hesitancy.
The Blu-ray is beautiful although the sound comes off a bit muffled at times (it happens with certain Twilight Time releases). There isn’t much in the way of bonus content: The requisite isolated score, a FOX Movietone News segment, and the readable essay from Kirgo.
Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is an introspective lament on the ideals we’re forced to uphold. How can we truly stand by our beliefs until they’re tested? Whether it’s love, or confronting one’s need to fight or refrain during wartime, Huston explores the nature of belief and its power. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr create fully realized characters whose authenticity you come to experience and appreciate. If you haven’t give the movie a chance before, Twilight Time’s recent Blu-ray (limited to 3,000 copies) is worth a chance.
The cheapest way is to purchase the film directly from Screen Archives
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.