Hawaii’s introduction as the 50th state in the US in 1959 caused Hollywood to go mad with Hawaiian fever, using author James A. Michener’s immense tome, Hawaii, as the basis for not one, but two, films on the creation and eventual colonizing of the island. With a story as epic, and a production as convoluted, as the formation of Hawaii itself, The Hawaiians marks the latter half of Michener’s doorstop novel, charting the Chinese and Japanese immigration to the island, as well as the growing dispute between the native Hawaiians, white settlers, and Asian immigrants. With everything packed so tightly, limited in space as the its location, its remarkable that a few shining stars leak out at all.
Two different lives intertwine on the island of Hawaii: American sailor Whip Hoxworth (Charlton Heston) has to make it on his own after his wealthy grandfather leaves him nothing in his will and Chinese immigrant Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen) finds herself a stranger in a strange land trying to establish her own dream of a life of independence.
Nearly everything about The Hawaiians is grand, which is unsurprising considering the filmmakers’ intentions and the era it was released in. (The late ’60s-early ’70s triumphed the “bigger is better aesthetic.) With such lush landscaping to showcase it’s remarkable how restrained many of the sweeping aerial shots are, and that there aren’t more wide, CinemaScope shots, highlighting the virgin land. In fact, much of the land is shown in the background, more of a place setting than honoring the land everyone’s fighting for. The opening credits conjure up feelings for another Pacific locale, South Pacific (1958), with its Hawaiian title song that sounds like a cribbed copy of “Bali Hai.” The beautiful blue of the ocean soon gives way to the brown, muddy sea of humanity carried in the ship’s cargo hold.
From the first frames human trafficking becomes an unspoken source of income for Hawaii, with the Chinese working as cheap labor or, in Nyuk Tsin’s case, being sold into slavery. In fact, with the exception of Chen’s Nyuk Tsin and a few others, many of the people we’re supposed to identify with are horrid human beings. Charlton Heston’s Whip Hoxworth certainly makes for one of the worst protagonists to identify with; he starves the human cargo as a means of supplication and treats women like his own personal sex objects – watching him leer at the young Asian girl he takes as a mistress is enough to leave you wanting to bathe away from the already bathing Heston.
Much of this is par for the era the film’s set in, but Heston’s snarling demeanor coupled with his characters massive flaws fails to warm the audience up to him as someone we want to spend time with for two hours. Also, Heston’s notorious political leanings are hard to separate when certain moments, like the Hawaiian Queen making plans to toss out the white colonists only to have Heston say him and the rest of the white natives have bought all the guns and are prepared for “revolution,” leave you wondering if they’re intentional or simply prophetic.
Heston may be the film’s biggest name but provides the least amount of interest. Really, it is the women who quietly watch the world form around them, exerting influence on their own terms. Geraldine Chaplin, much like her character in Doctor Zhivago (1965), gets little to play with as Whip’s appropriately (and uninspired) named, Purity, a supposed “Royal Hawaiian” with all the lineage of a King’s Hawaiian roll. (I’m assuming she’s meant to be the descendant from which Emma Stone in Aloha was birthed!) Because of the film’s mixed message about native peoples it’s only fair that Purity is mentally unstable, although we’re told this more for her lack of desire for Whip and, frankly, I don’t blame her! The woman had a baby a scene prior, yet Heston barely lets the sheets cool before trying to get it on with her. Her disappearance and erasure from the film misses an opportunity, particularly when the Hawaiian aristocracy becomes more involved in the plot.
Whip says there’s “place for girls in the world, too” and that’s proven through Tina Chen’s performance as Nyuk Tsin. Introduced as the stereotypical Asian captive Nyuck Tsin (later dubbed Wu Chow’s Auntie) is a quiet, determined presence who ends up becoming a self-sufficient and productive woman, cultivating the land for her children’s use. Chen’s soulful performance immediately captivates, and she risks as much, if not far more than Whip, the all-American embodiment of Hawaiian colonialism.
Brought to the island to be a prostitute, Nyuk Tsin marries Mun Ki (Mako) and bears five sons – none of whom consider her their mother as part of Chinese tradition. Nyuk Tsin stands up to men, whether it’s the Chinese apothecary trying to gouge her, or her husband barring her from following him to a leper colony. The fact that she can return from said leper colony, unbroken and undamaged, is a testament to how the character is allowed to make something of herself on par with any man. Chen was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and she’s easily one of the best portrayals of a woman of color that I’ve witnessed.
Twilight Time’s latest Blu-ray of The Hawaiians doesn’t contain the in-depth bonus features of other titles: two trailers, an isolated score track, and another lovely essay from Julie Kirgo.
The Hawaiians feels like another bloated 1970s epic and just when the movie becomes interminable characters travel to another part of the island or hit the high seas. Heston’s character is hard to support, but Tina Chen’s the reason to watch this and gets a recommendation on her prowess alone.
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.