Sunday, 2 February 2014

Spinsters on the silver screen: Heaven Knows, Mr Allison

Ever since I was a little girl and saw her in The King & I, I have been a great admirer of Deborah Kerr. She was an actress of tremendous sensitivity, grace, and style. As Brian Baxter attested in her obituary in The Guardian in 2007: in 45 years on film, ‘...she seldom, if ever, gave a weak performance...’[i] Nominated six times for an Oscar; she finally received an honorary statuette in 1994.

Miss Kerr was a beautiful romantic lead, entrancing the likes of Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, and David Niven. If you haven’t seen the gorgeous An Affair to Remember, you really should. Her raunchy – for 1953 – love scene on the beach with Burt Lancaster in From Here to Eternity became the stuff of cinematic legend. In real life, she was twice married with two daughters and a stepdaughter. Yet, she was also famous for playing the spinster. Indeed, she was rather in the habit of playing nuns! In 1947, she portrayed the restless Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus – a book and film which I will explore on this blog at a later date. Ten years’ later, she played the much sunnier Sister Angela in Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. I’ve wanted to watch this latter film for ages and finally, last Sunday evening, I got around to it.

Based on a book by Charles Shaw and directed by John Huston, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison bears a strong resemblance to the latter's earlier film, The African Queen. Funnily enough, Deborah Kerr’s second husband, Peter Viertel, contributed to the screenplay of the Hepburn and Bogie hit! In Heaven Knows, we meet an equally unlikely couple in similarly strange circumstances. Rather than a Methodist missionary and a drunken boatman journeying down the African river rapids, we are now introduced to an Irish Catholic nun and an intrepid US marine stranded on a Pacific island. While Hepburn and Bogie were under threat from Germans, Kerr and her co-star, Robert Mitchum, must face the Japanese.

If you haven’t seen the film and you’re not a fan of spoilers, I recommend that you go away now and watch it, then come back here! The story goes something like this:

Separated from his submarine due to a Japanese attack, Corporal Allison of the US marines is left drifting on a life-raft in the Pacific. Eventually, he washes up on a remote and seemingly abandoned island. Exploring the island’s deserted settlement, he comes to the church where he finds Sister Angela, a young nun. She arrived on the island a few days previously with her colleague, Fr. Philips to evacuate another priest, only to find the Japanese had already been there. The native crew who had brought them to the island left in fright, leaving them marooned. The shock was too much for Fr. Philips, who was struck down by a stroke and died.    

Allison and Sister Angela befriend one another. When Japanese forces bomb, and then reoccupy the island, Tuasiva, they hide together in a cave, with Allison making dangerous forays into the Japanese camp to scavenge for food. Soon, he finds himself falling in love with the young nun. He begs her not to take her final vows but to marry him instead!

Heaven Knows, Mr Allison. 1957.
Copyright Twentieth Century Fox. 

The film is particularly fascinating, because this island love story does not play out as one might expect.

Circumstances bring together two creatures from very different worlds. As Allison and Sister Angela get to know each other, we learn that he was an illegitimate child, brought up in an orphanage with minimal religious instruction until he escaped at the age of fourteen. As he puts it, before becoming a marine, ‘...I seen the inside of more houses of correction and jails than I did churches.’ As for God Himself, Allison assures his companion: ‘Oh sure, anyone with any sense believes in God,’ but admits he admits he has never prayed. Religion is alien to him. Yet, while he cannot comprehend why a beautiful woman should want to be a nun, Allison does have a vague notion of vocation. He describes his commitment to service as similar to Sister Angela’s calling to be a religious. Unlike his colleagues, many of who have wives and children, his entire identity is derived from the marines: ‘Me, I got the corps, like you got the church.’

Sister Angela, we learn, is due to take her final vows the following month. When she explains to Allison the consequences of breaking these vows, the difference between them is underlined:

Worse, much worse.
They wouldn’t shoot you?
We would lose our immortal souls.
Allison is no intellectual. He describes himself as ‘dumb,’ but he’s quick-thinking enough on a practical level, whether foraging for food or cleverly disarming the Japanese weapons. He’s a straightforward man – caring, honest, and loyal. He carves a wooden comb for Sister Angela, wrapping it in a palm leaf and decorating it with a flower – a touching and truthful gesture. Yet, of the doctrine and dogma which have defined Sister Angela’s life, he knows nothing, nor does he share in her interior, spiritual life. Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr perfectly demonstrate this. Mitchum is earthy, always moving. He’s largely the one who deals with their practical needs for survival. Kerr is serene; save for a brief interlude, she projects a sense of inner calm. And she prays. He’s the body; she’s the soul.

They’re a team and together, they ensure one another’s survival. Matters come to head, however, when Allison declares his love for Sister Angela.

Allison, it must be admitted, is the most gentlemanly of gentleman. Despite his growing attraction to Sister Angela, their living at extremely close quarters, and his frustration about her choice of the religious life, he never lays a finger upon her. There is no sense that she sees him, even in the beginning or when drunk, as a physical threat. When they dance together following the Japanese evacuation of the island, it’s a spontaneous expression of joy – more brother and sister than lovers. When she falls sick, he cares for her, even undressing her from her wet clothes, but he never takes advantage. Would this be the case if the film were made today, one wonders?

The very fact that Allison’s love for Sister Angela is chaste, however, underlines its genuineness. He might not understand her calling, but he understands its importance to her. He respects her and wants to look after her. He’s unhappy when she doesn’t consent to marriage, but he accepts this.   

More interesting, perhaps, is the question of whether Sister Angela feels the same. When Allison first asks if there’s a chance for them together, she makes it clear that she does not regard herself as a spinster, but as a married woman: ‘No, Mr Allison, you see I’ve already given my heart... to Christ our Lord.’ She shows him her ring and quietly, her eyes full of sadness, explains how she will wear a wedding ring, once she has taken her final vows.

The real climax of the film is when Allison gets drunk on Japanese rice wine and gives vent to his despair, bemoaning his luck in falling in love with a nun. Sister Angela tries to change the subject. He smashes Fr Phillips’ old pipe on the floor: ‘What good is it without tobacco?’ and tells her that they will be stranded on the island for years and years. ‘Now what’s the point of you being a nun if we’re all alone, answer me that? You can’t, can you? ‘Cos there ain’t no point... We don’t belong to nothing but this island. All we got is it and each other. Like Adam and Eve. Like we was the first two people on earth and this was the Garden of Eden!’ Sister Angela bursts into tears and he grabs her to comfort her, but she escapes from his grip and runs out into the pouring rain.

Why is she upset by this speech? I think that Sister Angela does love Allison, but her love is very different to his. Unlike her companion, she does not see the possibility of any future for them as a couple. She has made her choice to become a nun, and this will prevail, however attracted to him she may be. It is not that this choice is without difficulty or temptation, but ultimately, she believes it will give her ‘greater happiness than anything else.’ When he gives her the comb, she is flattered and blushes prettily, but she takes it as a ‘keepsake’ – something to remember him by, once their adventure is over. It makes her sad that he wants what she cannot give.

Allison’s speech, however, does cause her to doubt. As she later admits, ‘I was running from the truth. There was a great deal of truth in what you said.’ I don’t think she questions God, but I think she questions what He wants from her, from them. Fr Phillips’ smashed pipe is a metaphor for her world turned upside down. For the first time, she begins to fear that they will not be imminently rescued. If she and Allison are to be left on the island together for years and years, would it not be wrong for him to be unhappy and her to insist on following her, as yet, incomplete vows? Would that be pursuing her true vocation?

Once Sister Angela wakes from her illness, caused from running away in the rain, all has not become clear but she has renewed confidence that God will make the way ahead known: ‘Perhaps God doesn’t intend me to take my final vows. We’re living from hour to hour. Only he knows what’ll happen to us.’ It is significant that she makes this very frank, honest admission, a recognition that the future is uncertain, while she lies vulnerable, just awoken from illness, and wrapped only in the sheets that Allinson has stolen for her from the Japanese camp. This is the only time in the film where she does not wear her habit and wimple.

From this point, however, nun and marine return to living in easy companionship. While Allison doesn’t stop loving Sister Angela, he makes no further attempts to convince her to marry him. Instead, he reaffirms his commitment to being a marine, albeit a more godly one. He feels called by God towards a dangerous mission to disarm the Japanese in advance of a US invasion. Sister Angela, dressed once again in her habit, returns to praying for their deliverance. I'm not going to give away the end, but I think you can probably guess... For once in Hollywood, happily ever after might mean something different...

Ultimately, Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is a fascinating exploration of vocation: What does it mean to be faithful to one’s calling? How can one be sure that that calling is genuine? It’s a story of faith, love, and bravery. The chemistry between Kerr and Mitchum is fantastic. Both actors give great depth to their characters, making them far more than caricatures. I heartily recommend giving it a viewing. It’s pretty easy to find either on DVD or via download, or if you’re in Oxford, you can borrow my copy! I’d love to know what you think about this encounter between nun and marine. I've been mulling it over all week and it's certainly a film that I'll be watching again and again. 

[i] Brian Baxter, ‘Obituary: Deborah Kerr’ in The Guardian (Friday 19th October 2007).