A nice, handsome guy and a nice, beautiful woman are stuck on a deserted island together, not having sex. That’s because he’s a marine and she’s a nun in John Huston’s 1957 film Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, a sweet, respectful World War II film about commitment to roles assigned by institutions. Taking place on a Pacific island but shot at Trinidad and Tobago, the film is filled with great, effective exteriors and lovely performances but the film isn’t quite an effective counterpoint to the eroticism of Black Narcissus.
Why should I think of Black Narcissus? Deborah Kerr plays a nun in both films—Anglican in Black Narcissus and Catholic in Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison. Black Narcissus was the subject of controversy when it was released in 1947, partly because it depicted nuns driven mad by bodily lusts which devotion to Christ was inadequate to overcome. Released ten years later, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison shows Kerr as an Irish nun, Sister Angela, trapped alone on an island until an American named Allison (Robert Mitchum) washes ashore in a life raft.
Huston establishes the story from Allison’s point of view and I loved the eeriness as the marine cautiously ventures into the island and through an ominously abandoned village.
There’s no hint of love at first sight when he finds Sister Angela alone in the church. The two strike up a very platonic friendship as they work together, making do with the limited supplies in the village and cooperating hunting for a sea turtle He always calls her “Ma’am”. Allison’s curious about nuns and the two swap info about their respective orders, coming to the conclusion that marines and nuns have a lot in common in terms of discipline, self-denial, and devotion. It’s not until Allison gets drunk on some sake left behind by some Japanese troops who briefly occupy the island that he gets to talking about just what these physical and mental uniforms of theirs mean when there’s no-one but the two of them.
By the way, even though none of the Japanese troops become characters, Huston never portrays them as inhuman caricatures. A scene where Allison hides in the rafters watching a couple Japanese men getting drunk and playing Go is oddly human and charming and in stark contrast to other World War II films where Japanese troops are portrayed as ridiculous goblins.
Anyway, Kerr’s performance is really nice and I can believe someone like her really could be so steadfast in her devotion to not even for a moment be tempted by pleasures of the flesh. And I like how Allison’s more aggressive mood when he’s drunk is never overplayed and he feels deeply ashamed of himself afterwards. But the film’s simply not as impressive as Black Narcissus with its vivid, gorgeous colours and its more complex characters. If the two movies are different sides of an argument, Black Narcissus brings a lot more evidence for its side. By contrast, the more realistically shot Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison oddly comes off as a light fantasy for those who believe in the power of chastity.