Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is probably one of the few films I would hasten to reference as ‘perfectly executed’. Yet, in my book it is arguably much more than that; Allison possesses a true and honest sincerity in its essential vision. While it’s true that it is from the fundamental lens of John Huston that this vision emerges, the ideas and ideals of his movie is are developed by his crew, with every talent faultlessly maximised to bring about a truly memorable picture.
The story of Heaven Knows, Mr Allison is simple but effective. Mitchum plays castaway Corporal Allison of the US Marine Corps, who unwittingly washes onto a backwater island in the Pacific, aboard only a little rubber raft. Allison realises quickly he is not quite alone; the island is occupied also by a young nun, Sister Angela, who has suffered a similar fate to himself. The film begins by following the two as they live an almost idyllic life, for on this little island life is easily sustainable, and apparently a world away from the brutality of WWII. But just as their relationship deepens into perhaps something more, and just as the possibility of rescue ebbs ever-further away, a detachment of Japanese soldiers arrive and shatter the paradisiacal dream.
At its surface, the premise, and indeed, the outcome of Heaven Knows, Mr Allison, seems rather innocent and even blatantly old-fashioned. The two characters ultimately fall in love, but not apparently in a way that is even mildly discernible to modern audiences. In a way I do agree with this verdict, and yet I also believe it also to be terrifically inaccurate.
The reason this film has aged so well is not because it’s darkly cynical like on old noir, or particularly bold and daring for its time. It is because if the same story played out today, and featured the same two people portrayed in this film, the result would most likely be no different. The drama of their intense outward contrast would still be there, (the tough fighter from the wrong side of the tracks and the beautiful and cultivated woman of God) but they would also share those same very admirable qualities: courage, devotion, and an innate sense of decency and selflessness. It is the strength of character, like many John Huston films, that picks Allison up from typicality and moulds it into something universally special.
However, even this goodness is tried time and time again throughout the movie. For the most part, the uncertainty of their feelings are portrayed through Huston’s motif of water. It is most apparent in two instances throughout the film: Mr Allison hiding from the Japanese beneath the crashing waves, and the shot of the tempestuous waters the morning after Allison’s very heartfelt proposal. An attempt to interpret the symbolism of water, in particular, oceanic waters, can really go any which way. For me though, the water not only shows the intensity of emotion, but also the oxymoronic nature of their feelings (and also the way Allison and the sister act in relation to them); it is undoubtedly ever-changing, but simultaneously strong and constant.
As a young kid, while others longed to be veterinarians and football stars, I (rather oddly, mind you) aspired to be a real ‘grown-up’. I wanted to be a person who knew what her duties were and knew where her loyalties lay; I wanted to stand close to my convictions and uphold what I believed was right. In short, I wanted to be very much like the two characters whom Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum so magnificently portray.
I think this is why I love Heaven Knows Mr Allison, and particularly its ending, so much. The two ultimately part ways, but it is by no means a sad conclusion. Corporal Allison and Sister Angela continue on the paths that they had originally set out on, but will retain their exceptional friendship for the rest of their lives.