Director John Huston is celebrated for his superb and unique film adaptations of novels. Among the many such examples is his 1957 film, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison,” a story about a soldier and a nun trapped on an island during World War II. Although the film bares some resemblance to Huston’s 1951 “The African Queen”—two leading Hollywood actors, a war in the backdrop, and two people struggling together for basic survival—it stands on its own, mainly because of its two lead actors.
Robert Mitchum plays Marine corporal Allison who, at the beginning of the film, we see floating on a life raft, gently swaying this way and that in the middle of the Pacific ocean. The tide brings him to an island, which appears to be empty, yet signs of life are still there: a few shacks and a makeshift chapel. Allison realizes he’s not alone when he sees Sister Angela, a Catholic novice, played by Deborah Kerr. The two become an unlikely pair through their ordeal to survive.
Corporal Allison and Sister Angela are deferential to one another. She, because of her attempts at seeing everyone as a child of God, and he, because she is a woman. In fact, this becomes the dynamic of their encounter and developing relationship throughout the film. Both are committed to their respective “orders,” and in some ways, they are not very different. Allison is a committed Marine and Sister Angela is “engaged” to Christ. This is something that is beyond Allison’s comprehension, and it becomes a sticking point in their relationship.
The stillness of the island and the sound of the ocean waves are dramatically interrupted by the arrival of a Japanese detachment. Allison and Sister Angela hide in an island cave, hoping the Japanese will not find them inside. The inevitable intimacy of the physical space creates a tension between the two. Clearly, they find something intriguing about each other but they don’t want to act out on their desires. For Sister Angela, Allison is the gravest temptation, and the question of whether she will take her final vows remains somewhat open ended.
In real life, Mitchum and Kerr got along very well, and would appear in several films together. They were good friends, and matched each other in humor and their easy-going attitudes, both of which were requirements for the filming of this movie. It wasn’t easy shooting the film in Tobago, and Kerr recalled that Mitchum was “at all times patient, concerned, and completely professional, always in good humor, and always ready to make a joke when things became trying.”
According to Lee Server’s biography Robert Mitchum: “Baby, I Don’t Care,” a wardrobe girl on the film set described Mitchum’s friendly and gentle nature when it came to his relationship with Kerr. During one of the scenes, Mitchum sensed that Kerr may have been fatigued from standing on the sharp rocks, and “He just kneeled down, unlaced her white sneakers, removed them and massaged her feet. It was lovely and compassionate the way he did it . . . Then he put her sneakers back on and said kind of brusquely to hide his tenderness, ‘Gotta keep you alive for the next scene.’ Then he walked away. Deborah was so touched she cried.”
In many ways, Mitchum’s attitude toward Kerr mirrored their respective roles. Mitchum’s Corporal Allison carries deep masculinity and a sense of honor. Although he is attracted to Sister Angela, and he makes a proposition to marry her, he maintains the control of his desires as well. They are “soldiers” for different armies, and because of this they understand each other’s roles and why these roles cannot be ignored or erased.
In one scene, after almost a whole bottle of sake, Allison vents his frustrations. He admits to having never loved anyone, but this situation has changed him. He laments the fact that she’s too beautiful to be a nun: Why couldn’t she be “old and ugly?” And why worry about the world that exists beyond the island? All is fair in love and war, as they say, and why should Sister Angela’s “engagement to Christ” even matter? The island is the Garden of Eden, shouts Allison in his drunken stupor, and the pair are just man and woman, “male and female, He [God] created them.”
Still, even for a soldier who is accustomed to disregarding the dignity of the enemy, Allison is painfully aware that he is just altering the declarations in the Book of Genesis to suit his desires. Worn out by the war, he wishes for normalcy and what may come after the war. He has defined himself wholly and completely as a soldier, and perhaps has forgotten how to be only a man. The encounter with Sister Angela is forcing him to ask what it means not only to be a man, but a worthy human being.
It would be uneven and untrue if we assumed that it is only Allison’s rough (but, admittedly honorable) edges that are smoothed by this unlikely encounter. Sister Angela faces her own crisis of faith. Should she leave the order and not take those final vows because of this sudden reversal of fortune? Yet their encounter is not without purpose. For Allison, Sister Angela renews his capacity for love, and thus, she serves as the vessel that moves his life toward a realm beyond the war. For Sister Angela, Allison helps to renew her commitment to Christ or, at the very least, his actions toward her indicate that she must engage in spiritual discernment.
As the Marines come close to the island, their joy increases. Allison is wounded and begs for a cigarette from a fellow Marine. As they carry him on the stretcher, we witness a moment of great tenderness. Whatever may come out of this unlikely relationship, Sister Angela remains by Allison’s side. She holds his cigarette and tends to him as they move toward the ship that will carry them away from the island. What will be the path they take? There is no certainty, and “heaven knows” what will emerge. What is certain is only that Corporal Allison and Sister Angela have touched each other’s souls, and such a bond will never be ignored or erased.