When you consider the sort of blockbusters that typically dominate the box office these days, it seems a little strange to consider that there was once a time when a film like George Roy Hill's Hawaii could be a massive box office success. To be sure, it has the epic scale of a lot of big hits, but it's such an intimate, low-key epic: a story of a series of cultural, philosophical and religious conflicts playing out against an idyllic backdrop. Take out an early sequence involving the crew of a ship attempting to weather a storm, and there's pretty much nothing left that resembles a traditional action set piece. Once upon a time, seeing big stars in an exotic setting was enough: Hawaii was the biggest hit of 1966.
Our tale begins in the early part of the 19th century, as the young Reverend Abner Hale (Max Von Sydow, The Exorcist) and his new bride Jerusha (Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music) prepare to go to Hawaii and begin spreading the gospel to the natives. Abner was compelled to undertake this mission after hearing an angry speech from Prince Keoki Kanakoa (Manu Tupou, A Man Called Horse), who claims that the white men who have visited his homeland in recent years have all devoted themselves to raping and pillaging. Claiming to hear the call of the Lord, Abner determines that he will be the exception to the rule.
Ah, but Abner's hopes of being the savior of Hawaii are dashed when he realizes that the Hawaiians aren't just going to immediately accept his claims that Christianity is the only path to heaven. They have their own religious beliefs and customs, and Abner's tendency to angrily criticize these things quickly leads to a tense, complicated relationship with the Hawaiian people. Things get even more complicated with the arrival of Captain Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris, Unforgiven), a whaler whose free-spirited presence irritates Abner considerably. Making matters even knottier: once upon a time, Rafer was engaged to be married to Jerusha.
The love triangle aspect of Hawaii is perhaps the film's least successful element, mostly due to the fact that the film does too good a job of establishing Jerusha's unwavering devotion to Abner early on. It's hard to believe that a conservative, prim-and-proper woman like Jerusha was once engaged to a salty sea dog like Abner, much less that she would be willing to sneak away for a midnight rendezvous with him in a moment of temptation and doubt. Still, it's easy to understand why the filmmakers felt a need to include such material: without a salacious love triangle, how were 1960s marketing executives supposed to sell a movie that otherwise largely devotes itself to A) underlining the rigidity and hypocrisy of religion and B) taking white westerners to task for their arrogance and cruelty?
The meat of the movie is in the story of Abner's haughty refusal to bend to the customs and traditions of the people he's trying to “save.” This is the tale of a man who finds a happy, contented island paradise and then proceeds to claim that the people who live there are doing everything wrong and they should all feel horribly guilty about it. At one point, Abner is shown a statue that has been regarded as a sacred relic for centuries. “An idol!” he fumes, storming over to knock it down. Despite the gentle (and occasionally not-so-gentle) pleading of Jerusha and Prince Keoki, Abner only seems to grow angrier and more judgmental with time. It's appropriate (if a little heavy-handed) that the conflict between Abner and the Hawaiians climaxes with a literal thunderstorm. The script was co-written by Dalton Trumbo, who turned massive blockbusters into mature meditations on religion on multiple occasions during the 1960s (Spartacus and Exodus are the other prominent examples).
This was one of Von Sydow's early Hollywood roles, coming right on the heels of his turn as Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. He makes the shift from righteousness to self-righteousness with ease, effectively making Abner an irritating but compelling stick-in-the-mud who does a persistently poor job of representing his faith (to emphasize this and to assure audiences that the film isn't actually an attack on Christianity, the tale occasionally contrasts Abner with an earnest, kind-hearted minister played by a young Gene Hackman, The French Connection). Harris has the more colorful, entertaining role – the sort of part that tees Harris up for scene-stealing – but it's Von Sydow's stern fuming that lingers with you. As for Andrews, well... she's as appealing as ever, but the part she's given doesn't really justify her top billing (she was a bigger star than Von Sydow at the time... in Hollywood, anyway). Most of the time, she's tasked with simply playing “the wife,” which she does well even if it seems like a poor use of her talent. Admittedly, the character is slightly better-developed in the 189-minute “roadshow” version of the film, which is included on the new Blu-ray release of Hawaii as an incredibly shabby-looking standard-def bonus feature.
This film certainly doesn't have the stylish modern snap of the work Hill would subsequently do on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, but it's a handsome, professionally-crafted piece of filmmaking that only occasionally starts to sag under the weight of its running time. Hill makes the most of his attractive island locations, and his work gets a considerable boost from a wonderful, diverse score penned by the great Elmer Bernstein. Hill also shamelessly takes advantage of what we might refer to as “the National Geographic loophole,” getting away with a good deal of female nudity simply because the women on display have darker skin. Oh, Hollywood.
Given that the film was made in the 1960s, it's perhaps inevitable that the Hawaiians are often treated as props rather than as people (not that things have improved dramatically today – just look at Cameron Crowe's Aloha for a recent movie that does the same thing to an even sharper degree). While Prince Keoki and the enchanting Malama Kanakoa (Jocelyn LaGarde, who earned an Oscar nomination for her one and only screen performance) get a handful of strong scenes, Hawaii is ultimately less about their struggle than about the lessons Abner (eventually) learns. Still, the film does have some worthwhile things to say about the colonialist attitude sometimes displayed by Christian missionaries throughout history... the feeling that you must make an entire culture match your own rather than attempting to integrate the message of the gospel into the culture that already exists. It's not one of the great screen epics of the era, but it's a handsome, absorbing film anchored by some thoughtful ideas and a strong Von Sydow performance.
Rating: ★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 161 minutes
Release Year: 1966