George Roy Hill's 1966 feature Hawaii (based on the popular novel by James A. Michener) offered an inconsistent but generally compelling portrait of a culture clash between 19th Century Hawaiian natives and an aggressive missionary (Max von Sydow) seeking to “save” the land by forcing Christianity and western values on the natives. Tom Gries' 1970 sequel The Hawaiians (also based on Michener's novel – it's a long book, okay?) begins a whopping forty years later and sports a very tenuous connection to the original, but it largely covers similar themes in an updated setting. Unfortunately, The Hawaiians suffers from a problem that afflicts many sequels in many different genres: it feels like less of the same.
The Hawaii of Hawaii was more or less an island paradise occupied by small, humble huts. The Hawaii of The Hawaiians looks much more like a traditional “civilized society,” with horses and buggies trotting past a host of charming little shops and people of many different ethnicities bustling through the streets. The westerners have won, it would seem, despite the lessons in humility that the main characters had learned by the end of Hawaii.
Our central figure this time around is not a missionary, but a businessman: Whipple “Whip” Hoxworth (Charlton Heston, The Ten Commandments) – the grandson of the salty sea dog played by Richard Harris in the first film – has returned to his Hawaii home to discover that his grandfather has passed on and left everything to his drunken cousin Micah (Alec McCowan, Gangs of New York). Determined not to let this setback stop him from making a fortune, Whip starts his own plantation and tasks Chinese immigrant Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen, Three Days of the Condor) with helping him figure out how to grow pineapples in Hawaii (never mind that he stole the pineapples).
Like its predecessor, The Hawaiians is a vast technicolor production boasting gorgeous outdoor locations, impressive sets, handsome costumes and lush, sweeping music (Henry Mancini steps in for Elmer Bernstein and delivers one of his strongest scores of the 1970s). It's aesthetically pleasing from top to bottom, but the story is so dull and muddled that the film struggles to gain anything resembling real dramatic momentum.
A large portion of Hawaii was an increasingly high-stakes game of cultural one-upmanship between a missionary and a local leader (with both sides feeling the souls of Hawaiian citizens were at stake). The Hawaiians crafts a similarly competitive but considerably friendlier business-themed relationship between Whip and Nyuk Tsin, both of whom have a knack for figuring out how to undercut each other. As the film proceeds, both characters create powerful competing empires and get tossed into a series of complicated family dramas. Maybe the battle for financial power just isn't as inherently interesting as the battle for religious power, or maybe it's that Gries' direction never reaches the urgency of Hill's.
Heston's performance is an impressively nasty piece of work from an actor who traditionally played likable everymen. Heston knows that Whip is a racist, selfish opportunist, and while he doesn't attempt to make us feel sympathy for the character, he does find traces of humanity buried beneath the surface. He has some particularly interesting moments late in the film, as he's forced to confront the idea that he may be a terrible father. Chen's performance is quieter, but no less compelling, as she essays a woman who gets what she wants in subtler, less direct ways. A less successful supporting turn is provided by Geraldine Chaplin (Nashville), who struggles to make Whip's mentally tormented wife as compelling as she ought to be.
Perhaps The Hawaiians might have felt richer if United Artists had adapted the rest of Michener's novel, a madly ambitious affair which begins at the dawn of time and ends as Hawaii is on the cusp of becoming the 50th state in the U.S. As it is, it feels like an expensive footnote to the original, which covered similar territory with considerably more eloquence and power. Despite some genuine virtues, this one is largely a handsome bore about a handsome boor.
Rating: ★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 134 minutes
Release Year: 1970