The 1966 Hawaii, directed by George Roy Hill, is better than it has any right to be. Though titled after the 1138 page hardcover novel by James A. Michener, it’s really only chapter 3—subtitled “From the Farm of Bitterness”—that runs slightly under three hundred pages. If possible that you can actually get through Michener, whose contribution to American letters is a form of slumberology as art (the sweeps of his novels are like winter-long sagas for readers and his extraordinary politeness, propriety and taxing continuity not too far removed from the punishment of cabin fever), you find yourself amazed that, in spite of the parade of directors (including Fred Zinnemann who planned on using Alec Guinness and Audrey Hepburn in a four hour jobbie) and writers who took a frustrating stab at and failed in trying to bring Hawaii to the screen, the finished movie somehow wins you over by insistently staying with the chapter’s story, which contains one of the most intensely dislikable central characters to come out of late 50s fiction: Calvinist preacher Abner Hale, who volunteers to convert the pagan Hawaiians of 1820. Reading Abner’s weighty admonitions—and listening to Max von Sydow’s version of them in the movie—you want to scream from the mindlessness of his religious infantility. Yet it’s Von Sydow’s article of faith performance, and George Roy Hill’s determination to make Abner an object lesson, that propel the movie onward, and, despite all the calamities, somehow concludes rather movingly. And it’s got a few pluses. As Malama the Alii Nui, Tahitian Jocelyne La Garde is a comic relief who knows how to throw her 300 lb. around; an amateur who claimed this is her one and only role, she’s a scene stealer with a natural magnanimity that even our most seasoned veterans rarely display. Richard Harris gets promoted from crew member in 1962’s Mutiny on the Bounty to dashing Captain Rafer; Carroll O’Connor, Gene Hackman, John Cullum, George Rose, Lou Antonio and Heather Menzies offer limited support. In a minor stroke of casting genius, costume designer Dorothy Jeakins mutely plays Abner’s mother. When the camera is on her, we know exactly where Abner’s abhorrent coldness comes from. Julie Andrews cuts it—barely. The boring 1970 sequel, The Hawaiians, with Charlton Heston and a load of Chinese, starts with the novel’s fourth chapter, “From the Starving Village,” but a lot of viewers may think they’re seeing The Sand Pebbles II. Oscar nominations: best supporting actress (La Garde), color cinematography (Russell Harlan), color costumes (Jeakins), sound, special visual effects, original score (Elmer Bernstein) and original song (“My Wishing Doll,” sung by Andrews early in the movie). Filmed in Panavision.
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