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MICHENER CONDENSED

The 1966 Hawaii, directed by George Roy Hill, is better than it has any right to be. Consider its source: a 1138 page novel by James A. Michener. May be next to impossible to actually get through Michener, whose contribution to American letters is a form of slumber-inducing sadism; the sweeps of his novels are like winter-long sagas and his extraordinary politeness, propriety and taxing continuity not too far removed from the punishment of cabin fever. There’s no lack of understanding why a list of writers failed in frustration to condense Hawaii for the screen; it’s a mini Genesis of interminable genealogic word spill. The mystery for adapters is finding the movie’s starting point to get to chapter 3—subtitled “From the Farm of Bitterness”—that, slightly under three hundred turgid pages, is about 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 Max’s article of faith performance and the determination of George Roy Hill and screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash to make Abner an object lesson that propel the movie onward; you find yourself amazed and respectful at how they win you over by staying with the son of a bitch. One huge additional plus: Tahitian Jocelyne La Garde who, as comic relief Malama the Alii Nui, knows how to throw her 350 pounds around; an amateur who spoke only French before accepting her role, she’s a scene stealer with equally abounding magnanimity. Richard Harris gets promoted from mutinous 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 stroke of casting genius, costume designer Dorothy Jeakins mutely plays Abner’s mother; when the camera is on her, we know 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, is lifted from the novel’s fourth chapter, “From the Starving Village,” but a lot of viewers will receive pardons for thinking they’re watching The Sand Pebbles II. Original length 3 hrs, 9 minutes. Filmed in Panavision, with 70mm blowups. (Opening 10/18/1966 at the Palace, running 47 weeks.)

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).

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com 

Text COPYRIGHT © 2000 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.