Hawaii. A cinema spectacle is like a ten-ton mouse: who needs it? A live one is a miracle, and the public will pay plenty for a peek. A dead one stinks so loud nobody will go near it. Most spectacles these days are born dead. Hawaii, as it happens, is a normal, lively, fairly intelligent ten-ton mouse.
A mountain labored to bring it forth. Producer Walter Mirisch, having paid James Michener $600,000 for the screen rights to a 937-page bestseller that has SOLD 4,000,000 copies, backed his investment with a wad that less than a century ago would have bought the island the picture is named after. For $14,000,000 he got Panavision, Color by Deluxe, top-chop talent (Julie Andrews, Max von Sydow, Richard Harris), two shrewd scripters (Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash), and a director (George Roy Hill) whose dependability is warm milk to any producer's ulcer.
Hill and his writers had a mighty-hard coconut to crack. About as cinematic as the Honolulu telephone directory, Michener's epic was subdivided into four laboriously correlated novels that described Hawaii's four main ethnic groups (Polynesian, White, Chinese, Japanese) and presented an exhaustive social, political, religious and even geological history of the islands since the Paleolithic period. From this embarrassment of snitches, Hill & Co. selected two strong narrative threads and with them delineated a simple, impressive picture of how God-fearing but life-hating missionaries destroyed the warm brown souls they came to save.
The hero (Von Sydow) is a prune-faced New England parson insuperably identified with deity. Blankly unable to perceive that the islanders are more Christian than the Christians, this religious imperialist with ruthless righteousness throws down their god of love and raises up in its stead a god of wrath. With their religion in ruins, the Hawaiians lie open to all the blessings of civilization: whisky, syphilis and economic exploitation. By film's end the native nation in only 50 years has withered from 400,000 to less than 150,000 souls, and the parson is forced to assume the white man's burden of guilt and reparation.
Whenever a dull moment threatens, Hill rummages around in Michener's bottomless bag of epic tricks and comes up with windstorms, conflagrations, eruptions, street fights, breech births, shark attacks, luaus, lava-lavas and assorted shouts and muumuusnot to mention a large number of young wahines who appear in a state of nature and fill the giant screen with impressive outcroppings of what Hawaiians call papaia. What's more, the principals play with aplomb. Julie Andrews brings both sensuality and sensibility to a role that might easily have wallowed in sweetness and light. And Von Sydow is superb as the parson. He plays him larger than life: as a personification of the historic battle between the Puritan psychosis and the natural man, as a Parson Davidson who encounters, instead of Sadie Thompson, Mother Nature herself.