A rugged marine and a prim nun find themselves stranded on an island and confront sexual temptation amidst mortal danger and unrelenting tropical heat.
Yet as realized by director/co-writer John Huston, however, the sexual tension never ventures into tawdriness, though the two leads, Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, share a superb chemistry, sexual and otherwise, that explains why they would go on to star in three more films together.
Her politesse and his no-fucks-given screen personae in theory might produce some antagonistic tension, but instead, the two meld quite beautifully, not in conflict but in concord, each complementing the other. When I see them together, I never forget that I’m watching a couple of movie stars, but I’m also aware of two actors with very little vanity. I think this is why Mitchum and Kerr work so well together. They’re never in competition, and their focus flows directly toward each other rather than the camera.
Their chemistry also explains how they can carry a full feature as the only two credited actors playing a man and a woman stranded on an abandoned island.
If one extrapolates this “desert island” situation to an Adam-and-Eve scenario, it’s Kerr in the Adam role, and Mitchum, probably godless and usually shirtless, better suited to Eve, his character a perpetual bodily temptation to the pure spirit of the nun at his side. They’re even more primal than Adam and Eve for a good deal of the film, reduced to living for an extended period in a cave to evade capture by a Japanese contingent that has set up a military base on the beach. It’s hard to get more carnal than cavemen.
The name of the source novel for this film, The Flesh and The Spirit (by Australian John Shaw) would actually have made a better title for the movie, as it captures the interplay between the two characters far better than Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which suggests some sort of light romantic comedy more along the lines of Cary Grant’s WWII island romp, Father Goose, which this most definitely is not.
Mitchum is unquestionably “the flesh” here, from the moment he arrives on the island via life raft and emerges from the beach, making his way stealthily through the jungle-esque flora like 200 pounds of solid fuck.
Kerr’s novice nun, in her gleaming white habit and apostolnik, flutters in both body and speech, contrasting with Mitchum’s assured physicality and gruff, blunt pronouncements. She is the spirit in the story, but not without a corporeal presence, suggested in the flow of fabric as she races through the sand.
The demure white habit gets sullied, not metaphorically but literally, after a drunken Mitchum reveals some hard truths about their future together alone on the island, prompting a panic that leads Kerr racing out into the driving rain to collapse in the darkness. When Mitchum discovers her the next morning, she’s delirious and trembling with fever – and who but Mitch is left to peel her out of that mud-soaked habit?
The big reveal, Kerr’s shock of red hair in a modest cut, is purposefully anti-climactic. She’s unbothered by her exposure, which in turn sets Mitchum at ease, allowing his prior undressing of her unconscious body to culminate and complete his erotic fixation. His sentimental attachment remains, unchallenged and unencumbered by her chastity vows.
The spirit defeats the flesh.
At least Kerr’s character accomplished something. For the rest of the film, she’s fairly helpless and mostly cowers in the cave while Mitchum hunts for food, steals supplies, and sabotages Japanese weaponry. I would have enjoyed a bit less inaction and a bit more wit from the nun.
While Kerr stays back, Mitchum alone contends with the Japanese soldiers, who, somewhat to my surprise, are depicted as quite human. Since our only exposure to them is through Mitchum’s spying and eavesdropping, we get a candid look at war in repose – soldiers playing games and drinking, generally being human rather than enemy. They are still the other, observed warily but not really understood, yet they come across not as monsters of battle, but more as fleeting faces destined as pawns in a conflict beyond their individual scope, which we see more in terms of drunken dancing than warmongering.
Huston’s film succeeds in the genre of thwarted romance – or romance that becomes almost palpable but never complete. John Huston can pull this off by filling the story with external tensions while the two leads circle each other cautiously and longingly. The leads never get full satisfaction, but the viewer does. In this sense, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison reminds me somewhat of Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, with Robert Forster and Pam Grier as the almost-couple in question, skirting danger and death while falling into something approximating love.
Not all great love affairs are meant to be, but some of the near misses have a yearning sexuality and a resonant emotional depth that most fully realized romances could never touch.