If you are a really ardent devotee of the Late Show, you will doubtless remember a picture called Green Dolphin Street, a Lana Turner-Van Heflin epic of the mid-'40's. In this one, Turner and Heflin are madly tempestuously in love amidst the turmoil of young growing New Zealand, complete with floods, forest fires, earthquakes, childbirth, and assorted variations on the seven deadly sins.
One of these would-be epics emerges every five years or so, and the newest is Hawaii. In fifteen years Hawaii will have sunk into almost total obscurity, remembered only by the next generation of Late Show addicts and ex-Julie Andrews fans. For the present, the best advice I can give you is to pretend it's not there, and certainly to forget that its stars worked with some distinction for Hitch-cock, Bergman, and Antonioni.
Hawaii purports to be a saga of the ruin of a perfect, if primitive, society at the hands of imperialistic religious zealots, come from New England to bring Christianity to the heathens. The script focuses on Abner Hale (Max von Sydow), a dense Bible-thumping Reverend who blunders proudly into the Hawaiian islands with his wife Jerusha (Julie Andrews) and, in the course of a generation, corrupts the island he has come to save, wearing out his wife in the process.Hawaii, then, has pretensions toward huge themes: the conflict between love of God and love of women, the problem of literal interpretation of the Bible--in short, anything that has anything to do with God and man and love and society. Huge themes.
The film-making aims for a similar scope, spewing forth spectacle and color everywhere. But Hawaii falls flat on its face on both counts. Far from achieving any dramatic or visual size, Hawaii is only an omnibus of low-level emotional and physical discomforts: boredom, embarrassment, seasickness, minor bruises, labor pains, first degree burns, and others on a similar scale.
With the passions and the sufferings of the characters told in such mundane terms, one might at least expect Hawaii to provide external spectacle. But the storm sequence, designed to be the end-all movie typhoon, is miserable: the studio backgrounds are obvious, the camera set-ups repetitive, and the action disjoined and unrealistic. The climatic hurricane is just a breeze compared to the one Jon Hall and Dorothy Lamour went through back in '39, and anti-climactically, the deadly scourge that sweeps across Hawaii seriously depleting the population is just an epidemic of measles.
If Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo's script manages to establish any characterization at all, it does so by repetition rather than incisive writing. The Reverend Hale, played Swedishly by von Sydow, is so unswervingly dogmatic about his job that he soon exhausts the audience, which watches his predictable life-story with bovine good nature, groaning "Oh no, not again!" at his every line. Julie Andrews stoically survives the pangs of sexual frustration, the pain of childbirth, and the ravages of time, until the make-up department decides she can't take any more, at which point she is allowed to die offscreen.
Richard Harris plays Rafer Hoxworth, an old flame of Miss Andrews, with an enthusiasm that can only be traced to a probable conviction that he was acting in another movie. Although he appears frequently, at one time arriving with a complete New England house boxed and numbered, his effect on the central action is non-existent. Trumbo and Taradash obviously intended Hoxworth to pump some life into the sorry mess, but he remains curiously unaffecting and eerily unaffected. When the tide flows out after 20-some-odd years (how did they ever manage to squeeze it all into three-and-a-half hours?) all we know about this elusive virile fellow is that he has grown rich and a moustache, but never changed his jacket. While working as a male nurse during the measles epidemic, he takes it off, but that doesn't really count.
As if it weren't enough that the characters look and sound like guests stars on Bonanza, the whole movie smells of television. Not surprising: George Roy Hill, the metteur-en-scene, learned his art in a TV studo, and Hawaii suffers the consequences. Rarely using long shots, Hill always cuts to closeups when he needs dramatic intensity, a standard TV technique for "grabbing" the audience. Although close-ups can be an extremely effective dramatic device (see Hitchcock's Sabotage at Harvard Film Studies this fall), they are rarely as effective when the film is in Panavision, a wide-screen process with a 1 to 2.5 screen ratio. Wide-screen has plagued directors for more than a decade; Fritz Lang says it's only good for filming "snakes and funerals," and Hitchcock doesn't like it because you can "always trim the sides off." In any case, TV filming has little relation to moviemaking, and even less to wide-screen moviemaking. Hill's idea of composing a Panavision frame is summed up in a shot of Hawaii's harbor: half a dozen ships neatly positioned in a horizontal straight line from screen left to screen right. Fortunately, unless they invent a cinemascope TV set, Late Show watchers 15 years from now will be spared 60 per cent of the screen when Hawaii is crammed into the square picture tube.
Russell Harlan's color photography is dreadful--the blues and greens are hopelessly washed out--and for this I suspect we can again blame Mr. Hill, since Harlan has done superb work on other films, most notably Hawks' Rio Bravo. Hill's inability to fill the screen with anything attractive, let alone relevant, is Hawaii's coup de grace. Movies have survived mediocre scripts, but Hawaii is as cinematic as a fly preserved in amber, and that's the kiss of death.