James Michener, who has already been discussed in Western Islands, published the first installment of his two-volume fictional treatment of life in Hawaii in 1959, the year Hawaii became a state. Not everyone on the islands appreciated the work, which gave most of its attention to those who came from the Mainland. The brief account of Hawaii’s ancient history at the beginning of the 1966 film was off-base and inadequate. The always well-intentioned Michener did a somewhat better job of it in the book.
Based on the Michener novel (1959), there is an Overture with travelogue scenes and show music. The film, five years in the making, begins with a narrated legend that tells of the ancestral home of the Hawaiians at Bora Bora. Here was the home of “Great Kane, (say Ka-nay) father of the universe and all that lived therein,” and the others, including the “little mother,” Pele (say Pay-lay). Long ago, this place was beset by a new god who had an “appetite for human sacrifice.” King Kanakoa, wishing to run away from the evil god Oro, loaded a great canoe and set off to the north toward a prophesied land where his people could worship Kane, the Gentle. They were guided by Manu the Shark. In the canoe, they carried a sacred stone containing the spirit of Kane. When they came to Hawaii, they lived there in harmony for over thirty generations, until the white sails came and once again brought a devastating new god. In the midst of the legend, the credits roll.
The scene shifts to Yale College in 1819 where a young Hawaiian prince named Keoki Kanakoa is lecturing theology students on the depredations visited on his island home by the white race (not an easy topic for a Hollywood blockbuster). He speaks of the coming of Captain Cook 43 years earlier, bringing a powerful new god and a plague of ills. A graduate student named Abner Hale (Max von Sydow), is inspired to apply for missionary duty in Hawaii. He must first find a wife, and a good deal of screen time is given to his courtship and marriage to Jerusha Bromley (Julie Andrews). They are sent to the Pacific to “bring the heathen to the Lord, and civilize them.” It is a rough voyage on the ship Thetis, but the travails of the passage serve to demonstrate the rectitude of the reverend. He persuades the captain to pitch his un-Christian novels overboard. Their passage around the Horn is vivid and believable.
The film is about 45 minutes old when the fabled islands rise on the horizon. Boats full of half naked Hawaiians come to meet them. They land at Lahaina on Maui, where the young prince is reunited with his mother. The king rules at Honolulu, but she is the reigning matriarch here on Maui. Called Malama, the Alii Neui (Jocelyn LaGarde), she is meeting her first haole women, and takes a liking to Mrs. Hale. Haole (say ha-olay) refers to a person of non-Hawaiian descent, not always with affection. Reverend Hale is outraged by almost everything he encounters. Malama rules with a firm hand, but eventually allows Hale to build a church. He sets out to convert her to Christianity, and wants her to give up her married life with her beloved brother.
NOTE: Despite modern sentiments that hold the missionaries accountable for robbing the island people of their traditional beliefs, it is a fact that the female royalty of the Hawaiian Kingdom enthusiastically embraced Christianity. It was a more or less direct reaction to the violent conquests visited upon the islands by the revered culture hero, King Kamehameha (say Ka-may-ha-may-ha) .
After a time, the man Jerusha first loved, a sea captain named Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris), arrives with a touch of the realities of Civilization. As always, the local girls swim out to the ship. When he realizes that Jerusha is on the island, he threatens to disrupt her family life. He leaves them alone when he learns that she is pregnant. She has a difficult birth. The years pass and their son grows; so does their church. The imposition of Civilization on the gentle people of Hawaii is a sad spectacle, calling to mind the missionary work in African Queen, and At Play in the Fields of the Lord. Malama issues a series of laws designed to Christianize the island. Harris calls on her to declare his opposition. There will be hostilities. The sailors torch Lahaina and attempt to burn the church. Harris tries to take Jerusha away (they actually kiss!), but she stays with the well-meaning but pathetic and overbearing reverend.
The scene opens in a built-up downtown Lahaina, with the banyan tree in the square. Hale is grooming his young son for Yale. They have another boy and an infant daughter. Hale is no less upright and insufferable. He continues to pressure Malama to renounce the man she loves, Kelolo. She cannot bring herself to give up her love, though she loves Jesus as well. Hale refuses to ordain Keoki because he still tells the legends of his people to the children. The prince now regrets that he went to America and brought back the missionaries.
Malama dies by intention, like the old Indian in Little Big Man. From her deathbed she renounces her brother, Kelolo, and Hale baptizes her. When she dies, a hurricane comes and blows the church away. Hale learns that she left secret instructions to dig up her bones and hide them in ancient caves, then return her heart to Bora Bora. Kelolo has torn out one of his eyes. The people return to the Old Ways and Hale prays for their destruction, calling on God to curse them. He goes to the burial ground and desecrates the idols. Kelolo presides over the wedding of Keoki and his beautiful sister. They produce a child that is horribly deformed. Hale thunders from the pulpit on God’s wrath as Keoki drowns the child in the sea.
Soon after, a plague of measles comes to the island and many die, including Keoki. The doctor rages that when Captain Cook came fifty years before this place was a paradise, now there is a danger of no native Hawaiians surviving the coming of the white man. Jerusha demands to know if Abner believes everything he reads in the Bible, and tells her husband she will not believe in a god who would do these things. She says it is their greed and arrogance, their inability to see the beauty of these people that has afflicted the islands. She pleads with him to give her and the Hawaiians his love.
Years pass, and Harris arrives from New England with a house for Jerusha. But she has died. Her tombstone reads d. 1834. Harris has gone into the shipping business, and so have several of the ministers of the original company. More years pass and Hale devotes his life to helping the Hawaiians resist the exploitation of the sugar growers. He learns that the church has decided to invest in sugar plantations. Hale replies, “we are taking the land of the people we came to save while they are dying before our eyes.”
Hale is told that they are transferring him to a church in Connecticut. His three children take ship back to New England to complete their schooling. He cannot find it in himself to embrace them. He remains in the island without a church, no sustenance, and no friends. A boy whose life Jerusha saved turns up to aid him in his freelance ministry. He has gone a bit daft, and thinks that his wife, Jerusha, still lives. The movie manages to squeeze an ounce of nobility out of this deranged old man who remains singularly determined to serve the will of God, as he interprets it, despite the destruction he has brought.
The Hawaiians (1970)
A sequel to Hawaii (1966), this film is not pretty. It is an epic of the American presence in the Hawaiian islands at the time of the annexation. Charlton Heston embodies American ambition in the character of Whip Hoxworth. There is nothing hopeful about this film. It deals almost entirely with the diseases and other abuses visited on the native Hawaiians and Oriental immigrants at roughly the turn of the century. It opens with Whip captaining a small vessel loaded with Chinese slave laborers bound for Hawaii. There are two groups from opposing clans. He treats them with cruel indifference and only aspires to get a good price for them on the docks in Honolulu. There is a young woman in the hold with a hundred or more men and we are meant to think she goes unmolested except for the attentions of the man she loves.
When they get to port, Whip is met by his wife, Purity (Geraldine Chaplin). She convinces him to take the Chinese man and woman from the hold as servants. Whip learns that his grandfather has died and left the family shipping company to others who are more stable. Both Purity and the Chinese woman have babies. Whip has inherited a worthless plantation and will try to make a go of it. Thus far, not a single Hawaiian has appeared onscreen.
Purity speaks of the canoe migrations as if she were a Hawaiian but it is hard to believe. It develops that she is one quarter Hawaiian royalty and is going insane. The marriage will end. Whip has acquired a pineapple from French Guiana and with the help of the Chinese woman he experiments in making it grow. When they are successful, he gives her a gift of a plot of land. Whip uses the family ship to take a raiding party to Guiana to capture more pineapples and bring them back to the plantation.
The Chinese man contracts leprosy and must be taken to Molokai. His wife goes with him, leaving her sons behind. When the boat nears the island, the lepers are thrown into the water. Wading to the beach, they are attacked by the lepers onshore. Whip goes to find his wife who has returned to her people. She rejects him and he takes away their son. Next he goes to Molokai to fetch another baby. He is attacked by the lepers and beats them off with a club. There is a time jump and the boy is now a young man who wants to go off to sea. Whip now runs a huge pineapple plantation with Japanese laborers. He falls in love with one of them and takes her for a wife. The Chinese woman, old and worn, returns to the plantation to be reunited with her sons.
The new Hawaiian Queen makes an appearance on the island. Whip learns that she is working to expel white people from Hawaii. He organizes a resistance and is arrested for treason. There is a protracted scene at the palace in Honolulu where the matronly Queen takes a strong position on sentencing Whip to execution. She is dissuaded when her American advisors inform her that there are American troops in the palace yard. Hawaii is annexed. Whip’s son returns to the island now fully grown and in search of a wife. In Chinatown, cases of bubonic plague have appeared. The Chinese woman and her sons are building a business empire. Whip’s son informs him that he is in love with a Chinese girl. She was the baby that Whip rescued from Molokai. The plague is ravaging Chinatown. Whip and his son are at odds over how to handle it. Whip is an arrogant bastard to the end. Officials dynamite the town to kill the infection. The fire spreads and Whip performs some half-hearted heroics in helping people to escape. There is a moment of reconciliation between Whip and the Chinese woman where they discuss the possibility of their children marrying. The End. Based on the last chapters of Michener’s novel, this is a saga of scope and importance, but poorly wrought. To make matters worse, this film was released in the British Isles under the title, Master of the Islands.
Diamond Head (1962)
Charlton Heston plays practically the same role he would later play in the sequel to Hawaii. He is a plantation owner in Hawaii with a huge spread is in the shadow of Diamond Head on Oahu. In a role for which he could not be more suited, Heston plays a rigid, unfeeling, arrogant white man who rules his empire with brute force and a sure sense of superiority. His sensitive young sister (Yvette Mimieux) represents the next generation. She loves her brother but cannot abide his ways. Heston makes a beautiful Chinese girl pregnant, but will not take more than cursory responsibility. She dies in childbirth and Yvette takes the baby to the plantation. She has been having a troubled affair with the doctor who delivered the baby. The two are reconciled, despite Heston’s efforts to disrupt the relationship with physical intimidation. The lovers leave the plantation and Heston rides off on his abused horse to think about his life. He has a stiff and unconvincing change of heart and sets out to reclaim his infant son. The End.
Picture Bride (1994)
There is a black and white prolog with subtitles, beginning the story of a young girl in Japan who has sent her photo to Hawaii and now will travel there to be a “picture bride.” The color portion opens in the Territory of Hawaii, 1918. She discovers that her new husband is much older than his photo, but they are married. He takes her to his poor shack on a plantation. It is not an auspicious beginning. Indeed the movie is devoted to the hardships of her life and the small joys she finds in the cane fields. There is some English spoken by the plantation owners, but most of the dialogue remains in subtitles. This is a Hawaiian-made film.
Molokai: The Story of Father Damien (1999)
This film was made to very high industry standards, but in the end it is a very straightforward biography of a dedicated priest who cared for lepers on the island of Molokai. A number of major Hollywood stars make cameo appearances in this project. There is not much to the story. Young Father Damien goes to the island and finds it is impossible to leave. He spends his life struggling to get attention paid to his cause. It ends with his death. There is a print legend that says in 1940 a cure was found for leprosy, but there are still thousands of cases reported every year. The cinematography is beautiful.