If Hollywood were subject to truth in packaging laws, its promotion of many movies would certainly be grounds for lawsuits. A case could be brought against Mirisch and United Artists for its promotion of "Hawaii" as being based on James Michener's novel of the same title. In reality, this film is based on one chapter – about 17% of the book. It's also billed as epic and that's questionable because it covers just a little more than 20 years. If one was expecting to see Michener's epic on film, this isn't it. Nor is there a whole film on the novel.
But, it is a fair rendition of chapter three of the novel. It's a story of some of the earliest Christian missionaries – the Calvinists, and their efforts to convert the native Hawaiians. The screenplay interweaves some of the folklore of chapter two as well, with the flight of the people a millennium before from Bora Bora. It covers well the traditional conflict that drove the people to flee to this new land. As Malama Kanakoa (played by Jocelyne LaGarde) says, they fled because other islands were trying to force them to worship the terrible and mean god of fire, Oro. The people wanted to keep their god of happiness, Tãne, so they brought him with them to Hawaii.
The movie shows the clash of cultures that occurred. Such happens throughout history with the movement of peoples from one place to another. Religion, social customs, dress, food and all aspects of society and life clash when different cultures collide. Here, the major clash is between religious beliefs. The purveyor of the Calvinist brand of Christianity here is an even sterner and harsher missionary, Rev. Abner Hale, played by Max von Sydow. He is accompanied by his new wife, Jerusha Bromley, played by Julie Andrews.
The plot has a little intrigue, with a former love interest of Jerusha's in Capt. Rafer Hoxworth. Richard Harris plays the whaling master, who is portrayed as a heathen in his own right. Some other major characters are Dr. John Whipple (Gene Hackman), Keoki (Manu Tupou), and Charles Bromley (Carroll O'Connor).
The story begins around 1820. It was filmed in Hawaii, Tahiti, Norway and the living history museum of Old Sturbidge Village in Massachusetts. It was a box office success, yielding more than twice its budget. And, it was well received by the critics of the day. But, it failed to garner a single Oscar form seven nominations for Academy Awards. The only major awards it won were two Golden Globes. Jocelyne LaGarde was chosen by the Hollywood foreign press as best supporting actress. And Elmer Bernstein won the Globe for best original score.
Both of these were well deserved. While all the players were adequate to good, one other stood out. Max von Sydow was excellent as Rev. Abner Hale. He put energy into the role. And, he got slapped around and knocked down more times than any character I can recall in my years of watching movies. He did receive a Golden Globe nomination as best actor.
Hale was Michener's caricature of Hiram Bingham, the real early New England missionary to Hawaii. Bingham led the first group of Protestant missionaries to the Sandwich Islands (the Kingdom of Hawaii). They arrived in 1819. He eventually won over the queen, Ka-ahumanu, and urged her to develop a strong anti-Catholic policy. Hawaiians who became Catholic were persecuted for decades. As the movie shows, the missionaries in time began commercial enterprises and many became founding families of the new state.
With a fine musical score and wonderful scenic shots, the film still comes up short. It doesn't seem to have much life. At times, it seems somewhat like a daytime soap opera. But for von Sydow's exuberant performance (almost scary at times), the characters seem mostly to just be going through the motions of putting on a play. Manu Tupou as Keoki comes alive in a couple of scenes, but otherwise the story and the film seem flat. The story is just interesting enough to keep one watching. But by no means is this an epic film. An epic production of Michener's novel would be welcome.