Hawaii's Half-Century Mark
Fifty years after United Artists staged its October 10 world premiere (at New York’s DeMille Theatre off Times Square) of the grandly scaled adaptation of James A. Michener’s historical epic Hawaii (1966), kicking off a healthy roadshow and subsequent general-release run making it that year’s second-highest grosser (a whopping $34 million box office), the massive movie still evokes pleasurable frissons that come with ambitiously conceived, gorgeously scenic and thematically adult “event” filmmaking. At a time when the spread of American culture and our nation’s intervention in the affairs of other territories created ripples of dissent and rebellion, Michener’s early 19th-century tale of the first missionaries bringing rigid Christian values to the unspoiled Pacific island natives already carried the DNA strands of the questioning attitudes that would flower in the next couple of years. Drawing specifically from the huge tome’s third chapter From the Farm of Bitterness, adaptors Dalton Trumbo and Daniel Taradash adeptly fashioned a compelling, decades-spanning portrait of a culture soon to roil with change as well as an often tender depiction of an arranged marriage – between a rock-hard, fire-and-brimstone Calvinist New England missionary (Max von Sydow) championing dogma and a sensitive yet vibrantly strong wife (Julie Andrews) embodying greater humanity than her spouse – that stumbled and splintered on the journey to lasting love. This blending of colorful pageantry and intimate struggles was more precise in its handling than, say, David Lean’s Russian Revolution-set, incredibly popular Doctor Zhivago of the prior year, and to some viewers, perhaps more thoughtful and moving than Lean’s spectacle. Hawaii marked the first foray into the epic realm for director George Roy Hill, and the veteran of television’s golden age of live drama whose only movies at that point had been the character-driven pieces Period of Adjustment, Toys in the Attic and The World of Henry Orient (the last-named on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray) ensured the movie’s appeal by investing the 189-minute saga with as strong a sense of people as place. The reserved-seat audience got its $15-million budget money’s worth in stormy seas, paganistic ceremonies and island pestilence, as well as glimpses of future favorites in the supporting cast that included Richard Harris, Gene Hackman, Carroll O’Connor and John Cullum, plus the warm and utterly natural radiance of the Polynesian Jocelyne Le Garde in her only screen appearance as Queen Malama, rewarded with a Best Supporting Actress Oscar® nomination and Golden Globe Award. After half a century, with vivid characters, beautiful Russell Harlan cinematography and immersive Elmer Bernstein score, the film still sparks appreciation that sometimes surpasses that of other roadshow films of its decade. As critic/historian Jim Hemphill wrote in his The Digital Bits review earlier this year of TT’s Blu-ray issued in January: “Whatever the reasons for its appeal at the time, today Hawaii stands as a superb intimate epic of the sort that Bernardo Bertolucci would later tackle with The Last Emperor or Warren Beatty would mount with Reds. Pleasing as both an incisive bit of philosophical and political inquiry and as compelling melodrama, it’s a wonderful adult entertainment.” That disc features the 161-minute general-release version in 1080 hi-def, plus the bonus of a standard-def presentation of the longer roadshow version DeMille premiere attendees watched. Like many lavish movie palaces of yesteryear, the DeMille, which also hosted the gala premieres and roadshow runs of Spartacus, Barabbas, The Cardinal, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Cast a Giant Shadow, War and Peace (1968)and The Shoes of the Fisherman, fell to the wrecking ball and no longer stands. But a half-century later, Hawaii staunchly endures.