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    Mirisch's Hawaiian Saga

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    In his autobiography I Thought We Were Making Movies, Not History, Academy Award®-winning producer Walter Mirisch (In the Heat of the Night) devotes an entire chapter to the filming of James Michener’s Hawaii (1966), recounting how in trying to retain as much of the massive tome’s multigenerational storyline sprawled across the island’s history, original director Fred Zinnemann determined the only way to do the novel justice was to shoot two films, one focusing on the Christian missionaries that arrived in the early 1800s (the book’s Chapter 3) and another depicting the influx of Chinese and later Japanese laborers to work on the sugar and pineapple plantations that buttressed the islands’ economy (Chapters 4 and 5 of the novel). United Artists recoiled from bankrolling the concurrent shooting and simultaneous release of two films, which, Mirisch observes, “in a sense…would have been a theatrical miniseries.” To Mirisch’s regret, an adamant Zinnemann parted ways with the project, and under the initially troubled but ultimately skilled directorial stewardship of George Roy Hill, the finished film – telling just the “Missionary Story” – was an artistic and audience success. Mirisch vowed that if Hawaii was a hit, he would pursue the “Chinese Story” in a subsequent film “when the time was right for it.” Wisely or not , Mirisch decided that 1969 was the time to put James R. Webb’s screenplay for The Hawaiians (1970) into production and to cast in the pivotal role of future pineapple magnate Whip Hoxworth, the hard-charging grandson of the seafarer played in the original film by Richard Harris, Mr. Historical Epic himself (from The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and El Cid to 55 Days at Peking, Khartoum and even the Hawaiian-set 1962 potboiler Diamond Head): Charlton Heston. Along with Heston came a recommendation for the director’s chair, Tom Gries, who worked with Heston on the acclaimed Western Will Penny, and filming commenced on both Maui and Kauai, to be followed by interiors in Hollywood. Others with roadshow epic pedigrees would round out the cast: Geraldine Chaplin (Doctor Zhivago), Mako (The Sand Pebbles), Alec McCowen (The Agony and the Ecstasy), plus the winged angel of Barbarella, John Phillip Law. For the pivotal role of Nyuk Tsin, the Chinese refugee who figures heavily in Whip’s ruthless rise in prosperity while serving as a moral conscience amidst the roiling stew of sex, disease, exploitation and greed resulting when cultures clash, Mirisch and Gries went searching in New York. There, Mirisch wrote, they “found a young woman…who had appeared in Arthur Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant and who was now working in a medical laboratory. She was intelligent, beautiful and charming. Her name was Tina Chen. We made a screen test of her and thought she was excellent. She was represented by the ICM agency and married Marvin Josephson, the owner of ICM, shortly after the completion of the movie.” Chen’s happy ending was not shared by the movie, as The Hawaiians did not match the success of its predecessor. But with sturdy and seasoned performers, gorgeous Panavision cinematography by Lucien Ballard and Philip Lathrop, Oscar®-nominated costume designs by Bill Thomas and a majestic score by Henry Mancini, it’s a bustling, brawling and bountiful story that Mirisch had to tell and that Blu-ray will stunningly display. Following Hawaii’s Twilight Time arrival last week, now bid aloha to The Hawaiians February 16 on TT hi-def Blu-ray (with Mancini’s music on an Isolated Score Track). Preorders open February 3.