DirectorGeorge Roy Hill
Release Date(s)1966 (January 19, 2016)
Studio(s)United Artists/MGM (Twilight Time)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: B
James Michener’s best-selling novel Hawaii took seven years to reach the screen, but the 1966 adaptation of the author’s 1959 epic was worth the wait – it was the most popular film of its year (based on box office grosses), and holds up surprisingly well today. Indeed, in 2016 it probably plays better than ever, given that its massive scale and ambition have largely disappeared from American screens; certainly it’s almost impossible to imagine a Hollywood studio of today investing so many resources in such a tragic, adult story. The movie, adapted by screenwriters Daniel Taradash and Dalton Trumbo from Michener’s book, only takes a portion of its source material to focus on American missionaries in the early 1800s. (The novel spans several centuries, and some of its unused material would later be adapted in a follow-up film, The Hawaiians.) Max von Sydow plays Abner, a fiercely rigid man of God who moves to Hawaii with his considerably more open-minded wife Jerusha (Julie Andrews); he tries to bring his Christian values to the native people, only to ultimately learn that all he and his fellow Americans have brought is the complete devastation of all that was precious about the land and its inhabitants.
There’s a sort of love triangle provided by the introduction of Rafer Hoxworth (Richard Harris), an ex-lover of Jerusha’s who shows up on the island at the most inopportune moment imaginable for the struggling Abner. Yet ultimately romance takes a back seat to anthropological detail and social and historical commentary, as director George Roy Hill (an odd but ultimately perfect choice coming off of the very different The World of Henry Orient) distills Michener’s epic vision into a penetrating, devastating portrait of the end of an era. The movie is enormous in its sweep but brilliantly personalizes its larger issues via the stories of Abner and several of his friends and followers; by the time he comes to his too-late realization, the effect is positively harrowing. Yet somehow Hawaii found widespread mainstream popularity, possibly thanks to the copious amounts of nudity by 1966 standards, possibly thanks to the overall lush quality of the piece courtesy of the lavish production design and spectacular location photography by Russell Harlan of Red River fame.
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. Its presentation on Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray is serviceable but not at the high end of that company’s typically rigorous standards; though many scenes look spectacular, the source material has intermittent flaws and stability issues – the colors seem to bleed occasionally around the edges, and the image lacks the sharp detail and contrast one associates with most Twilight Time Blu-rays. Aside from a theatrical trailer and an isolated score track (a wonderful supplement given the excellence of Elmer Bernstein’s music), the disc’s primary special feature is a standard-definition, non-anamorphic roadshow cut of the movie that contains an overture and intermission as well as some extra footage that adds dimension to the characterizations. While one longs for a full HD restoration of the roadshow cut (evidently this is the best version available), Twilight Time’s inclusion of it on this disc is still of great interest to fans and historians.
- Jim Hemphill