James Michener’s 1959 novel Hawaii was a major bestseller, but it was also a monster in terms of narrative scope: Sprawling over nearly 1,000 pages, the book traces centuries of history from the formation of the islands by geological forces to the present day at the time of the book’s publication. Therefore, even though Hollywood was eager to capitalize on the novel’s success, putting the entire story onscreen was impossible. Taking a creative approach to the challenge, producer Walter Mirisch decided to film the book as a pair of epic features, but the first picture to be filmed, Hawaii (1966), barely covered one chapter of Michener’s story. Hawaii did well enough that Mirisch pressed forward with the second film, which, given the nature of the source material, is less a continuation of the first picture’s story and more of a companion piece.
Whereas Hawaii dramatizes early conflicts between European missionaries and Hawaiian natives, The Hawaiians takes place a generation later, when the son of the first movie’s protagonist has grown into a middle-aged bureaucrat named Micah Hale (Alec McCowen). Yet the real center of The Hawaiians is Hale’s cousin, sea captain Whip Hoxworth (Charlton Heston). When the story begins, Whip returns from the sea to accept an inheritance from his recently deceased grandfather. Unfortunately, the estate was left to Hale. Incensed, Whip starts a plantation on the meager stretch of uncultivated land he owns.
His workers include a pair of impoverished Chinese immigrants, Mun Ki (Mako) and Wu Chow’s Auntie (Tina Chen). (The relationship between these characters is way too complicated to describe here.) To endow his plantation with a unique cash crop, Whip sails to French Guiana and steals pineapples, which are not yet being grown in Hawaii. Wu Chow’s Auntie proves adept at nurturing the plants, so Whip gives her some land to start a small farm of her own. Thus, the foundations of two parallel dynasties are formed. The movie tracks Whip’s ascension to supreme wealth as an agricultural tycoon, and the rise of Wu Chow’s Auntie as the matriarch of an expansive immigrant clan. The picture also features subplots about leprosy, mental illness, political unrest, and other intense subjects.
The Hawaiians crams an enormous amount of narrative into 134 minutes, and much of what happens onscreen is interesting, like the arcane workings of the Chinese community in Hawaii. However, tackling so much material gives the picture a diffuse quality. Director Tom Gries handles individual scenes with workmanlike efficiency, but neither he nor screenwriter James R. Webb are able to forge a unified statement. One episode unfolds after another, time passes, and a resolution of sort arrives, but it’s all somewhat random.
It doesn’t help that the film’s central performance is its least compelling, since Heston grimaces and growls in his usual blustery manner. Chen and Mako do much more nuanced work, although the age makeup applied to Chen in later scenes is unconvincing. (McCowen is too polite to make much of an impression.) The Hawaiian locations are, of course, quite beautiful, so the land itself becomes the most arresting character—it’s easy to see why generations of people battled for control over this vast paradise of adjoining islands. (Available as part of the MGM Limited Collection on Amazon.com)
The Hawaiians: FUNKY