It’s tough to make films out of James Michener novels. Some of his shorter novels, such as Sayonara, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and, of course, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tales of the South Pacific were adapted into successful properties. But with many historical tomes clocking in at over 1,000 pages, most Michener novels would be better served by miniseries, such as CENTENNIAL.
One of Michener’s biggest hits became the number one film of 1966—HAWAII. The film concerns only the first half of Michener’s sprawling bestseller about the attempts by a group of American missionaries to convert the Hawaiian natives to Christianity. (The second half of the book was made into the 1971 film, THE HAWAIIANS, starring Charlton Heston, with a score by Henry Mancini.)
The film stars Max von Sydow as the rigid Reverend Abner Hale and Julie Andrews as Jerusha, his wife; Richard Harris as Rafer, the sailor and Jerusha’s former lover; and the marvelous Jocelyn LaGarde as Queen Malama. LaGarde did not speak English and had to learn her lines phonetically, making her performance that much more astonishing and moving. Given the locale, it is no surprise that the film is stunningly photographed. But the true standout is Elmer Bernstein‘s lush, sweeping score.
In his research, Bernstein found that 19th-century Hawaiii “had no melodic instruments, except for a little nose flute that produced about three notes. They had a lot of percussion instruments like gourds and small drums, and they had chants, basic two-or-three note chants rocking back and forth between these notes.” Bernstein was able to ingeniously interweave all of these elements into the fabric of his rich score. The score is anchored by the soaring main title theme, one of Bernstein’s finest melodies.
Though Bernstein won the Golden Globe, John Barry’s work on BORN FREE swept in with the popularity of the title song and won the Oscar. Not to denigrate Barry’s accomplishment, Bernstein’s score is a far more complex work and should have won. Perhaps the voters were feeling a little guilty the following year when they awarded Bernstein for his delightful pastiche score for THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE. The score isn’t on the same level as HAWAII, but at least Elmer Bernstein finally had an Oscar.