Tom Gries’ The Hawaiians (1970), the second part of United Artists’ multi-film adaptation of James Michener’s novel “Hawaii,” makes a mistake common to many Hollywood films: they chose a lesser character as protagonist, shoving much more interesting ones to the side.
The Hawaiians main character is Whip Hoxworth (Charlton Heston), the disinherited son of the wealthy family from the first film, George Roy Hill’s Hawaii (1966). He plans to grow pineapples on a massive plot of land deemed worthless by locals for its inaccessibility to fresh water. But he strikes it with the help of an alcoholic well driller and makes his fortune. Later he becomes a central figure in the revolution against Queen Liliuokalani, helping to secure the islands for the United States. Hoxworth is a callous man; keenly opportunistic and self-centered to a fault. To grow his pineapples, he steals the plants from French Guiana, killing one of his own men who shot a hapless guard against his orders. His plans to overthrow the native Hawaiian monarchy has less to do with freeing her subjects than with protecting his property from being seized by her government. He is near impossible to figure out—benevolent one moment, cruel the next.
But he was still the wrong character to focus The Hawaiians on. Though compelling in his own right, Hoxworth is merely one in a long line of obsessive Hollywood venture capitalists stretching from Charles Foster Kane to Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood). He may have been one of the great shapers of Hawaiian history, but that marks him as atypical.
To truly get a glimpse at the forces that molded and shaped a smattering of Polynesian islands into the 50th state of America, we must look to Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen). An ethnically Hakka woman from China (the Hakka Han did not speak Mandarin or Szechuan, and were considered “guest families”), she was brought to Hawaii to be sold to a brothel. But she falls in love with a Chinese indentured servant named Mun Ki (Mako) on their Pacific voyage—aboard a ship captained by Hoxworth, no less! Mun Ki buys her and makes her his concubine with one soul-crushing condition: she mother the children his legal wife back in mainland China was incapable of conceiving. They will officially be the wife’s children; she will just be their “auntie.” She agrees.
Nyuk Tsin’s story is one of impossible resilience and adaptation. She bears Mun Ki five sons and a daughter; she accompanies him to a leper island after he contracts leprosy and nurses him until his death; she returns to Hawaii and transforms her family into one of the most powerful on the islands. If life afforded Hoxworth with chances for advancement, Nyuk Tsin clawed them out of the very dirt with her fingernails. Yet they remain friends and occasional allies, working together to advance Hawaii and, more importantly, their own interests. One can see in them representations of the various ethnic groups that reshaped Hawaii: Hoxworth the entitled, wealthy white immigrants; Nyuk Tsin the long-suffering yet resilient Asian workers and indentured servants brought over from the continent en masse. A third character, Hoxworth’s quarter-Hawaiian wife Purity (Geraldine Chaplin), represents the native Hawaiians displaced and disregarded by the islands’ new inhabitants. In a meta-textual move I doubt the filmmakers consciously intended to make, Purity is shoved to the side and forgotten almost as abruptly and decisively as the native Hawaiians in this narrative.
The Hawaiians—recently released on Blu-ray by Twilight Time—relies on its characters to help it pass muster as a piece of filmmaking. The plot begins with a jolt and ends with a sudden slam on the brakes; it feels like just one chapter in a much larger story. Which, of course, it is. But still, there’s too little finality to the finale, too little resolution to the conclusion. But I must give credit where it’s due: I am now curious to know what happened before and after this story in Michener’s book.