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Remind Me

Diamond Head

A big-budget, widescreen, bestseller-adapting, vacation-movie melodrama of the old school, Guy Green's Diamond Head (1963) has two landscapes to compete for our attention, both of them spectacular and at the same time strangely formidable, off-putting, and conflicted. The first is of course Hawaii, and the location shooting here is scrupulously gorgeous (without being cliched and postcard pretty) but also captures midcentury Hawaii - circa 1959, when it became a full-status state instead of a territory - as it was away from the tourist beaches: muddy, underdeveloped, cloudy, overgrown. The second landscape is the contours of Charlton Heston's face, which bristle and flex and reflect light quite unlike those of any other human visage. You look at Heston here, in one of his less celebrated films, and you're forced to ponder how his incredible face became his destiny - was another career possible for him? Has any other man's face been quite as outrageously designed for movie imagery? Abetted by his regal bearing and authoritarian dramatics, Heston's physical presence is a unique movie principle. "Charlton Heston is an axiom," French critic Michel Mourlet famously wrote in Cahiers du Cinema a year before Diamond Head. "The pent-up violence expressed by the somber phosphorescence of his eyes, his eagle's profile, the imperious arch of his eyebrows, the hard, bitter curve of his lips, the stupendous strength of his torso - this is what he has been given, and what not even the worst of directors can debase... Through him, mise en scene can confront the most intense of conflicts and settle them with the contempt of a god imprisoned, quivering with muted rage."

Ah, the French. "Acting" per se is not at issue here - movies are often comprised of energies and totemic factors that have nothing to do with character or story. Heston is indisputably one of those factors, a creature seemingly built for movies alone. Here he plays a symptomatic larger-than-life mega-man - Richard Howland, otherwise known as The King, the widowed, megalomaniacal patriarch of a massively wealthy, multigenerational white man's pineapple dynasty, faced with the prospect of running as Hawaii's first senator and with the region's uneasy graduation into postwar modernity. This manifests, inevitably, as conflicts about race, about the segregated native Hawaiian population clashing with the moneyed white ruling class Howland represents, and the story quite naturally puts this in Howland's lap as uncomfortably as possible: as an interracial romance, between a nice local "brown" boy (James Darren) and Howland's nubile college-age sister (Yvette Mimieux), for whom Howland clearly has some unresolved incestuous desire.

Like many Heston films, Diamond Head is about the odd spectacle of watching this megalithic demigod struggling to live among mortals and deal with mortal problems, and Heston's brawny Master of the Universe is absolutely uncomfortable, in ways another actor would have to fake, with miscegenation, race relations that aren't restricted to him lording it over the natives, and the very idea of his little sister having sex. The story, culled from Peter Gilman's big beach-read novel, catapults along to predictable confrontations, between Howland and nearly everybody, including George Chakiris as Darren's educated half-breed brother, but especially against Mimieux, whose kittenishness edges into vampy instability once Darren's heartthrob is accidentally killed during their engagement party, and her swoon into booziness leads her to sleep with Chakiris as well.

Obviously, the Hollywood reflex to cast patently un-native actors like Darren and Chakiris as Polynesians, and then surround them with fake-exotic examples of Hawaiian culture (dances, chants, aphorisms, legends) looks ridiculous today, and must be simply accepted as another earnest baby step the Industry made toward acknowledging, assimilating and celebrating ethnic paradigms that seemed foreign and primitive to the majority of white moviegoers. (Chakiris's hair, shaped more like a extraterrestrial's swollen brain than anything else, musters its own sense of alien-ness, compared to which the "brown" locals seem practically Anglo-Saxon.) Still, and fittingly for a civil-rights-era blockbuster, the narrative of Diamond Head is an overt protest against colonialism and white privilege; Howland becomes more of a rabid bigot the more he explains his tortured aversion toward "mixing," and can barely stop from exploding once his (of course) Hawaiian mistress (France Nuyen) announces that she's pregnant. Heston's almost spontaneous pronouncement of "For the love of God," when Mimieux announces a second set of interracial marriage plans, comes from deep within the volcano.

Rather organically, soap operatics and preachy talk about equality take over the plot, but not in an unpleasant way; movies like Diamond Head were as much mini-vacations and armchair travel for Americans, and here you can virtually see the late-'50s audience bellying up, in their cat glasses and black shoes, basking in a tropical-yet-all-American paradise where men are men, women have real sex with Asiatic hunks, and there's a stocked bar table in every room - even the horse stable. A hit in 1963 - right behind The Great Escape and a few slots ahead of the year's other Chuck-Heston-confronted-with-rebellious-Asians epic, Nicholas Ray's 55 Days at Peking - Diamond Head may have been forgotten today if it weren't for Heston, whose disarming and Homeric existence was a force, even before he opens his mouth, with which we may not yet have come to grips.

By Michael Atkinson