Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Diamond Head

The San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival always has enticing "Out of the Vaults" programs, which revive films that remind modern viewers how images of Asian Americans were portrayed in bygone decades of film history. This year's choice is Diamond Head, and it plays at noon at the Castro Theatre this Sunday, March 15th.

This Panavision, Eastmancolor drama was released by Columbia Pictures near the tail end of the classic Hollywood "Studio System" era when producers were looking for new ways to close the generation gap in movie attendance patterns. Which is why we have Charlton Heston, a star for over a decade by then, and James Darren, at the time still best known for Gidget, in a movie together, playing a white planter and his sister's Native Hawaiian suitor, respectively. If it seemed timely to make Diamond Head in 1963 in the midst of the Civil Rights Era and shortly after Hawaiian statehood, it may be even more timely to show it now in the context of this festival, while a multiracial President, born in Honolulu, is newly in the White House.

One might think of Diamond Head as a precursor to Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, released four years later. It's not as widely-remembered as the latter film, perhaps because its star wattage is lower, or perhaps because most of the principals are played by white actors (France Nuyen in the role of Heston's mistress excepted); those playing Polynesian characters are wearing a "Max Factor tan". There are differences and similarities between the two films' approaches to miscegenation. In Diamond Head, conflict is less over inter-cultural misunderstanding than over racial superiority and a sense of Manifest Destiny that dies hard. But like in Stanley Kramer's film, white characters' motivations for entering interracial relationships may in fact reflect their own sense of self more than they genuinely express love- just as the films themselves look at issues of prejudice from their own Hollywood perspective.

Nonetheless, this promises to be a fun screening on a screen as large as the Castro's. The film's director Guy Green cut his teeth as a cinematographer for David Lean, so it's no surprise that island vistas are prominent. There's plenty of music (the score composed by John Williams), romance, and a bit of action in the film. And the cast is rounded out by beautiful Yvette Mimeux as the planter's sister, George Chakiris as James Darren's half-brother, Aline MacMahon in one of her last film roles as their mother, and even Philip Ahn in a small but crucial role.


  1. Dude,

    I'm intrigued by DIAMOND HEAD. But my own family duties call and I won't be seeing anything at the festival this year.

    btw, I'm a bit confused by this part of your post - ". . . white characters' motivations for entering interracial relationships may in fact reflect their own sense of self more than genuinely express love. . ." Besides, the grammar problem (it should be 'genuinely expressing love'), could you flesh that out a little bit? It assumes I know somethings about how Kramer's films have been critiqued that I am indeed curious to know.

    Thanks, Adam

  2. Wow! A movie about Hawaii that doesn't suck!? I am going to rent this immediatly. Mahalo Brian!

  3. I'm really looking forward to seeing this on Sunday, and my anticipation is heightened after reading this post. (It's gonna be one awfully long marathon at the Castro that day as I'm planning to see all four programs).

  4. Michael, Rach, I hope you enjoy the film. It's no masterpiece but certainly worth watching, especially (I can only imagine) on a big screen with a respeonsive audience.

    Adam, thanks for pointing out the tortured quality of that sentence. I've made an adjustment that I think increases clarity; hopefully it will to readers and not just to me.

    As for fleshing out the Guess Who's Coming to Dinner comparison. I watched the film for the first time a few months ago, in conjunction with reading the fascinating Pictures at a Revolution, about the five Best Picture nominees of 1967. This was the last one of the five I had not yet seen.

    I'm not sure if I was influenced in my thinking by that book's author Mark Harris or the reviews he quotes, but I never sensed much chemistry between Katharine Houghton's character and Sidney Poitier's. She in particular came off to me as unconvincing as a woman in love with Dr. John Wade Prentice. However, she was wholly convincing as a young woman in love with the idea of being in love with a black man, as if to stake her position as a liberal in 1967. Which in turn made it hard to understand what Prentice might see in her as a marriage partner. It's the film's near-fatal flaw; if it weren't for the fact that the film is really Hepburn and Tracy's, it would be on pretty flimsy ground, imho.

    There is something of this dynamic in Diamond Head with Yvette Mimeaux's character, but it's interestingly contrasted against Heston's character's very different relationship to France Nuyen's character. I'd rather not say more until after the screening Sunday though, in case of stray comment-readers.