Hawaii at the Movies

Have you ever watched a movie about Hawaii and wondered where it was filmed? Or even worse, watched a film about Hawaii, filmed in Hawaii, and still thought you were in a foreign country? Hollywood has a hard time accurately portraying Island life. This month, we forced our editorial intern to dust off her VCR, fire up her DVD player and max out her Netflix account to find 10 films in which Hawaii appears as itself, and decently so. Here are her findings.

Photo: Courtesy RealClassics.com

From Here to Eternity (1953)

I’ll admit, up until last week, I didn’t know much about Montgomery Clift except that my grandma fancied him. I didn’t know he looked like a tougher, more dangerous (and therefore more appealing) James Dean. Luckily, From Here to Eternity taught me that, and not to trust the older generation’s criteria for “best kissing scene.”

Made in 1953, the Fred Zinnemann flick follows two Army men stationed at Schofield in the few months prior to the Pearl Harbor attack. Sgt. Milton Warden (Burt Lancaster), an unhappy enlistee, and Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Clift), an ex-boxer with a passion for the bugle, escape the testosterone-ruled barracks in bottomless whiskey glasses and the arms of two beauties.

Which leads to that famous kiss: Lancaster rolls around in the surf with his commanding officer’s wife, played by Deborah Kerr. Not so hot. Sure, his swimming trunks are awfully brief, her shoulder straps sort of undone and, in it’s day, people thought it was racy. Even steamy. Now it seems tame. At least this scene gave us a better name for this secluded beach near the Halona Blowhole—it’s otherwise known as Cockroach Beach. Definitely not hot.

Hawaii’s role here is basically as scenery—Schofield Barracks, downtown, the beach. Locals never appear on-screen.

Hawaii Authenticity: 6
Entertainment Value: 9


Punch Drunk Love (2002)

Not many scenes of this Adam Sandler flick are shot in Hawaii, but the most poignant ones all happen at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.

Enjoying a romantic dinner along Waikiki Beach with Lena Leonard (Emily Watson), Barry Eagan (Sandler) takes in the Royal Hawaiian’s live entertainment (complete with hula dancers) and says, “It really looks like Hawaii here.” Well, not really, Barry. Unbeknownst to this toilet plunger store owner, the Waikiki district of tiki torches and hula dancers is not the real Hawai‘i. But the film’s romanticized vision of Honolulu is hard to resist.

Director P. T. Anderson’s Hawaii is nothing but sunshine and paradise. Sunlight seeps into Honolulu’s open-sky airport, Waikiki Beach is an uncluttered spot ideal for late-night strolls and the Royal Hawaiian’s pink hues provide the ideal light for an impromptu smooch. Punch Drunk Love’s Hawaii may not be accurate, but at least it’s a compliment, suggesting that the Islands’ beauty can cure even Sandler’s perpetually angry character.

Hawaii Authenticity: 1
Entertainment Value: 7


Blue Hawaii (1961)

Blue Hawaii (1961)Elvis as a Hawaiian beach boy. Need I say more? The first of three Elvis films set in Hawaii, Blue Hawaii is the extra mozzarella stuffed in your pizza crust: It seems like a good idea until the second slice. But Blue Hawaii has something even the best pizza lacks: musical numbers. Lots of musical numbers.

Elvis plays Chad Gates, an heir to a pineapple kingdom who harbors a beach bum fantasy. So, instead of living the gilded dream in his Kahala home (with his more-than-irritating mother, played by Angela Lansbury) Chad becomes a tour guide. Toss in some background surfers—and, in this film, locals are pretty much background characters—and strategically placed ukulele (who paddles with an ukulele in hand?) and the 100-minute film turns into 14 music videos.

Of these, “Aloha Oe” takes the authenticity award, but “Can’t Help Falling in Love” has nestled itself into pop and local culture. Just the other day, I was having lunch at Nico’s and the live entertainment busted out the Elvis tune. While the over-the-top musical may be pure processed cheese, at least it’s served atop a Hawaiian pizza.

Hawaii Authenticity: 2
Entertainment Value: 4


North Shore (1987)

Either you’ve never heard of this film, or you’re already quoting your favorite passage. That’s the beauty of a so-bad-it’s-good cult film. Calling this ’80s precursor to Blue Crush “cult” may be an exaggeration, but it has gained a following since its forget table theatrical debut.

North Shore is about Rick Kane (Matt Adler), an Arizona teen who, after dominating the wave pool, thinks he is ready for the Pipeline Masters. After a rough welcome in a Keeaumoku strip club, Rick stumbles to the North Shore where he meets Turtle (John Philbin). A haole with a more “off” than “on” pidgin, Turtle takes Rick under his wing, teaching him the way of the North Shore: don’t mess with Da Hui, don’t date local girls and respect the wave.

Sounds cheesy? It is. But you have to give the film credit for its roundup of local and international professional surfers such as Gerry Lopez, Laird Hamilton and Derek Ho. Kiani’s (Nia Peeples) hula also earns the movie some extra authenticity points. But Turtle’s choice of slang (“Barney,” meaning an inexperienced person, among others) made me wonder if the movie was set in California or Hawaii.

North Shore is not to be confused with the 1991 so-bad-it’s-just-bad film, Point Break, starring Keanu Reeves as an undercover FBI agent infiltrating the surf world. Parts of that film were shot in Hawaii, but it’s a California story all the way.

Hawaii Authenticity: 3
Entertainment Value: 5


Hawaii (1966)

By the time I reached the second hour of this three-hour-plus film, I began fumbling with the VCR player (yes, VCR player). Clearly, I thought, that dinosaur must be broken. After all, it’s been collecting dust since my DVD player arrived circa 1998. This film could not possibly go on for another hour. But somehow, director George Roy Hill squeezes out 89 more painful minutes.

Based on the third chapter of James Michener’s epic novel, the film follows a missionary’s efforts to convert and educate Hawaii’s hedonistic natives. Featuring infanticide, incest and infectious diseases, George Roy Hill’s film could play like a Korean soap. What sets Hawaii apart is its historical aspirations.

When the Hawaiians are stricken with fever and flock en mass to the shore to cool off, we realize, as does Rev. Hale after this scene, that the uptight, learned missionaries brought more death, disease and exploitation to Hawaii than salvation.

Hale is played by Max von Sydow, his wife by Julie Andrews. In a way, Native Hawaiians get plenty of screen time as the Alii Nui Malama and her son, Prince Keoki, argue about whether to keep the old ways or adopt Christianity. However, Malama was played by a Tahitian actress, Jocelyne LaGarde, who spoke only French and had to learn her English lines for the film phonetically. Prince Keoki was played by Fijian-born actor Manu Topou.

The film drags on, but at least tries to portray something meaningful about our history.

Hawaii Authenticity: 4
Entertainment Value: 2


50 First Dates (2004)

Pidgin should only be spoken under strict supervision. After all, many actors have attempted the Hawaii slang, but few have succeeded. Rob Schneider is not one of them.

In 50 First Dates, Schneider plays a glass-eyed moke, Ula. Paired with a barfing walrus and a cloud of suspicious smoke, Ula must use what few brain cells he has left to help out pal Henry Roth (Adam Sandler) win over Lucy (Drew Barrymore). If that isn’t complicated enough, Lucy has short-term memory loss.

Schneider aside, 50 First Dates has a strong supporting cast. Sue (Amy Hill) and Nick (Pomaikai Brown) delivered amusing performances as the owners of Lucy’s favorite hangout, the Hukilau Café. The only let down in the film was seeing the diner on screen. Hukilau Café, with its wooden interior, local-style plate lunches and warm staff had me Google “Hukilau, Kaaawa.” Who wouldn’t want to eat there? Unfortunately, this Hukilau was Hollywood made. With so many great eateries on Oahu, couldn’t the film have used one of them?

Hawaii Authenticity: 5
Entertainment Value: 6


Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008)

While I swooned over Montgomery Clift, I winced at Jason Segel. Six feet tall and about 220 pounds wide, Segel’s mole-covered, naked (yes, full frontal) body did not excite many fantasies. But seeing him get dumped—still naked—by his adorably petite girlfriend, Sarah Marshall (Kristen Bell), did make me laugh.

The heartbreak leads Peter Bretter (Segel) to Oahu’s Turtle Bay Resort where, thanks to the hotel’s staff, his recovery takes on a local vibe. Or at least director Apatow’s idea of local.

In this Hawaii, hotel employees hang out at impromptu luau on the hotel’s beach, cooks slay pigs in tiki huts, bartenders joke about being able to pronounce the name of our state fish and waiters look like Jonah Hill (with ’fro intact despite the humidity). The only thing that redeems the fictitious Hawaii is watching Paul Rudd attempt pidgin while surfing—it’s hilariously bad. Apatow’s Hawaii may be filled with stereotypes but when the end product is such a riot, it’s hard to care. At least he spared us coconut bras.

Hawaii Authenticity: 7
Entertainment Value: 8


Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

If Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor is your idea of historical accuracy, I suggest this 1970 war film as an antidote. The Japanese-American flick does not star a famous cast or any romance, but Tora! Tora! Tora! is an adaptation of Japanese and American histories of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. Is it an educational film? Yes. Is it an entertaining film? Not really.

As with From Here to Eternity, the film features Hawaii as the setting for a clash of nations, without stopping to look at how the locals were affected.

Even this presentation of the Pearl Harbor attack scene was hard to watch. The bird’s eye view of pineapple farm workers and mountaintops showed more of Oahu than 2001’s Pearl Habor, but special effects blend grainy stock footage with cheap-looking model planes—all mixed in with, as weird as this sounds, an incongruous 1970s rock song. It almost had me wishing Ben Affleck would show up. But Tora! Tora! Tora! delivers what it promises, a historically accurate film from both the Japanese and American standpoints.

Hawaii Authenticity: 8
Entertainment Value: 1


Picture Bride (1994)

Long before the era of Match.com or Facebook stalking came picture dating. Or, more accurately, picture weddings.

Picture Bride, a locally made film with a few imported Japanese stars, tells the story of picture brides and their lives on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations.

Riyo (Youko Kudho) is one of 20,000 picture brides who, between 1907 and 1924, traveled from Japan, Okinawa or Korea to Hawaii to marry strangers they had only seen in photographs. But once the 16-year-old arrives in Honolulu, she is greeted by a man 20 years older than the one she expected. No mistake there, Matsuji (Akira Takayama) simply “forgot” to update his portrait. (This happens every day now on Match.com: not much has changed in 100 years.)

But Picture Bride is not a film about love, it’s a docudrama about the Asian immigrant experience in Hawaii. Filmed at the Waialua Sugar Mill, Picture Bride shows the ever-growing sugar canes, the red mud, the 16-cent pay days and the tension between ethnic groups. It’s a film not only shot in Hawaii, but about Hawaii. Unfortunately, for me, the plot played out like something you’d see on Lifetime Television, with one melodrama after another.

Hawaii Authenticity: 9
Entertainment Value: 4


Lilo & Stitch (2002)

“‘Ohana means family. Family means no one gets left behind or forgotten.” Adorable, right? Not so much after the 50th time.

When Lilo & Stitch, Disney’s last solo project, came out, the world associated Lilo’s motto with Hawai‘i. As a 13-year-old traveling in Europe, all I heard there was “‘Ohana means family!” But as annoying as the saying became, Lilo & Stitch portrayed Hawaii and its people more accurately than most films, especially contemporary Hawaii.

Disney’s Hawaii is not the one seen through the lenses of tourists or wanna-be surfers; it’s as close to the real Hawaii as a cartoon about an alien can get.

The Kilauea lighthouse, the Princeville Hotel, a shave ice stand, a poster of Duke Kahanamoku hanging in Nani’s bedroom, pidgin-speaking characters—all these details reinforced the Hawaii connection. Lilo’s hula lessons, Nani’s surfing. Disney never lets you forget that you are in Hawai‘i.

Hawaii Authenticity: 10
Entertainment Value: 6