Ordinarily, of course, at a classically idyllic beach like this one, hidden in a cove on the southeast tip of Oahu, you would want your photo taken against the pastel water of the Pacific, or maybe in front of the dusky cliffs of volcanic ash that frame the sand. That sort of thing.
But when a tourist walks up to me here at Halona Cove, his alabaster belly hanging low over ebony swimming trunks, and hands me his camera ("Would you mind?"), I figure he wants something different. Because he has posed himself and his wife on the famous spot. Dead center, to the inch. So I ask,
"Do you two want to lie down?"
"On the sand. And wait for the waves to wash over you. And then roll around kissing. Like in the movie."
He eyes me suspiciously, as though he wants his camera back now. "What movie?"
Could he possibly not know? Burt Lancaster was a sergeant over at Schofield Barracks, just before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He was nuts about Deborah Kerr, but she was married to his captain, so they had to be careful. One sunny day he drove her up here, past Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay to this secluded cove at the base of Koko Crater. They stripped off their street clothes and raced toward the surf.
Then it happened: the most famous kiss in screen history - Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr, bodies entangled on the wet sand, the waves swirling around their iconic clinch. The scene was shot in 1953, right here, on the precise spot where the guy is asking me, "What movie?"
I tell him they call this Eternity Beach now. He stares at me. I say, "You know - From Here to Eternity." Won an Oscar for best picture.
His expression says: Never heard of it.
No problem. Wander Hawaii in search of Hollywood's sacred sites, as I did recently, and sooner or later you'll find something that resonates with every generation. DeMille shot in Hawaii. Spielberg, too. John Ford and Harrison Ford. Bogart and Costner, John Wayne and Jeff Goldblum, Esther Williams and Anne Heche. And Elvis, of course, the king of the islands.
In his 30s Frank Sinatra came to Hawaii, to save his sputtering career (with a role in From Here to Eternity that would win him the 1954 Oscar for best supporting actor); the middle-aged Sinatra returned to appear in None But the Brave (the only film he ever directed); and the old Sinatra, the living legend who kept forgetting lyrics, was still spry enough to return once more, in 1986, to work as a guest star on - no kidding - Magnum, P.I.
Sinatra and Lana Turner used to hole up at the exclusive Colony Surf on Waikiki. And it was at that property, on MTV this past season, that viewers saw a distraught young woman named Ruthie peer down from a high balcony one night and toy with the idea of jumping. If that scene doesn't ring a bell, maybe it's because you're old enough to remember every grope and groan of the famous kiss on Eternity Beach. Which means, alas, you don't exactly fit the target demographic of MTV's Real World, the cinema-verit¿ soap opera that filmed last season in Hawaii, where Ruthie (who elected not to leap, I'm happy to report) and her whiny 20-something roommates earned the show its highest ratings ever. And why not? Nothing succeeds like trouble in paradise.
There was trouble, too, in the paradise that is Baywatch. The show was still an international phenomenon - airing in 147 countries, watched every week by more people than the planet contains. But as season ten approached and with the ratings in need of help, the producers were looking for something to jazz up the old Baywatch jiggle. They considered moving to Australia. But residents of the chosen locale - the small beach town of Avalon, on the coast of New South Wales - reacted as though Hollywood wanted to bury medical waste there. So the show moved to Honolulu instead and changed its name to Baywatch Hawai'i (with a bow to the island spelling).
"We probably should have chosen Hawaii about four or five years ago," says Baywatch star and executive producer David Hasselhoff. He stares into the middle distance, waiting for a squall of late-morning rain to pass so he can shoot his next scene, which is described on the call sheet as "Mitch learns Hobie is getting married."
Baywatch is shooting today at Waimanalo Beach, Oahu's longest, three miles of pristine sand and benign surf. Offshore, two small islands - volcanic cones - undulate on the aquamarine water like sea serpents coming up for air. It's the sort of setting that should inspire pompous reveries about the splendor of Hawaii and the grand Hollywood continuum that Hasselhoff now enters by shooting here. But when I ask him about all that history, he laughs and says, "I've decided that I'm going to stand in the same direction as the wind, so that my hair blows correctly. Like Jack Lord."
Good answer. The legendary Jack Lord. I was reminded of him earlier this morning when I visited the Baywatch production offices, in the shadow of Diamond Head. It was there that Hasselhoff's fellow executive producer, Greg Bonann, a trained lifeguard, was telling me about the show's new mandate: to dramatize how water rescues are handled in the unique Hawaiian setting. He was so earnest on the subject that it would have been boorish to ask if Baywatch fans in, say, Djibouti will even notice that the show's focus is now coral-reef safety, especially in light of this season's really big news - the change of the female lifeguards' swimsuit color from Baywatch red to bright yellow, a risky gamble that no doubt will be debated the world over.
Anyway, after hearing Bonann's mission statement, I wandered around the lot and came upon a warehouse-size building covered with aluminum siding, a structure that seemed entirely prosaic until I noticed its sign: "The Five-0 Stage." Cool.
Hawaii Five-0, starring Jack Lord as Det. Steve McGarrett, aired on CBS from 1968 to 1980 - the longest run of any cop show ever. Everything about it seemed exactly right, especially to a teenage boy like me, who had never been closer to Hawaii than the western edge of the Santa Monica pier. There was the famously pulsating music of the opening credits, playing against rat-a-tat shots of hula girls and perfect waves. There was McGarrett's smiling arrogance. And the fact that his elite Five-0 cops (a fictional unit, despite the conventional wisdom among viewers at the time) reported only to the governor of Hawaii.
And there was this: Every week, when he nabbed the bad guys, Jack Lord would turn to James MacArthur, who played Det. Danny Williams, and bark out his trademark command: "Book 'em, Danno!"
In 1997 CBS returned to Hawaii and shot a new Five-0 pilot, starring Gary Busey, but nothing ever came of it. There was talk over the years of a TV movie featuring the aging original cast, but it never happened - and it all was moot when Jack Lord, who had become an increasingly reclusive and mysterious figure, died two years ago in Honolulu of heart failure.
But here is his legacy: Just as Mark Twain fueled excitement about Hawaii by traveling around the United States, lecturing evangelically about the magnificence of what were then known as the Sandwich Islands ("the loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean," he said); just as Jack London would later write of Hawaii, "Those for whom the Islands were made, or who were made for the Islands, are swept off their feet in the first moments of meeting, embrace, and are embraced" (stirring a South Seas wanderlust in the breast of his every sentient reader); so, too, would TV and the movies, everything from Bing Crosby's Waikiki Wedding to Spielberg's Jurassic Park, tug us toward those tropics. Jack Lord's Five-0 - cheesy and dated, but surprisingly appealing - tugged as hard as anything.
Doubt it? Just ask any guy in his 30s or 40s, a guy stepping off a 747 from the mainland and squinting into the Hawaiian sun as the driver of the hotel van hangs a lei around his neck. Ask that guy about Jack Lord.
There are plans afoot for a Five-0 feature film. Meanwhile, an even bigger movie project was announced late last year by director Michael Bay, who used to shoot music videos and Coke commercials until he became Hollywood's go-to guy by directing such mindlessly deafening mega-smashes as Armageddon and The Rock. Michael Bay now wants to do Pearl Harbor. And the Walt Disney Company is letting him spend $145 million to do the job right - which gives Pearl Harbor (working title) the biggest budget any studio has ever approved. (Titanic and Waterworld both cost more than that, of course, but accidentally.)
Bay told Daily Variety that he sees the film as a "character-driven love story." He'll bring back something along the lines of Titanic Goes to War - lots of flaming pyrotechnics for the teenage boys in the audience, lots of flaming passion for their dates. The same formula that made James Cameron the King of the World.
Bay plans to shoot at both Schofield Barracks and Wheeler Army Air Field, as well as Pearl Harbor itself. Count on this to turn all three places into tourist honey-pots, so now is the time to visit. Pearl is already a popular site; it can sometimes take an hour or two to get through the queue for the boat out to the USS Arizona Memorial, but it's worth the wait.
The memorial, built astride the ship that lies today right where it sank, has an eerie grace. On one wall an inscription begins, "To the memory of the gallant men here entombed" serving notice that most of the 1,177 crew members killed on the Arizona rest only a few feet below, where they died just after 8:00 A.M. on December 7, 1941. Almost 60 years later oil from the ship still floats to the surface.
Drive up into the hills north of Pearl Harbor, and soon you will reach Schofield Barracks. Tourists don't get up here much, but they should. This is where James Jones was stationed, the post where he set his best-selling novel From Here to Eternity. They shot the film version here, too, because the quadrangles of three-story stucco barracks, built surrounding enormous squares of manicured grass, still looked as they did the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, that chaotic Sunday morning when one resourceful Schofield bugler blew "pay call" to assemble his sleepy regiment with maximum speed.
Today, remarkably, those quads still look the same, as though preserved in a Jurassic-like bubble of amber. Jones served in Company F, 27th Infantry Regiment (Wolfhounds). I walk into D Quad, where Jones lived, past a sign saying "Wolfhound Medics," and up to a group of young soldiers unloading medical supplies after a drill. They are strikingly callow, and I suddenly realize that the boys James Jones wrote about must have been, too. I watch as they continue to work, with the halfhearted effort of teenagers forced to help Dad clean out the garage, although they do seem to enjoy each other's company, the joking, the goldbricking.
This is what it must have been like here on December 6, 1941, and December 5, and all the days before that: callow and goofy kids who would have sacrifice and heroism thrust on them only when those Japanese fighters droned overhead on their way to Pearl Harbor. Maybe if enemy planes had strafed the lavish beach house at 3169 Diamond Head Road a few months ago, where those Real World kids were living rent-free on MTV's dime and whining about everything, maybe they, too, would have stumbled across some moxie.
I drive my rental car toward the outer edge of the base, looking for a large white cross. In the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora!, as the Japanese planes head over the hills toward Pearl, you can see the Schofield cross in the background. It was a sloppy error: Not only was the cross actually built to honor those who died in the attack, but it also was erected on Kole Kole Pass, which was not in the flight path of the Japanese bombers. But I can't find the cross anyway, and then an MP sets me straight: "Yeah, they took it down - wasn't politically correct or something."
Tora! Tora! Tora!, however, did get another detail right. In the days before the attack, American planes at Wheeler Army Air Field, just across the road from Schofield, were moved into the open, where they could be guarded more easily. As the movie shows, the plan backfired. A few minutes into the attack on Pearl Harbor, Wheeler was hit by a formation of 25 Japanese dive bombers, whose pilots must have been thrilled to see 140 fighter aircraft parked wingtip-to-wingtip. The Wheeler planes, vital to the defense of Pearl, were hobbled in minutes.
I stand on the vast tarmac at Wheeler, empty now, and shiny from a brief sprinkling of rain. A mechanic works on a helicopter in a nearby hangar. Other than that, it is quiet. All those war movies brought me here - Tora! Tora! Tora! and From Here to Eternity and In Harm's Way and the rest - with their battle scenes at Wheeler and Pearl, the thick smoke billowing up into the trade winds on that historic day. It is a story that still bears telling, Michael Bay has that part right. Now pray he tells it right.
Go where the movies of Hawaii take you, and eventually you will end up on the lush island of Kauai. That's where Steven Spielberg shot Jurassic Park, after deciding against Mexico and Costa Rica. "Spielberg admitted this was less an aesthetic decision than a function of his age," film critic John Baxter wrote in his book Steven Spielberg: The Unauthorized Biography. "He wanted to eat food that didn't give him dysentery, and to sleep each evening in a comfortable hotel." The gods of Central America struck back: On September 11, 1992, Spielberg's last day of shooting in Kauai, Hurricane Iniki shredded the island, with winds up to 160 MPH. Spielberg was forced to find sanctuary in the concrete-reinforced ballroom of... his comfortable hotel.
No such ill wind blew through Kauai 12 years earlier, when Spielberg shot parts of Raiders of the Lost Ark there. The script opened with an episode of old-fashioned swashbuckle: Indiana Jones escaping from a mob of angry natives. Spielberg decided to shoot those scenes on the banks of Hule'ia Stream, which empties into Nawiliwili Harbor on Kauai's southeastern coast.
To reach the spot where Harrison Ford foiled his pursuers, I take a guided kayak trip up the stream, paddling a winding path between taro fields and breathtaking cliffs of multihued green. It is a hot day. I splash my reddening face with river water and begin to wonder which bend might, mercifully, be the last. When it finally comes, we tie up our kayaks and hike through a thick canopy of hau, past wild coffee plants and mango trees, until we reach a cool mountain pond so thoroughly cradled - by rock below and forest above - that to be there feels like being indoors, as though it is an enormous Hollywood sound stage (which, I am beginning to understand, Hawaii pretty much is).
Aboard the motorized catamaran returning us to Nawiliwili Harbor, the guide points to a clearing in the thick vegetation along the riverbank. And there it is, the sight I have come to see: the spot where Harrison Ford used a rope swing to escape the pursuing natives and reach a waiting seaplane. Ford did the stunt himself - then as the plane climbed into the sky, he nearly fell out.
If you want to see other spots along Kauai's movie trail, there are more sedentary ways to reach them. One of the most popular, if slightly odd, is offered by a company in Kapa'a called Hawaii Movie Tours. For $85, I get to join other starstruck tourists on a five-hour excursion in a Ford van rigged with a VCR and a color TV.
Our guide is a pleasant young man with an infomercial mien. He takes us first to Hanama'ulu Bay, where John Wayne and Lee Marvin shot Donovan's Reef - and it is here that he shares with us the first of the day's many Factoids We Could Have Done Without: In his dotage, we are told, John Wayne had his stomach removed, a lung removed, and a colostomy. (As our guide cheerfully puts it, "There wasn't a lot of the Duke left at the end.")
Then he shows us Moloa'a Bay, where they shot the Gilligan's Island pilot (later recast and reshot in Los Angeles); and the house on 'Anini Beach where the oleaginous James Caan woos Sarah Jessica Parker in Honeymoon in Vegas; and a spectacular expanse of red dirt overlooking the sea and that served as the shabby tropical airfield in the Harrison Ford/Anne Heche stinker Six Days, Seven Nights.
He shows us all this and more. But he seems especially proud to walk us through the Coco Palms Resort. Because now we are talking Elvis.
The Coco Palms was battered by Hurricane Iniki and has yet to reopen (insurance dispute). But rent Blue Hawaii and you will see its former glory, especially the lagoon, where Elvis marries his Hawaiian bride at the movie's end as
They float on a jerry-rigged barge of outrigger canoes. What you won't see is the stain on the carpet of the Coco Palms restaurant. Our guide gathers us around the spot and announces, with appropriate gravitas, that the stain might be - might be - where catsup dripping from one of Elvis's nightly cheeseburgers stained the rug. (I take a picture, just in case.)
Blue Hawaii, shot in 1961, was Elvis's most successful film. It would have to be on anyone's short list of classic movies made in Hawaii, as would South Pacific, filmed largely in Hanalei Bay near Kauai's Na Pali Coast.
You can get perhaps the best view of that film's ethereal terrain from the palatial Princeville Resort, built on the spot where Rossano Brazzi sang "Some Enchanted Evening" to Mitzi Gaynor. (You'll have to bring your own blue and yellow filters, however, if you want to replicate the inexplicably weird colored effects of South Pacific's love songs.)
In any case, our tour van doesn't stop at Princeville but instead takes us to see the Hanalei Pier, where the musical number "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" was shot. As we get back into the van afterward, our guide plays the "Dame" scene on the VCR and hands each of us the printed lyrics. We are instructed to sing along as we bounce back toward Kapa'a. And that is what we do. I cannot tell you why. Call it the Stockholm Syndrome. But we actually sing along.
Questions of race and culture tend to come up in movies that are set in Hawaii, or shot there as a stand-in for some other real or imaginary Polynesian land. In Blue Hawaii, for example, Elvis's mother (played by Angela Lansbury, only nine years his senior) employs an Asian houseboy named Ping Pong, who speaks pidgin English and to whom she says things like, "Fetch me a mai-tai, Ping Pong." Naturally, she is horrified by her son's choice of a Hawaiian woman to be his wife.
In South Pacific (1958) Bloody Mary is desperate to see her daughter and Lieutenant Cable - she calls him "Lieutellent" - get married; they are deeply in love. But Cable pulls away, spooked by the prospect of intermarriage (although he does get to sing a politically correct song condemning hatred).
In Hawaii (1966), based on the James Michener best-seller, New England missionary Max von Sydow is having dinner with his family before setting off to do God's work in the islands; his father bows his head and says, "We thank thee that thou has chosen one of us to carry thy holy word and the precious light of John Calvin to the wicked and benighted heathen of Hawaii. Amen." And then, when it all goes wrong for von Sydow's character in Hawaii - when his cultural intolerance has caused all manner of grief - fellow (but by this point lapsed) missionary Gene Hackman sternly reminds him that Hawaiian society was a lot better off before Captain Cook came along and "discovered" the place.
So let us end with Capt. James Cook. Illustrious British explorer. Killed by Hawaiians in 1779, in Kealakekua Bay on the Big Island. They had thought he was a god, found out he wasn't, killed him for arcane reasons, and then regretted it. Don't read the next paragraph if you're eating at the moment; it's from a guidebook about the Big Island by Andrew Doughty and Harriett Friedman:
"Because Cook was so respected by the Hawaiians, his body parts were distributed among the chiefs. His head went to the king, his scalp went to a high-ranking chief, his hair went to Kamehameha, etc. Some of his organs, including his heart and liver, were stolen and eaten by some local children who mistook them for dog innards."
So here's the point: You'd think Cook's story would be a cautionary tale for other outsiders who come to the islands, others who would have the locals mistake them for gods. And yet just up the Kona Coast from the bay where Cook's British compatriots buried him at sea (what was left of him, anyway), Kevin Costner arrived in 1994 to spend seven months and $200 million making Waterworld. The rest of that story you know.