In 1819, young Prince Keoki Kanakoa from the Islands of Hawaii makes an appeal at the Yale Divinity School for newly graduated ministers to return with him to Hawaii and convert the natives to Christianity. Reverend Abner Hale is among those who volunteer for the mission. Before being sent to Hawaii, the young ministers must marry — a problem for Abner as he has zealously devoted himself to his studies and does not know any marriageable young women, partly because he has been raised in a strict, cold Calvinist household where romance or pleasure, even between a married couple, is considered sinful. The head of the school, Reverend Dr. Thorn, introduces Abner to his niece, Jerusha Bromley, a beautiful and pious New England girl who has been pining for Captain Rafer Hoxworth, a whaler who has been at sea for two years and has not written to her. Although Jerusha's parents are not enthused about her marrying the awkward Abner, her uncle persuades them to give him a chance, and also hides the package of letters from Hoxworth that appear at the Bromley home just as Abner arrives.
Abner is stunned by Jerusha's beauty, and attracted to her despite his attempts to avoid what he considers sinful thoughts, but he completely lacks social graces and makes one embarrassing gaffe after another. Despite this, Jerusha encourages him, and he finally proposes and she accepts, with the understanding that they will both be going on mission to Hawaii. The Hales depart for Hawaii with the other missionaries and Keoki, and after a harrowing sea voyage during which all but Abner are very seasick and the ship almost wrecks going around Cape Horn, they arrive in Keoki's hometown of Lahaina, Maui, where they stop before most of the missionaries continue on to the main church at Honolulu. The missionaries are horrified to see what they consider the islanders' sinful ways. Naked young girls swim out to meet the ships and have sexual relations with the sailors; monuments are dedicated to the traditional gods; and Keoki's father Kelolo is both the husband and the biological brother of Keoki's mother Malama Kanakoa, the Aliʻi Nui (ruler) whom the natives consider a "sacred person". The Ali'i Nui must marry her brother to avoid polluting the bloodline of the ruling family, and Keoki is expected to also marry his sister Noelani when she succeeds Malama as Ali'i Nui. However, Keoki is willing to forego this in order to become what he truly wants to be, an ordained Christian minister.
Malama takes a liking to Jerusha and demands that Jerusha teach her to write English, so she can communicate with the outside world. Malama agrees to learn about the Christian God, but only after she learns to write. When the other missionaries continue on to Honolulu, the Hales stay behind, living in an uncomfortable hut and building a church. Jerusha tries to change the villagers' tradition of killing unwanted or deformed babies, personally rescuing one baby who has a birthmark. Jerusha goes through a difficult labor to give birth to her own healthy son, tended only by the inexperienced Abner (who excludes the native midwives) and afterwards Abner confesses to her his great love for her, a love he normally feels is sinful and tries to suppress. Abner baptizes his first convert, a young Hawaiian girl named Iliki who works as a servant for the Hales. However, he makes excuses to defer ordaining Keoki as a minister; in reality, he and his superiors have no intentions of ordaining any natives. Keoki eventually realizes that he will never be permitted to become a minister, despite having studied for years, including at Yale. He becomes disillusioned with Christianity as a result.
Malama, who is a kind, loving and intelligent woman underneath her imperious facade, agrees to learn about Christianity, but will not take the final step to convert because she will have to send away Kelolo, her beloved husband of many years who is also her brother. At the Hales' urging, she enacts a curfew for sailors and forbids girls from swimming out to the ships. The sailors in port riot in protest, led by Captain Hoxworth, who has made a stop on his long whaling voyage. In the midst of the melee, Hoxworth discovers that the love of his life, Jerusha, is in Lahaina and is now the wife of Reverend Hale, whom he already despises for inspiring Malama to enact the restrictions. The sailors partially torch the church, but the Hawaiians help the Hales put out the fire and then chase the sailors back to their ships. To console himself over Jerusha, Hoxworth entices Iliki to sail away with him, and knocks Abner overboard when he comes after her.
Malama, on her deathbed, agrees to renounce Kelolo and is baptized a Christian right before she dies while saying a final goodbye to Kelolo. Upon the death of the Ali'i Nui, as predicted by the natives, a strong wind begins to blow, destroying the church building (which Abner refused to build in a way that the villagers suggested to let the wind pass through). Soon after her death, Abner hears drums and discovers Kelolo conducting a marriage ceremony for Keoki and Noelani, the new Ali'i Nui. Keoki, rejected as a minister, has turned back to the traditional gods. Keoki also reveals that while his mother Malama agreed to become a Christian in order to set an example for her people, whom she realized must become Christians for their own good as more and more white settlers arrive, she secretly asked that after she was buried in the Christian graveyard, her family move her bones to an undisclosed location where she can be with the old gods, and that Kelolo take her heart back to Bora Bora, the land of their ancestors. Horrified and enraged, Abner curses the Kanakoa family and the other Hawaiians and tells them God will punish them for their sins.
Noelani, pregnant by Keoki, gives birth to a horribly deformed baby who cannot be accepted as Ali'i Nui. Jerusha begs Abner to intercede to save the baby, whom she fears will be killed, but he refuses, saying it is God's punishment for Keoki's and Noelani's sin. Keoki drowns the baby in the ocean, causing a rift between Abner and Jerusha. Shortly afterwards, a sailor carries measles into the port of Lahaina. While this is a relatively minor childhood illness to the missionaries and sailors, the native Hawaiians have no resistance, develop high fevers and die in droves. Keoki dies in Abner's arms in a feverish delirium, renouncing God. Abner returns home wracked by sadness and guilt, feeling that he failed in his mission to save Keoki and the other natives from hell. Jerusha, who is worn out from overwork in the hot climate, giving birth to three children, and nursing the sick Hawaiians, tells him that she does not believe God would send loving people like the Hawaiians to hell even if they weren't Christians, and furthermore tells Abner he can help the Hawaiians by giving them what he has always had difficulty giving her - his love. Jerusha soon dies, mourned by Abner, her children, and Captain Hoxworth, who never got over losing her to Abner.
After Jerusha's death, Abner becomes more loving towards the Hawaiians and works with them to try to prevent white settlers and plantation owners from taking their land. His position is at odds with the other ministers, who have recently voted that it is time for the churches to own land themselves and try to make money from it, something the ministers had avoided before. Abner is reassigned back to New England and his Lahaina church is given to another minister. But Abner refuses to leave Lahaina and says he will stay and continue to preach, in the street if necessary, and without any support from the church organization. He does agree to send the three Hale children back to New England to live with the Bromleys and receive a proper education. After bidding his children goodbye at the dock, Abner returns to his hut to find that a young Hawaiian man has arrived who wishes to be his assistant and help him, something the aging, frail Abner very much needs. He is overjoyed to see that the young man is the baby with the birthmark, now grown to an adult, whom Jerusha saved from being killed many years ago.
The film was based on the book's third chapter, From the Farm of Bitterness, which covered the settlement of the island kingdom by its first American missionaries. Needing a Polynesian female for the key role of Malama, the Alii Nui, the producers hired a native Tahitian for the role. French-speaking Jocelyne LaGarde had never acted before and could not speak English; however, her screen test showed a powerful presence, and the producers hired a coach to train her phonetically to handle the character's dialogue. Of the all-star cast, LaGarde would be the only one to earn an Academy Award nomination and the only one to win a Golden Globe Award. Making early screen appearances in this film were Bette Midler, John Cullum, and future Oscar winner Gene Hackman. The film was the 2nd highest-grossing film of 1966, and critically praised for its stars and story. Originally, it was to be directed by Fred Zinnemann, the man who made From Here to Eternity, but Zinnemann had fought with United Artists a few years before the film was made and left the production to go to England, to work on A Man for All Seasons. Director George Roy Hill was subsequently asked to work on the film, which he agreed to do, and the film became the only epic he directed. He would do other films, but none as successful or on a scale as epic as this, with the exception of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting. The film would also feature appearances from Henrik von Sydow and Clas von Sydow, the real sons of star Max von Sydow, who play Abner's son Micah at different ages. The film inspired the sequel The Hawaiians, which got released four years later and was set 40 years after the events in this film: it starred Charlton Heston, John Phillip Law and Geraldine Chaplin.
The film as originally released ran 189 minutes (including overture, intermission, entr'acte, and exit music). This roadshow version would be issued on VHS and LaserDisc from the best available elements. For general release, this was then subsequently cut by United Artists to 161 minutes and is the version seen on the 2005 DVD release from MGM Home Video (as the best elements suitable for DVD came from the general release). Both versions have been broadcast on Turner Classic Movies and This TV Network.
On October 9th, 2015 Twilight Time Movies announced on the Home Theater Forum that they would release a Blu-ray edition of Hawaii (along with The Hawaiians) on January 19th, 2016. The Hawaiians would be released the next month on February 9th, 2016.
The principal characters in the film were portrayed as follows:
Bette Midler also had her first on-screen movie appearance in Hawaii, as a ship passenger with no dialogue.
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:2005: AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores – NominatedGolden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (Jocelyne LaGarde)Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score - Motion Picture (Elmer Bernstein)Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Jocelyne LaGarde)Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Color (Russell Harlan)Academy Award for Costume Design, Color (Dorothy Jeakins)Academy Award for Best Effects, Special Visual Effects (Linwood G. Dunn)Academy Award for Original Music Score (Elmer Bernstein)Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song (Elmer Bernstein (music) Mack David (lyrics) for the song "My Wishing Doll"Academy Award for Best Sound (Gordon E. Sawyer of Samuel Goldwyn Sound Studios)Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Drama (Max von Sydow)