The film was based on the book's later chapters, which covered the arrival of the Chinese and Japanese and the growth of the plantations. The third chapter of the book had been made into a film, Hawaii, in 1966.
The story begins forty years after the events depicted in the original Hawaii, as a new generation of Americans and Asians must deal with a changing island and world; one of them is a sea captain.
Whipple "Whip" Hoxworth (Charlton Heston) returns home to Hawaii to find his grandfather has died and left his fortune to Hoxworth's cousin, Micah Hale (Alec McCowen). Hoxworth, the black sheep of his otherwise very conservative and disapproving family, starts a plantation, staffing it with newly arrived Chinese indentured servants Mun Ki (Mako) and his second wife/concubine Nyuk Tsin (Tina Chen).
Mun Ki fathers children with Nyuk Tsin, all the while dreaming of returning to China and his first and officially "real" wife. Nyuk Tsin has other ideas. For the remainder of the story she is referred to as "Wu Chow's Auntie" (Wu Chow being their firstborn son) to support the traditional fiction that Mun Ki's official spouse in China is the "real" mother of his children.
Whip steals valuable pineapples from French Guiana in the hope that they will grow in Hawaii. He gives the forlorn plants to Wu Chow's Auntie, knowing that she has a "green thumb". When she succeeds in nurturing the plants into flourishing, the overjoyed Whip offers to buy her some land as a reward. Over Mun Ki's opposition, she accepts. This is the first step in the rise of both Whip and Wu Chow's Auntie, as well as of the pineapple industry in Hawaii.
Meanwhile, Whip marries native Hawaiian Purity (Geraldine Chaplin) and has a son with her. However, because of her inbred royal Hawaiian ancestry, she is mentally fragile. Eventually, her mind gives way, and she can no longer abide to live with Whip. Their son Noel (John Phillip Law) grows to manhood experiencing an uneasy relationship with his father.
When Mun Ki contracts leprosy, Wu Chow's Auntie accompanies him to the leper colony on Molokai. Upon Mun Ki's death years later, she returns to be reunited and reacquainted with her now-grown, educated, and prospering children.
A complication arises when Noel falls in love with Wu Chow's Auntie's only daughter. Neither parent approves of the marriage, but in the end, they grudgingly accept it.
The movie opened to mixed reviews, with many critics feeling it was not as successful as the 1966 movie Hawaii, which was liked by both moviegoers and critics. It made less money than the original.
Writing for The New York Times, Roger Greenspun called it a "movie with reasonable claims to having something for almost everybody", with "spectacle" that proceeds with "efficient and attractive modesty"; he complimented the director's craftsmanship and highlighted the performances of John Phillip Law and Charlton Heston, but said "Geraldine Chaplin offers only a disturbing evocation of her father's face, without the other qualities of his presence." He calls Tina Chen "not remarkable", even though she has a "role almost equal to Heston's".
Time magazine was even less complimentary, saying "the plot is laced with the usual colonial tensions and pretensions: Hoxworth feuds with a polyglut of races while his pineapple princess (Geraldine Chaplin) goes quietly mad. Every time the pace slackens, which is often, someone goes to sea, either to pick up field hands or to transport lepers to Molokai. The incessant ebb and flow is intended as a metaphor for the turbulent tides of Hawaiian life. But the real metaphor here is the pineapple, which in the good old gangster days was a synonym for bomb.
Tina Chen received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Bill Thomas was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
The Hawaiians was released on a home video format (DVD) for the first time on January 28, 2011, as part of the MGM Limited Edition Collection series.