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Remembering a Mission of Mercy in Paradise

'Father Damien,' which recounts a priest's journey to a Hawaiian leper colony, prompts a new look at history.

September 20, 1998|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

The sets are gone now, torn down after two months of filming--the church, the rectory, the hospital, the dying shed.

On a breathtaking peninsula along Molokai's wind-swept northern coast, surrounded by the graves of 8,000 departed souls that still evoke painful memories for Hawaiians, the actors and crew of "Father Damien" have packed up their equipment, said their farewells and departed Kalaupapa, leaving behind a settlement of patients stricken with Hansen's disease, also known as leprosy.

The $10-million European-financed film, featuring Peter O'Toole, Kris Kristofferson and Sam Neill, tells the story of the famous Belgian-born Roman Catholic priest who arrived at Hawaii's leper colony in 1873. In the next 16 years, some 4,000 people would succumb to the disfiguring disease, including Father Damien, who died in 1889.

The making of the movie has forced Hawaiians to confront a troubling chapter in their history, a time when islanders were forcibly taken from their loved ones and quarantined on Molokai.

The filmmakers had to gain the trust of the 47 remaining patients who reside permanently at Kalaupapa. Gradually, they coaxed nearly everyone into taking part, casting some in speaking roles and others as extras.

"At first, many of them objected to [the film], but then they all fell in love with it," said sheriff and park tour operator Richard Marks, a resident for 41 years. "They even had people come in stretchers from the hospital to work as extras [to play dying patients].

"Little by little, they talked their way into your heart," Marks added. "People here have been isolated many years. They were told nobody wanted them around, so they were real self-conscious."

Dutch-Australian director Paul Cox said the cast and crew were overwhelmed by the response.

"The actual patients offered us their hands without fingers, their faces without eyes," he said. "It was an amazing experience. It wasn't about making people up as lepers, it was having real patients playing these parts. It was very moving."

But the production also presented Cox and his colleagues with untold challenges. Had any crew member misbehaved, the set could have been shut down by the patients' advisory council with the concurrence of the National Park Service, which jointly manages the site with Hawaii's health department.

The park service was also wary of allowing the 60-member crew to set up shop on the peninsula because the area is dotted with prehistoric burial sites and endangered plant life.

Just ferrying supplies and extras to the peninsula proved difficult, because the rugged coastline is buffeted by rough seas and ground access is restricted to a trail leading down a 1,600-foot-high cliff wall. Since only 50 crew members were allowed to stay overnight, the others--including up to 150 extras--had to fly in on small planes.

There are two villages on the peninsula: the original, now-abandoned settlement of Kalawao, where much of the filming took place, and Kalaupapa village, home to about 100 patients and employees. Normally, only 100 visitors a day are allowed at Kalaupapa, and children under 16 are usually not permitted.

By the time Cox had left Molokai after four months of overseeing the construction of 20-plus sets as well as principal photography, the director sounded exhausted.

"It feels like years," he said by phone from Honolulu. "It was not an easy film to shoot. There was no infrastructure, so we had to fly everything in. All the extras had to fly in and out. There were restrictions on children--they had to leave by sunset.

"Many times people were in tears," Cox said. "There was lots of disharmony. [The production involved] people from all over the world. Personally, I didn't get along very well with our producers, but we managed to get through it. We couldn't leave."

The film stars Australian actor David Wenham as Damien Joszef De Veuster. O'Toole plays William Williamson, a British nurse who warns the priest of the risk of contagion and later dies in his arms. Kristofferson plays Rudolph Meyer, a Molokai rancher who administered the settlement from the upper area of the island. The film was written by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Briley ("Gandhi") and also features Tom Wilkinson, Derek Jacobi, Leo McKern, Alice Krige and Kate Ceberano.

The film is based on the book "Father Damien" by Belgian author Hilde Eynikel, who saidHansen's disease was incurable until the mid-20th century.

"It's a very deforming disease," said Eynikel, who was a consultant on the film. "It starts in the extremities, the hands and feet, and slowly moves up. The nerves die and you can get growths all over your body. The feet and hands become lumps, or the fingers are completely contracted. Faces are disfigured. It's very painful. Then you lose all feeling."

Eynikel visited Kalaupapa on and off for five years while researching her book. In a Belgium convent, she was allowed to study documents about Father Damien that had been locked away since the 1930s.

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