The iconography of man, woman, and desert island -- ''Six Days Seven Nights,'' ''The Blue Lagoon,'' and ''Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison'' fit the formula

By Ty Burr
Updated December 11, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST

The iconography of man, woman, and desert island

A man. A woman. A desert island. The iconography is absurdly simple and infinitely resonant. It’s because the castaway-couple genre traffics in matters both profound (how will they rebuild civilization in miniature?) and cheesy (when they gonna get it on?) that it’s an enduring cliché, most recently trotted out for our philosophical delectation in the Harrison Ford-Anne Heche vehicle Six Days, Seven Nights. This new-to-tape Ivan Reitman romantic comedy doesn’t add anything new to the concept, but then, we don’t come to these islands expecting fresh water. A gradual shedding of clothes and inhibitions is enough; that, and actors skilled enough to keep us interested in the slow, sandy, familiar pas de deux.

That’s what makes a movie like The Blue Lagoon such a brain-sucking chore. Based on a 1903 novel (which also begat a 1949 film), it’s the bare-bones version of the tale: Girl and boy are shipwrecked, grow up to be Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins, and eye each other while saying things like ”Why are all these funny hairs growing on me?” Lagoon might have worked as a visualization of that primal adolescent wish for the grown-up world to just go away, but Shields and Atkins come off like mall brats playing Adam and Eve, and the way director Randal Kleiser peddles their nude innocence for our jaded thrills is hypocrisy in action.

As Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison knows, there needs to be something to keep the main characters apart — for a while, anyway — if we’re going to stay interested. And director John Huston comes up with a doozy: The woman’s a nun. This being a late-’50s film, you know that Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr) isn’t going to fall out of the habit, but it doesn’t matter: The relationship between the gentle, resilient nun and the uneducated, well-intentioned Marine (Robert Mitchum) who hides her from the Japanese on a South Pacific island builds up surprising heat, mainly from the actors’ tender intimacy.

You can’t get much further from that — in tone, message, or performances — than Lina Wertmuller’s Swept Away (By an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August). This politicized battle of the sexes was defiantly un-PC before the term was even coined: When scruffy Communist deckhand Giancarlo Giannini finds himself marooned with bitch-glam employer Mariangela Melato, he makes her his sexual slave. She loves it, and mid-’70s critics were appalled. Of course, Melato dumps him once they’re rescued — the moral being that the rich can’t be trusted — but it’s hard to decide what’s more off-putting: the deeply nasty view of the gender wars or Melato’s paint-peeling voice.

Far deeper, and easier to take, is Hiroshi Teshigahara’s sensuously surreal drama Woman in the Dunes, just reissued in a new transfer. This may be the purest example of the man/woman/island thing yet — even if it does take place at the bottom of an immense sand pit on the coast of Japan. It’s there that a vacationing office worker (Eiji Okada) spends the night, only to discover that he’s been trapped by the locals to help a woman (Kyoko Kishida) dig her shack out of the sand day after day. Filmed in phosphorescent black and white, Woman stands the genre on its head by quickly striking sexual sparks. Only gradually do they come to depend on each other emotionally.

By contrast, Six Days, Seven Nights is just a forced attempt at old-school Hollywood romantic comedy given unexpected grace by its stars. Forget David Schwimmer as magazine editor Heche’s neurasthenic beau. Ignore the leering dialogue (Heche, on boarding bush pilot Ford’s beat-up plane: ”I’m not sure I trust your equipment”). Overlook, I beg you, the pirates. The pleasure here is in watching Heche’s skittery New Yorkiness slow to a lope in Ford’s presence, in feeling Ford speed up a bit to meet her halfway, in the quick-pulsed glow that, by film’s end, surrounds them despite every stumble of the script. After all, the real desert island in castaway-couple films is made of desire. In Six Days, Heche and Ford are talented enough to discover it on their own.

Six Days B-
Blue Lagoon D
Heaven Knows B
Swept Away C-
Woman A-