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Princess Kaiulani: A Motion Picture Pretender to the Throne

Ed Rampell: This biopic purports to tell the tale of a fabled beauty who became embroiled in political turmoil, and of her romance with an Englishman. The movie’s press notes assert that, “Princess Kaiulani is the inspiring true story of the Hawaiian princess.” The problem is that this is a dubious claim. The simple fact of the matter is that Kaiulani opens with a historically inaccurate scene that never happened, and much of the movie is likewise historically suspect.
anka Kilcher as Princess Kaiulani

Q’orianka Kilcher as Princess Kaiulani

British writer/director Marc Forby’s movie Princess Kaiulani, about the last heiress apparent of the Hawaiian kingdom, has generated controversy in Hawaii and raises a number of complex issues. What are filmmakers’ responsibilities to historical accuracy, especially when portraying actual historical personages? How obligated are non-indigenous artists to the people they are depicting? What say does an ethnic group have in how it’s portrayed – especially by others from the dominant majority culture?

On the other hand, how much dramatic license does the First Amendment guarantee artists in their storytelling? Is -- as Al Franken asserted – irony constitutionally protected, even if some don’t get the irony? The free speech flap generated by South Park vis-à-vis its recent Prophet Mohammed brouhaha, as well as Arizona’s banning of ethnic studies in public schools, makes these questions and controversies all the more timely and pressing.

This biopic purports to tell the tale of a fabled beauty who became embroiled in political turmoil, and of her romance with an Englishman. The movie’s press notes assert that, “Princess Kaiulani is the inspiring true story of the Hawaiian princess.” The problem is that this is a dubious claim. The simple fact of the matter is that Kaiulani opens with a historically inaccurate scene that never happened, and much of the movie is likewise historically suspect.

As the princess electrifies Honolulu during a ceremony an armed group of haole men invades the grounds of Iolani Palace. DeSoto Brown, the highly respected Collection Manager of Bishop Museum Archives in Honolulu, asserts, “Either Kaiulani or Princess Liliuokalani turned on the lights. (There are different accounts.) These were electric arc lights used as streetlights for some of the downtown streets. This was on May 23, 1888. It sounds like the armed haole men are based on when [King] Kalakaua was forced to fire his cabinet and accept the new ‘Bayonet Consitution’, which limited his power; that happened in June and July of 1887… [T]he movie has these events happening at the same time, which is obviously phony, as can be seen by the different dates,” Brown asserts.

On July 30, 1889 Captain Robert Wilcox, a Hawaiian nationalist, led a detachment of Native militants to Iolani Palace to try and reverse the “Bayonet Constitution” and fighting took place near the Palace. The so-called “Wilcox Rebellion” failed; according to Gavan Daws’ Shoal of Time “Seven of Wilcox’s men had been killed and a dozen or so wounded.” This date also doesn’t match up with the date of the Honolulu electrification ceremony, so it seems that Princess Kaiulani conflated two or three different events for dramatic purposes.


My questions to Brown -- a part-Hawaiian author and archivist held in high esteem in Hawaii -- focused on issues of authenticity, as he had not seen Princess Kaiulani when I interviewed him. “I had the chance to see this with the Iolani Palace Board of Directors a while back, but I decided not to. I think I can only deal with this by myself, not having to temper any of my reactions, if they’re strong! So at some point I’ll watch it at home somehow,” confessed the usually even-tempered Brown, who is alluding to the controversy that has dogged the production.

Even before its release the reportedly $9 million indie co-starring Barry Pepper and Will Patton stirred outrage in the Aloha State, and an outcry from Native Hawaiians forced Forby, who reportedly married a non-Native who grew up in Hawaii, to change the original title of the film, from Barbarian Princess to Princess Kaiulani. Some Hawaiians expressed concern that their beloved royal highness would be depicted by a non-Hawaiian, Q’orianka Kilcher, an actress of Peruvian, Alaskan, Swiss, and other mixed European heritage, who partially grew up in Oahu. Kilcher portrayed Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s 2005 The New World, and has participated in Native and environmental protests at South America.

According to the Honolulu Advertiser, “Hawaiian musician Palani Vaughn turned down the role of King Kalakaua after rejecting a script he said was marred with cultural and historical inaccuracies, including behavior ‘unbefitting a princess’ such as mouthing off at the king and getting into a violent altercation with her father. ‘A non-Hawaiian is trying to interpret in an un-Hawaiian way what he is supposing has happened,’” said Vaughn, a noted Native entertainer long associated with King Kalakaua, the so-called “Merrie Monarch.”

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There was also anxiety regarding the film’s depiction of the princess’ romantic life, and the Advertiser reported that a sex scene involving Kaiulani “was cut [from the script] after complaints.” Brown doubts the veracity of the romance between the princess and a British youth she met while studying in the U.K., and asserts that Kaiulani was not engaged to Clive Davies (Shaun Evans), although this supposed relationship is a major part of what is, in large measure, a love story.

In any case, onscreen the affair is insipidly rendered, with lots of photogenic makeout shots. After the Hawaiian monarchy is toppled by a U.S.-backed coup Kaiulani returns home to help her beleaguered people. Her erstwhile British suitor, who has not received replies to his letters, follows her across the globe to the Islands, where his family has large plantations. Once the lovers are reunited, Clive gives the princess an ultimatum: Return to Britain to marry him or they’re through. The film intends to show Kaiulani’s loyalty to Hawaiians when she refuses, and they break up. Clive has traveled around the world for nothing. Of course, the simple solution to this dilemma would be for the Englishman to stay in Hawaii and run his family’s agricultural holdings, but somehow this never occurs to him, despite the fact that he’s supposedly so in love with the exquisite wahine of mixed Polynesian and Scottish heritage. No Romeo and Juliet are they.

The film is at its best when it succeeds in raising awareness about the plight of Hawaii, which suffered an American-backed overthrow and invasion in 1893, leading to U.S. annexation in 1898. Kaiulani, a young brown woman, throws herself into the fray as a champion for Native rights, and she meets with Pres. Grover Cleveland in Washington before returning home to support the Hawaiians. There are great, rare interior shots of Iolani Palace, where cinematography is generally tabu (although I imagine some Polynesian purists also resented this as a cultural intrusion). But the movie repeatedly undermines itself by straying from the truth. For instance, after an 1895 attempted Counter-Revolution to restore Hawaiian sovereignty, it’s falsely claimed that there were many casualties, when it fact there was around one deats. It’s also disappointing that Kaiulani’s rather famous encounter with author Robert Louis Stevenson is omitted here. (That might have necessitated cutting one of Clive and Kaiulani’s interminable makeout sessions.) And so on.

Q’orianka Kilcher, who was recently interviewed on Pacifica radio’s Democracy Now! when she attended Pres. Evo Morales’ pro-indigenous, pro-Mother Earth summit at Bolivia, is okay as Kaiulani. She was far more fetching as that other aboriginal princess, Pocahontas, in The New World, and is more prudishly treated here, perhaps out of deference to Hawaiian sensibilities about their beloved royal highness. She’s reduced to making out; no bodice ripping here, please! And in some unflattering close ups Q’orianka looks as if she leads with her chin like Jay Leno does, deflating claims of Kaiulani’s great beauty.

A Hawaiian who works in the Islands’ film industry summed up the problems with this mediocre movie: “Of the four local producers and production manager none had Hawaiian blood.” Neither did the writer/director, although some of the actors did, such as Leo Akana, who portrays Hawaii’s last monarch. Like Queen Liluokalani, who composed songs such as the famous Aloha Oe, Akana is also a gifted compser, who has written many great love songs, as well as pieces about the ongoing Hawaiian sovereignty movement for indigenous rights.

If memory serves correctly, Akana has also previously played Liliuokalani, I believe onstage. During the 1980s I saw a play at Oahu’s Manoa Valley Theatre about Kaiulani written by Victroria Nalani Knuebuhl, a part-Samoan, part-Hawaiian playwright whose uncle, Johnny Kneubuhl, used to write Hawaii Five-O, The Wild, Wild West, etc., and was a friend of mine at Pago Pago. I remember that Kaiulani’s untimely death was depicted as a sort of a protest against the overthrow and Americanization of Hawaii, and Victoria’s play was far better than this movie. During the 1993 mass demonstrations and commemorations of the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, Victoria also directed costumed reenactors around Iolani Palace who reenacted historical events pertaining to the overthrow, which were more accurate than Princess Kaiulani. That same year, Kaiulani devotee Kristin Zambucka wrote and produced A Cry of Peacocks, a low budge film which also depicted the princess and Counter-Revolution, and which I remember liking more than the current picture, too.

One can, I suppose, defend Princess Kaiulani’s departures from historical veracity on the grounds that it is not a documentary. But the best comment I ever heard regarding this subject was in regards to Disney’s animated feature about another character whom Kilcher has played. Disney hired a Native historical consultant descended from Pocahontas’ tribe to work on its 1995 cartoon starring Mel Gibson and indigenous actress Irene Bedard. When Disney screened Pocahontas for her, the consultant was mortified at how her 12 or so year old ancestral tribeswoman had been transmogrified into a busty bombshell and given the full Disney treatment. Disney’s defense was that it was, after all, just a cartoon.

But the American Indian consultant fired back that if this wasn’t a matter for concern, why did the studio choose the name of a real historical individual, instead of having Disney’s much-vaunted “imagineers” simply make a character up? The answer, of course, has everything to do with marketing, and nothing to do with historical accuracy, authenticity or cultural sensibility: It’s easier to sell a preexisting brand name with a high recognition factor the current huckster had nothing to do with developing, than it is to create a memorable character who will catch the public’s attention in a crowded marketplace.

ed rampell

Ed Rampell

(Note: The author lived in Hawaii and Oceania for many years and is co-author of Made In Paradise, Hollywood’s Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and of Pearl Harbor in the Movies.)