It is World War Two, somewhere in the South Pacific. Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr) has been assigned to infiltrate a Japanese-held island and report on their military movements in preparation for an American offensive. He wants to recruit French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi), who is very familiar with the island in question.
M. de Becque is not keen on this idea, as he is courting young and pretty nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor). His mission stalled for the time being, Lieutenant Cable accompanies rough Seabee NCO Luther Billis (Ray Walston) to the nearby island of Bali Hai. There Cable starts a romance of his own with native girl Liat (France Nuyen) under the watchful eye of her mother Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall).
But there is a war on, and the Americans are not so free of prejudice as they would like to imagine. Before the story is over, there will be heartbreak and loss.
South Pacific is a 1958 film based on the extremely popular 1949 musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, itself based on stories by James Michener. Outdoor locations were shot in Hawaii, standing in for the far away islands.
First off, the music is great. Almost every song is a winner. The dancing is good, and the acting is fairly high quality (some of the dialogue is a bit much.) And Hawaii is very pretty.
The anti-racism message comes through loud and clear, despite the limitations imposed by the Hays Code (which was pretty strict about portrayals of miscegenation.) Nellie in particular struggles with her prejudices. She likes to think of herself as open-minded, as opposed to her mother back in Little Rock, Arkansas. She’s okay with Emile being twice her age, and having killed a man once (as long as it was for a good reason.) But him marrying a Polynesian woman and having children with her…that Nellie has a lot more trouble accepting.
I was also amused by something related to my current course in Economics–Bloody Mary is an entrepreneur. The influx of American military personnel to the island has created a boom market for native handicrafts. Bloody Mary has hired a bunch of her fellow islanders to make these items, at what are to American standards ridiculously low wages. But they’re double the wages the French planters were paying for laborers and servants. This has caused a labor shortage on the plantations. But rather than raise the wages they pay, the planters complain to the U.S. military about the unfair competition!
The most glaring problem the movie has is the overuse of soft focus and “mood lighting” through the use of color filters. During the first “Bali Hai” number it kind of works to convey the mystical nature of the island, But it soon gets out of hand. The director, Joshua Logan, actually apologized in public; he hadn’t realized how garish the color filters were going to look up on the big screen.
There’s also a pacing issue with the big lump of war movie that shows up in the second half of the film, which is jarring after the rest of the movie has been almost non-stop musical.
Speaking of which, the movie shows its stage play roots by having several minutes of black screen at the beginning while the overture plays, more of this as an intermission, and at the end with the postlude. If you are watching this with children who have never seen formal theater before, you may want to explain the idea to them. Perhaps rig up a little curtain on your TV to be lifted to echo the experience.
As the story is set on a tropical island, there are a lot of shirtless men and some bathing costumes that are risque by 1940s standards. There’s also brief long-shot backside nudity at the beginning of the movie, apparently allowed by the Code under some sort of National Geographic exemption. Some viewers may find Bloody Mary’s matchmaking of her daughter to the lieutenant very uncomfortable. I know I did, the fact that it makes sense in the local culture notwithstanding.
Overall, a flawed film, but well worth seeing for the music and the beautiful scenery (when it isn’t being obscured by the color filters), with a message that is still relevant today.