South Pacific (1958) Review

South Pacific (1958) Director: Joshua Logan

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Based on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 stage musical, South Pacific is a delightful reimagining of several short stories which were featured in James Michener’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Tales of the South Pacific (1947). The musical numbers are good fun, offering a “cockeyed optimist’s” take on Michener’s World War II short story collection, but for all this film’s whimsy, it sacrifices the true dread, terror, boredom, disease, and death as featured in the book. In the film, the soldier’s struggle is almost absent. The Navy seems somewhat cartoonish and caricatured, almost like a big party in the tropics. Still, this musical is an extraordinary production. Shot in Hanalei Bay on the island of Kauai, its beautiful exotic locale is further buttressed by an impressive collection of matte paintings which serve as inspiring backdrops. However, South Pacific also features copious use of a fascinating and controversial color-tinting, wherein a fluorescent shade changes from scene to scene, sometimes in bright yellow, or else in a hazy shade of red or blue. Nevertheless, with a popular soundtrack, it was unsurprising that South Pacific was nominated for three Academy Awards, winning for Best Sound.

Unlike in the book, we begin with the young marine Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) as he rides aboard a dilapidated airplane, The Bouncing Belch, and from there we meet our cast of amusing characters on the island –the eccentric native woman “Bloody Mary” who sings of the fabled mountain “Bali Ha’i,” and all the shirtless soldiers who dance about and sing “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” especially the tattooed sea dog named Luther Billis (Ray Walston). We then meet Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and her paramour, an elusive and wealthy Frenchman named Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi). Lastly, we are introduced to other familiar characters from the book, such as Bill Harbison (Floyd Simmons).

The two chief plot threads in the film concern Lt. Cable’s romance with “Bloody Mary’s” daughter Liat (France Nuyen) while on the mythical island of Bali Ha’i, and also the hot-and-cold romance between Nellie Forbush and Emile de Becque, a man who, despite all suspicions, manages to prove himself in the end, even if Nellie’s southern racial prejudices compel her to reject his native-born children. When both Cable and de Becque’s relationships eventually collapse, they volunteer for a secret mission to covertly serve as radio operators behind enemy lines in Japanese territory. While they send revealing radio broadcasts on the enemy’s position, Lt. Cable is tragically killed in action, but the “Frenchman” returns and Nellie redeems herself by caring for his two native children. This is a Hollywood ending which is entirely distinct from the book. I thought this film was a true delight –a sunny, wide-eyed collection of show-tunes amidst the backdrop of war, this is a film which would be entirely impossible to make today. For a soundtrack packed with unique musical numbers, I think my favorite might be the mercurial “Bali Ha’i.” Amazingly, as I write this, lead actress Mitzi Gaynor is still alive, one of the last surviving stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age. She was one of the few actors in South Pacific whose songs were not dubbed over by someone else. She turns 90 years old this month.

Click here to read my review of James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific as part of my Pulitzer Project.

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