Movie Analysis: South Pacific (1958)

The sheer, intoxicating brilliance of Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein’s Broadway production of South Pacific comes through in the 1958 motion picture version (and on home video). This film, directed by the man who directed the stage production, Joshua Logan, is undervalued by critics, if not by audiences. In its 60 years, South Pacific has gained a reputation as a light, enjoyable movie and, certainly, there’s lightness to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical.

As with the best light movies, especially movies with music, any sense of easy, cheerful sentiment and sensibility stems from serious understanding of higher values with pressing, darker themes.

For instance, the picture’s comic relief of putting on a show underscores art as crucial to one’s life. The subplot demonstrates why art matters very much. Mr. Logan made this movie with a clear and apparent vision of how to showcase its tunes, drama and humor as well as how to film its cast and effects. The sum total is a theme which expresses that paradise is chosen, not bestowed.

Coming after their breakthrough stage and film versions of Oklahoma!, South Pacific further established the great American songwriting partnership Rodgers and Hammerstein as leading intellectuals exhibiting an indelibly American sense of life. Because Mr. Logan had directed their brilliant Broadway production, he paid attention to staging, angling and framing these beautiful actors, pictures, colors and, of course, songs. These are some of the most memorable, meaningful songs ever written.

Do not mistake South Pacific, however, as theater and film critics tend to do, for a musical which skims the surface of important topics, such as death, collectivism and sex, and merely, mindlessly spins a show about them. Every character has a reason to be in this South Pacific story of love, war and desire. Major characters have a motive or impetus to act, from the native islander mother Bloody Mary (charismatic Juanita Hall) trying to spare her child Liat (France Nuyen) the suffering of poverty and primitivism through a kind of prostitution to the nubile, excitable Liat bounding to meet her U.S. Navy lieutenant (John Kerr; songs by Bill Lee) while native boys watch her in amazement.Buy the Movie

South Pacific does not mince words or actions. Bloody Mary, for instance, is nicknamed accordingly for a reason. She quickly withdraws the lieutenant’s “Bali Hai” privileges to see Liat. She promptly threatens to marry Liat off to another suitor, with no regard for the young female’s free choice. So, there’s both cost and cruelty to Bloody Mary’s motherhood; for its winking humor and “Happy Talk” appeal, her worldly wisdom arguably, demonstrably causes a lifetime of irrevocable misery.

With its melodic idealism and romanticism in “Younger Than Springtime” and “You Have to be Carefully Taught”, South Pacific is known for moving displays against collectivism, specifically against racism, but it also makes the musical-comic-dramatic case against ageism and multiculturalism. This movie would never make it past those imposing Hollywood’s Me, Too or multicult dogma. There are too many instances of girls having fun being girly, sailors singing that there “ain’t nothing like a dame” and cross-cultural fun, which today would be branded “cultural appropriation”, sadly. The whole reason nurse Nellie’s song about washing a man “outta my hair” works so well is that it’s abundantly clear that she has the opposite intention. Nellie (Mitzi Gaynor, perfect in the part) wants her man.

Initially, Lt. Joe Cable wants Nellie for himself, or, more exactly, he’s taken aback that she wants an older man, Emile (Rossano Brazzi, Leo Kovalensky in Ayn Rand’s We the Living; songs by Giorgio Tozzi) and tells Nellie that he disapproves. Then, Joe Cable’s ageism flips when he falls in love with an island girl who’s a child. But peppering all the moral judgment and examination with romantic songs that make you think twice accentuates the colorful, inviting and exotic world of South Pacific. This all happens, too, amid the backdrop of America’s war with the barbaric aggressor, Japan, with innocuous rivalry between the Navy and the Marine Corps, enterprising Luther (Ray Walston) going in drag, Tokyo being explicitly named as a target by the Americans, lest the audience forget that Japan is trying to wipe America out.

Add to this Brazzi’s handsome, dignified property owner Emile literally riding in on a white horse after singing one of the most magical and universal love songs ever written, “Some Enchanted Evening”.

So, while this movie dramatizes that love is not enough (“This Nearly Was Mine”), South Pacific embraces and unequivocally affirms falling in love. Not love as such. The ever-present wind whipping or blowing and the sound of waves breaking and crashing are crucial to the movie’s idealistic aura. Again, this is Joshua Logan’s vision, from underwater kisses and heat-stroked eroticism of being in the tropics with glistening, naked flesh to Liat waving goodbye over and over across the distance to foreshadow the heartbreaking climax.

Though South Pacific is terribly specific about happening in a place far, far away from where you are, and Joe getting malaria feels tacked on, Mr. Logan’s masterwork depicts fallible, passionate, rational characters who think and struggle with moral dilemmas posed by tradition, habits and accepted ideals. They make love but they always question and challenge the familiar.

John Kerr as Joe Cable stands out for turning his good looks into the dimensional character that hinges the plot. He turns away when Nellie rejects Emile based on her ignorance over interracial children. He gazes without shame at the girl Liat’s beauty and indulges his sense of play in the water. He commits to Emile for the common cause of defending the West. Gaynor’s nurse Nellie, too, matures from the proud and spirited optimist to womanhood at a party in her honor, which serves as a grounding counterpoint when the time comes for her redemption.

Yet for all of its loverly music, charm and emotional, melodic resonance, South Pacific, which is a musical not a war movie, never betrays the danger of war. See the Navy nurse in profile. Look at the Frenchman in his combat fatigues paired with the American woman in her nursing uniform. Only when you see and musically invest in this man-woman couple can you feel completely enchanted by their blended, chosen, liberated family. This is the Rodgers and Hammerstein, courtesy of Joshua Logan and crew, paradise proclaimed for the ultimate value and noblest cause.


Buy the Movie

The DVD version included in the Rodgers & Hammerstein collection features the original trailer for South Pacific, which teases the movie with its promise of sex, lust and combat. I always like to see how the movie’s been pitched to its first theatrical audience and this trailer makes it clear why this one was a hit.

The Making of South Pacific is a short black and white feature on the $7 million film, which was shot in Kauai. It features candid footage of director Joshua Logan and star Mitzi Gaynor among other major cast members.

But easily the best of the DVD extras is the dated 60 Minutes segment by broadcast journalist Diane Sawyer featuring the source material’s author, James Michener, who wrote the bestseller upon which the stage musical and movie are based. Apparently, Michener, who was married to an American of Japanese ancestry, took Sawyer to the original South Pacific island where he served in the United States armed forces during World War 2. Sawyer does some of her best work, letting Michener explain that “the Frenchman”, portrayed by Rossano Brazzi in the movie, was a charismatic expatriate who was well known on the island.

Sawyer takes Michener to visit what had been the Frenchman’s estate and, seeing dilapidated remains, the prolific author gets emotional during the excursion and comments that the estate “was splendid”. He pauses and adds that “there was gaiety” here. Then, he whimpers, cries and recovers. And Diane Sawyer, who had worked with President Nixon in the final days, lets him. She shows real empathy. The effort pays off as the old writer confides that he had served on this island as a 37-year-old who was like a kid with arrested development. Sawyer also takes the creator to meet the woman who inspired Michener to create the character that became Bloody Mary, an old islander named Aggie Gray.