South Pacific (1958)

I seem to be on a `love in the time of war’ roll. First it was Usne Kaha Tha, then Hum Dono; and in the middle I even managed to fit in Random Harvest, which though not exactly set during a war, was about a romance which began on the day World War I ended. So here’s another. A musical. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, and based on James Michener’s stories of the South Pacific.

The island of Bali Hai in South Pacific

Lt Joseph Cable (John Kerr) of the US Marines is sent off to a small island in the South Pacific, with orders to boost military intelligence in the area. His mission is clear enough: get on to one of the nearby islands that are held by the Japanese, and keep a watch on Japanese naval activities in the bottleneck between the islands, so that Allied forces know exactly when and where to attack.

Lt Cable flies in on a mission

No chance of song and dance here, it seems. But the island Cable’s landed on is occupied by a bunch of sailors who seem to have little to do except mourn the lack of dames, manufacture grass skirts, banter with a local wheeler-dealer called Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), and ogle the nurses stationed on the island. Of these, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) is among the most popular, especially with the enterprising and completely madcap Luther Billis (Ray Walston).

Nellie Forbush and Luther Billis - and many sailors

Nellie is, however (and the entire camp seems to know this) in love with a French planter called Emile de Becque (a delectable Rossano Brazzi). They’ve been friends only about two weeks, but are very attracted to each other. Emile finally confesses his love to Nellie (through a lovely song: Some enchanted evening). He also tells her he’d left France some 15 years earlier because he’d had to kill a man, a town bully. Nellie’s shaken by the revelation, but loves Emile enough to understand.

Nellie and Emile find true love

Shift to Cable, who shortly after his arrival, is introduced to Bloody Mary. Her initial verdict is that he’s “Sexy!” She seems almost mesmerised by Cable, and draws his attention to the hilly island of Bali Hai, looming up through the mists across the sea. There’s something almost mythical about Bali Hai, and Cable finds himself intrigued by it.

Bloody Mary sings to Cable of Bali Hai

Luther Billis adds to Cable’s curiosity to see Bali Hai for himself by saying that the French planters moved their women to Bali Hai when they heard that American GIs were being sent to this island. The Gallic attraction apart, Bali Hai’s also (as Bloody Mary calls it) “a special island”. In Luther’s opinion, it’s special because the upcoming boar’s tooth ceremony is a time for much coconut liquor, dancing (by girls in grass skirts), and general “getting to know people”.

And Billis tells Cable about Bali Hai too

But Cable’s got more on his mind; he has to get down to work. He therefore reports to the CO, Captain JM Brackett (Russ Brown) and his second in command, Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons). The most appropriate island for Cable to spy from is nearby Marie Louise—and Cable has been given the name of a man who probably knows Marie Louise like the back of his hand: Emile de Becque. The plan is to ask de Becque to go with Cable on the mission, acting as guide and local expert. Without de Becque’s help, Cable’s mission is close to impossible.

Brackett, Cable and Harbison discuss the mission

But Brackett and Harbison have been doing background checks on de Becque, and have found gaps. They know he came to the island, married a Polynesian woman (who later died) and has two children. They don’t know why he left France, and whether he can be trusted—or will even be willing to undertake this mission with Cable. Brackett summons Nellie, but it’s soon pretty obvious that though she’s in love with de Becque, Nellie knows precious little about him: not even his political views. De Becque hasn’t even told her about the existence of his children.

Nellie is `interviewed' about Emile de Becque

What with her interview with Brackett, Harbison and Cable, Nellie’s by now quite certain that de Becque isn’t the man for her. A killer? Oh, please. She’s gonna wash that man right out of her hair.
But just as she’s rinsing him out of her cute little bob, de Becque turns up, white horse and all. He tells Nellie all about how and why he killed the man (an accident), and when Nellie asks him what his political views are, agrees that he believes firmly in the Declaration of Independence.
This time, when de Becque asks her, Nellie’s answer is an emphatic yes: she’ll marry him. And yes, he’s a wonderful guy.

Nellie agrees to marry Emile de Becque

De Becque’s happy as can be, so when Brackett, Harbison and Cable talk to him about the mission and ask him if he’ll agree to go, he declines. He has too much to lose. And Nellie is much more important to him than this war.

De Becque refuses to go on the mission

With the mission aborted even before it’s started, Cable hasn’t anything to do. Luther talks him into coming along to Bali Hai for the boar’s tooth ceremony, so Cable requisitions a boat and off they go. At Bali Hai, they’re greeted by hordes of young women—French girls in long dresses and bonnets (a touch anachronistic?) and native girls in long sarongs, who wave happily, smile endlessly and throw garlands around the two Americans’ necks. A patronising view of the natives, to my mind—but never mind.

Bali Hai

While Luther is watching the ceremony, Cable finds himself hijacked by Bloody Mary, who’s now living on Bali Hai. She takes him away from the ceremony, up through the woods and into a pretty little hut where she introduces him to her daughter, a young girl called Liat (France Nuyen). Bloody Mary tells Cable that Liat is a good daughter and will make a good wife. She then sneaks off with a conspiratorial grin.

Bloody Mary introduces Cable to Liat

Liat knows just a few words of English, and equally little French, so spoken communication between her and Cable seems likely to be non-existent. They don’t think that makes a difference, though; and a minute after they’ve been introduced and Bloody Mary’s made her exit, they’re kissing each other wildly. There’s something not very convincing about this.
In fact, by the time Cable leaves (which seems to be a good while later), they can’t keep their hands off each other.

Cable and Liat

Meanwhile, Nellie Forbush has been having the time of her life. Emile de Becque invites her home to a party where she can meet the other French planters and their wives, and Nellie enjoys herself thoroughly. After the party, Emile finally introduces her to his children, Ngana (Candace Lee) and Jerome (Warren Hsieh).

Emile introduces Nellie to the kids

Nellie first refuses to believe Ngana and Jerome are his offspring. Then, when it finally dawns on her that they are indeed his children, she nearly gets hysterical. Emile had loved a Polynesian? His children are half non-white??! She isn’t rude enough to say any of this, but it’s obvious what she’s thinking, and she leaves soon after, sobbing her heart out, and Emile knows it’s all over between them.

Nellie cracks up when she learns the truth

A world away, Cable and Liat are beating it up on Bali Hai. They swim about in pools, kiss and hug and generally behave as if (let alone the war), they don’t have anything better to do. Bloody Mary sits by watching them benevolently and singing a ditty (Happy talk’: an utterly irritating song, though the sentiment behind it isn’t bad) to which Liat provides the actions. Reminds me of kindergarten, with toddlers waving their arms about while singing.

Bloody Mary and Liat enact "Happy talkin'" - ugh!

Cable’s pretty happy smooching Liat and having a good time, but as soon as Bloody Mary tells him to marry Liat, he backs out. No. There’s no way he can marry the girl. Bloody Mary’s furious and drags Liat off, promising to marry her off to a French planter who’s offered for her.

Cable refuses to marry Liat

Two romances, both gone down the drain. Four broken hearts, and hey—wasn’t there a war in the background somewhere? There’s more to come, lots of songs, some more heartache, tears, laughter… and yes, even some action.

What I liked about this film:
The music. Rodgers and Hammerstein, after all! While this isn’t as superb a score as (say) Oklahoma! or The Sound of Music, it’s got some very good tunes.
The seascapes: gorgeous!
Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi. There’s something very romantic about them, and the difference in their ages actually adds to the charm. Lovely chemistry. And oh, I do like Brazzi— he is just so unbelievably handsome.

Rossano Brazzi and Mitzi Gaynor in South Pacific

What I didn’t like:
Oh, so much, unfortunately.
First of all, the `romance’ between Cable and Liat. It just didn’t ring true. She’s just a kid (that’s what Cable says), and the attraction between them seems to be at a very superficial, sexual level—yet the film would have us believe they’re very deeply in love. No, I just couldn’t buy that.
Secondly, Bloody Mary. She’s a strange character: practical and down to earth (see her pushing for the grass skirts Luther’s manufactured) yet simple-minded enough to decide on a son-in-law the first time she sees him. What’s more, the way her character’s been depicted, it’s not endearing, just plain annoying. And her introducing Cable to Liat and then leaving them smacks of pimping. Really.
And why on earth does Bloody Mary speak English so badly (pidgin, almost) but sing the language perfectly? The Bali Hai song has very good lyrics—and not one grammatical error there!
The entire set-up. They’re bang in the middle of a war zone, and they spend their time swimming around in pools with nubile wenches? Or organising Thanksgiving shows? Partying? Singing? Even if I try to tell myself it’s a musical, and doesn’t need to be realistic—then it doesn’t quite fit with the last half hour of the film, which is fairly real, or at least tries to be.
And that brings me to the last point: the story is very wonky. I don’t agree that musicals can’t have good stories (I think films like The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, and Gigi all have very likeable plots). But South Pacific is disappointing. It teeters between romance, slapstick and tragedy in a jerky, unbelievable way, and the songs come so thick and fast that they interrupt important scenes. For example, there’s a highly emotional scene where Cable realises that his inherent racism—which prevents him from marrying Liat—is wrong. This could’ve been a great scene but was ruined for me by a song that (though with great lyrics) didn’t quite sustain the pathos of the moment.
And yes, didn’t the producers have the guts to stick to their oh-so-brave stand against racism? You’ll have to watch the film to see what I mean.

Or rather, don’t. Watch the songs on youtube. They’re the best bit about this film.

And yes, did you notice the screen caps? How they change colour? That’s another of the things I simply hated about this film: they used colour filters. Someone’s happy? Colour filter. Someone’s in love? Another colour filter, or fuzzy edges. Someone’s sad? Colour filter. Someone’s getting emotional? Colour filter. By the end of it, what with all those blue and orange and purple and red tinted frames, I was ready to pitch South Pacific out into the water and just let it drift away.

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15 thoughts on “South Pacific (1958)

  1. The only time I saw Rossano Brazzi was in The Far Pavilions where he was an old and evil Maharaja – not to mention covered in turbans and facial hair. He certainly is good looking, and from his presence in a musical I assume he can sing as well! I am curious now – how does it all end?

    a great scene… was ruined for me by a song that (though with great lyrics) didn’t quite sustain the pathos of the moment.

    I find that happens to me with most musicals (Sound of Music being the only exception) – one minute people are talking and the next they are singing! And unlike Bollywood songs, the songs here could just as well have been spoken – they are neither poetical nor rhyming. Thats not to say that I dont like musicals (I love My Fair Lady, Gigi and some Gene Kelly ones, too) but if it is going to be a musical I’d rather have Bollywood!

  2. I have been…..TWICE to the island where the whole thing was hsot, and it is one my favourite places on Earth.

    The film was really uneven, but can’t wait to go back to the “set” :)))

  3. bollyviewer: Yes, Rossano Brazzi is very good looking! He’s especially awesome in this clip from Summertime.Now I’m on the search for Three Coins in the Fountain – he’s in that too!
    By the way, I’ve heard they had his songs dubbed in South Pacific, even though he could sing very well too. Wonder why they did that…

    And I do so hate that `talking one minute, singing the next’ style of Hollywood. Yup, they could definitely have taken a few lessons from Bollywood on that!

    As to how it all ends:

    Spoiler coming up!
    Now that Nellie’s walked out of his life, Emile agrees to go on the mission. He and Cable are dropped off by plane on Marie Louise, and they start keeping an eye on Jap movement in the bottleneck, sending radio transmissions as and when they need to. They discover a major Jap naval contingent moving through the bottleneck, and alert Allied troops, so there’s a major offensive by the Allies, but in the meantime, the Japs find Emile and Cable on the island and begin shooting. Cable is killed (he couldn’t have married a local girl!!) and Emile manages to get back to Nellie and his children – to find that Nellie is now looking after them, learning French from them and being a mother of sorts… so happy end after all for these two.

    Spoiler ends

    bawa: I can imagine you’d want to go back! It was very, very beautiful.

  4. Okay for time pass, but don’t expect too much out of it! ;-) And if you mean the colour filters, they get very irritating – but when it’s natural, it’s gorgeous: all those blues and greens are lovely.

  5. Only thing it is not the South Pacific..only the South China Sea.

    Recommend it to anyone, and the water/jungle lush really, actually looks like even better than the postcards!!

  6. South Pacific is the first movie I ever remember seeing in a cinema’ though it must have been a re-issue, as I wasn’t born until 1960. I was probably three. My mom played the songs at home all the time on record, and took me with her. My only memory is of seeing Bloody Mary’s big face on the screen wailing “Bali Hai” and not caring for it. After which, I fell asleep!

  7. You didn’t miss much! ;-) The songs are lovely, and Rossano Brazzi’s gorgeous, but I think that’s about it. Personally, I’ve seen better Rodgers and Hammerstein flicks.

  8. He does look wonderful, doesn’t he? :-)

    And he seems to be one of those people who looked better as he aged – he’s not half as attractive in Little Women, when he was a good ten years younger. But I think he looks utterly swoon-worthy in this clip from Summertime:

    What I’d give to have been Katherine Hepburn!

  9. Katherine Hepburn behaved like a Mills&Boons heroine – all coy indecision and girlish doubts! One musnt blame her – I bet Brassi would have the same effect on more sensible women, too! ;-)

    I have seen the June Allyson version of Little Women, and I dont even remember noticing him there. So yes, he definitely aged into better looks.

  10. How is Summertime, though? I’ve been wanting to see it because of Brazzi, but a synopsis I read somewhere indicated that it didn’t end with a happily ever after, so I’ve been wary of it.

    Have you seen Three Coins in the Fountain? Brazzi’s in that too – another film I need to see.

  11. I didnt much care for Summertime – it not only ends badly, the romance part was rather awkward and unsatisfactory. But Brazzi… sigh… :-) He looks much better in video than in still pictures!

    I have vague memories of Three Coins in the Fountain – I probably saw only parts of it. Now I need to hunt it up. Hopefully TCM will oblige, by playing it for me!

  12. All I know of Three Coins in the Fountain is the title song – lovely! But I hope TCM shows it here in India too.

    Bad about Summertime. There should be a law against casting heartthrobs like Brazzi or Power in films that aren’t topnotch! ;-)

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