“Peace is not the product of a victory or a command. It has no finishing line, no final deadline, no fixed definition of achievement. Peace is a never-ending process, the work of many decisions. I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about the beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn't write anything without hope in it.” – Oscar Hammerstein II
The Broadway stage, once thought of as a pantheon for bright and breezy musical revues, took on considerable ballast with Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific (1958); an inspired tome predicated on Hammerstein’s innate charity toward all mankind. “When I meet a man from another part of the world who is in showbiz, I feel close to him,” Hammerstein once explained, “If he’s in tryouts, I know exactly how he’s feeling. He knows I know this.” At the heart of South Pacific remained this modus operandi, tweaked via its source material to explore the great racial divide, albeit - set to music. To label South Pacific as a milestone in American theater is an understatement. It is nothing less than a trailblazer. It may, in fact, be Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest achievement; certainly, one of their most perennially revived.
The film version would deserve no less consideration, and under Joshua Logan’s direction (also, responsible for the Broadway sensation), South Pacific – the movie – retains its introspective critique of this artificially created cultural divide; the characters of mid-western American, Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) and Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) still grappling with their ‘carefully taught’ inhibitions; desperate to embrace the world without its color barriers. Ultimately, this resolution is achieved – at least, for Nellie, reconciling her institutionalized racism with a genuine love for French plantation owner, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi) by dedicating herself as mother-figure to his half-Polynesian children from a previous marriage.
Based on James A. Michener’s novel, Tales of the South Pacific, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific breaks with tradition, both theatrical and societal based. For never before had the artistry of stagecraft so cleverly revealed so much about the human condition, using its patina of heartfelt pop-u-tainment to explore a more politicized injustice plaguing the modern ‘civilized’ world. This timeless social evaluation had been a part of Michener’s novel. Michener, who had been based as a lieutenant in the South Pacific during WWII, had grown very close to its native peoples; his diaries, later reconstituted as a work of pseudo-fiction, first published in 1947 and winning the Pulitzer one year later. It was the beginning of a prolific – if inauspicious – writing career.
Interestingly, Michener’s novel was not an overnight sensation. Indeed, had it not been for Broadway director, Joshua Logan, the novel might never have come to the attention of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Basking in the afterglow of their two previous stage successes, Oklahoma! and Carousel, R&H had launched into Allegro – an original property that miserably failed to catch on. Moderately disheartened by its colossal thud, the duo was approached by Logan, who had read Michener’s novel and become an ardent admirer almost immediately. It was Logan who proposed the project to R&H, and ultimately Logan who would see it through to fruition on both the stage and the big screen.
As had happened before, the subject matter just seemed to click with the composers. Buoyed by the familiar theme of love’s transformative quality, and, feeding into Rodgers and Hammerstein’s positivism, as well as their cause célèbre for social reform, South Pacific would evolve into an enduring testament against racial prejudice. However, the question remained: was the public ready to embrace such unbridled hopefulness where race relations were concerned? Lest we forget, the play and movie’s debut are both ensconced in a pre-civil rights America; imbued by starchy conservatism and a general unwillingness to examine the world through color-blind spectacles. Alas, Rodgers and Hammerstein had little to fear. On stage, South Pacific became an immediate sensation.
In transforming Michener’s poignant tales into a show, Rodgers and Hammerstein were to rediscover their own moral strength; the show deeply appealing to Hammerstein’s sense of compassion toward all humanity. Alas, on film, this tenuous balance was mildly hampered: first, by director, Joshua Logan’s inability to reconceive the material in cinematic terms; also, by Logan’s obtuse overuse of various color filters to create an enforced tropical moodiness in specific scenes. On stage, the allure of the tropics had been conceived, and achieved using dramatic lighting changes; also, by incorporating impressionist backdrops to mimic the breezy outdoors. Regrettably, what works in a theater does not usually transfer well to movies for obvious reasons.
To satisfy the medium’s demands for reality, the production team traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, Logan toiling in the heat and sand to recreate that elusive stage magic in more tangible terms. There is little to deny South Pacific – the movie – as one of the most sumptuous and lush visual experiences of the decade – possibly, even of a lifetime. Indeed, when projected in expansive 65mm Todd A-O, Leon Shamroy’s cinematography proved a very intoxicating elixir. In London, as example, South Pacific played continuously at the Dominion Theatre for nearly five years – its’ gross intake at the box office rivaled only by The Sound of Music (1965). The English were equally as transfixed by the original cast album: 115 weeks at the top of their charts, with 70 consecutive in the #1 spot.
At the time of South Pacific’s debut, Rodgers and Hammerstein were in the envious position to be calling their own shots. Artistically speaking, this presented a challenge for Hollywood; then, as now, unaccustomed to surrendering the future success of any project to the dictates of non-Hollywood players. But for R&H, the alliance forged with Darryl F. Zanuck at 2oth Century-Fox had been, if not initially amicable (they quarreled and were miserable working under Zanuck during their one and only foray into an exclusively film-based project, 1945’s State Fair) then ultimately manageable – if for no other reason, then Zanuck had already departed the studio by 1957; their cache affording unprecedented bartering power by the time South Pacific entered pre-production.
As such, South Pacific would only be distributed by Fox, who also partially funded the movie. The rest of the capital came directly from the Magna Theatre Corporation of which R&H were part owners. Interesting too, R&H’s resurgence on film was only made possible after the movie’s technological capacity to recreate the aura – as well as the visual – splendor of a night in live theater, via new widescreen/stereophonic technologies, had matured. If never quite considered on par with a live presentation, particularly by theater aficionados and critics alike (such was the snobbery then) the movies had nevertheless stepped up their game, enough to appeal to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who fervently believed they were at the cusp of a new era in motion picture presentation.
On screen, South Pacific remains more an event than a movie, and regrettably, less cinematic than stage-bound to its roots. The proscenium is rarely broken, Logan interrupting the action sparingly with a limited amount of close-ups to bring the audience into the story. Instead, we are kept at a distance. Yet, the stultification that had plagued the screen versions of Oklahoma! (both in Todd A-O and Cinemascope) is not quite so obvious herein; perhaps, because there are other distractions afoot to abuse the optic nerve. Of these, Logan’s misuse of color filters must be considered the worst transgressor. Initially the plan had been only to use a series of color filters to enhance the ‘Bali Ha’i’ sequence. Since Logan could find no tangible example in Mother Nature of this elusive tropical paradise described in Michener’s novel, the film relied on a rather obvious traveling matte painting for long shots of the island; heavily diffused through fog filters and an inexplicable mist; also plied with some Vaseline, rubbed around the edges of the camera lens to create a ‘dream-like’ quality; the screen changing from violent shades of magenta and aubergine, to cartoon reds and pumpkin oranges, and finally, a thoroughly unattractive urine yellow. Viewing this sequence today, it remains difficult to deduce exactly what about the footage proved so gosh darn tantalizing; enough to prompt Logan to pursue the technique for virtually every other musical moment in the movie. Rather than rendering ‘Bali Ha’i’ as a magical Shangri-La, the filter effects diffuse the spectacle into a sort of garish carnival sideshow oddity; splashed with all the frenetic energy of an epileptic let loose in Disney’s ink and paint department.
We could forgive Joshua Logan even this indiscretion, had he not burdened the rest of South Pacific with as incalculable artistic travesties; the jaundice yellow tints as Nellie Forbush sweetly trills ‘A Cock-eyed Optimist’; the lurid tangerine that intrude upon ‘Some Enchanted Evening’; the unhealthy carmine and scarlet, igniting the lush tropical foliage in a sort of impressionist’s Dante’s Inferno while Liat (France Nuyen) and Joe Cable consummate their passionate affair; the midnight cobalt and amethyst tints, meant to mimic a haunting eve in the tropics for ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, and so on. With so many shifting colors, South Pacific gradually devolves into a painterly mess; Logan, applying the broadest of hues to the story’s dramatic palette as might a child newly discovering his Crayolas. It’s too tempting to debate his motives; to argue Logan’s approach to generating dramatic tension and pathos is enhanced by the obviousness in his exercise, when the literal application of color merely gilds an already appropriately vivid lily.
Forced by the overwhelming success of the stage show to repeatedly delay plans for the movie only seems to have given Joshua Logan more time to reimagine his high concept – rather than his staging. As such, when at last South Pacific made it to the big Todd A-O screen, it was undeniably lush – although stricken with a perceptive bout of elephantiasis. Worse, Logan seems to have entirely forgotten motion pictures are ‘moving pictures’; his camera remaining stationary for long uninterrupted segments while the actors hit their marks, treating each location and/or set as though it were hampered by the invisible third-wall rule of a stage-bound proscenium. The result: while South Pacific undeniable has all of the visual cache of a prestige picture, it lacks the mobility of a veteran filmmaker, this shortcoming amplified by Todd A-O’s superior high resolution.
What remains galvanic and endearing then, is the story; also the Rodgers and Hammerstein songs. After an exhilarating overture, with main titles breathtakingly capturing the robust tropical paradise in all its’ natural splendor, we settle on a Seabee plane bringing Lt. Cable. In the extended roadshow cut, Cable engages pilot, Lt. Buzz Adams (Tom Laughlin) in a discussion about the tenuous nature of diplomacy and the mounting crisis looming in the South Seas. The theatrical cut expedites Cable’s arrival to the main island, the Seabees serenading with the hearty strains of ‘Bloody Mary’ – a tribute for their affinity for the local mercantile trader (played by Juanita Hall), who delights in tempting the more jaded Luther Billis (Ray Walston) with trinkets from Bali Ha’i. The island is strictly off limits to the American sailors. The film plays up the sexual frustrations of these homesick gallants as they strut and preen on the beach, belting out a chorus or two of ‘There Is Nothing Like A Dame’; the moment interrupted by the arrival of nurse, Nellie Forbush who has asked Luther to do some stitch work on several of her garments.
The men chide Luther who, determined to assert his authority among them, plies Lt. Cable with enticements designed to broker his own favor in getting to that off-shore paradise not restricted to officers. Cable is interested, particularly when Bloody Mary refers to him as a very ‘saxy man’ She also hypnotically serenades him with the magical strains of ‘Bali Ha’i’. Alas, before any journey can get underway, Cable is called by his superior, Capt. Brackett (Russ Brown) to a meeting. Brackett is interested in using one of the locals, Emile De Becque as a guide to establish an observation outpost on one of the more remote Japanese-occupied islands. De Becque is a French plantation owner, widowed and raising two young half-Polynesian children; Ngana (Candace Lee) and Jerome (Warren Hsieh). He also harbors a darker secret, having fled France after killing a man, presumably in self-defense. De Becque has since begun a burgeoning romance with Nellie Forbush, whom Cable crudely suggests could be used as a spy to learn about De Becque’s political affiliations.
Owing to his own concerns about Nellie’s view of miscegenation, De Becque has yet to reveal his children of blended origin. To test his loyalties, Brackett invites De Becque in for a friendly chat with Cable and his second, Commander Harbison (Floyd Simmons) present. But the meeting is hardly enlightening; De Becque challenging America’s view of the conflict by adding “I know what you are against…what are you for?” Nellie agrees to spy on Emile. But her efforts are as transparent as they prove unsuccessful. Nevertheless, De Becque senses he has already made inroads to her heart; the two sharing snifters of brandy, and soliloquizing their respective anxieties apart, before coming together in their burgeoning romance, ‘Some Enchanted Evening’.
De Becque would prefer to be honest with Nellie. So, he confides the reason for his departure from France. Nellie dutifully relays this to Brackett who, already in possession of this information, is frankly astonished De Becque would share it with his paramour. Evidently, Brackett had hoped to use the murder as leverage to convince De Becque to accompany Cable on his mission to the Japanese occupied outpost. Departing for the nurse’s beach, off limits to sailors, Nellie insists to her fellow cohorts she intends to promptly ‘Wash That Man Right Out of (her) Hair’, but instead she dissolves into a blissful and euphoric daydream of love, openly declaring she is hopelessly in love with ‘A Wonderful Guy’. Like virtually all the Rodgers and Hammerstein shows, this will be the pinnacle of Nellie Forbush’s romantic flourish; her cockeyed optimism about to experience a perilous shift toward tragic disillusionment.
In the meantime, Bloody Mary manages to coax Lt. Cable into visiting Bali Ha’i; Cable taking along Billis, who is intent on bringing back a boar’s tooth from the rumored savage’s island ceremony. Enveloped by the tropical splendor, and surrounded by sweetly innocent native girls who encourage the men’s participation in the pleasures to be had, Cable and Billis are soon separated; Bloody Mary taking Joe high into the mountains where he is introduced to Liat; the virginal beauty with whom Mary sincerely hopes to strike a marital bargain. Cable is captivated by Liat’s ‘Younger Than Springtime’ naiveté; learning only after the consummation of their affair that she is Mary’s daughter. Mary’s ‘Happy Talk’ proposal encourages Cable and Liat to marry; that, after the war, he remain on Bali Ha’i; she being the island’s wealthiest native with enough to support her future son-in-law.
Cable is taken aback by this proposition. Moreover, he cannot rid himself of an innate prejudice. Liat is good enough to sleep with, but she would never be accepted back home in his white-bred world as his wife. Struggling to purge these prejudices and anxieties from his heart and mind, Cable instead confides them to Nellie as ‘Carefully Taught’ – if utterly misguided. Nellie can definitely relate. For previously, De Beque had invited her to his home for a party. There, she met other planters and their wives. But Nellie’s effervescence was deflated when Emile introduced his children. The incongruity of Nellie’s own emotions – able to accept her future husband committing murder (albeit, in self-defense), but unable to embrace the fact he was once in love with a woman of differing ethnicity, has since split the couple up. De Becque now challenges Nellie and Cable to justify their prejudices. Unable to do just that, Nellie flees, leaving Emile to reconsider ‘This Nearly Was Mine’.
Shortly thereafter, De Becque accepts the assignment to accompany Lt. Cable on his hazardous mission on the occupied Japanese outpost. Daily, the pair is faced with death from bomber and sniper attacks; De Becque keeping Brackett abreast of developments by radio contact. In his absence, Nellie diligently endeavors to befriend Emile’s children and quickly discovers how much she has come to love them – regardless of their race. Realizing Emile may never come back, forces Nellie to reconsider what really matters in life. She wisely resolves to never again question De Becque’s love for her. For her love for him is truly genuine. Alas, as the Allied Forces move in, tragedy strikes.
Joe Cable dies on the remote island; Nellie introduced to Bloody Mary and Liat after learning of the news. Mary informs Nellie her daughter will marry no one except Joe and Nellie, knowing this can never be, now comforts the girl. Nellie departs the hospital, pointing in the general direction of the remote island where her lover remains, isolated and alone; declaring into the wind that whatever prejudices she once harbored have since been abandoned. She promises never again to question her heart. A short while later Nellie’s declaration is rewarded. While attending Ngana and Jerome at Emile’s plantation, Nellie is suddenly startled to discover De Becque, weary, dirty – but otherwise unharmed. As the children rejoice – seemingly oblivious to how much this reunion means to either their father or Nellie, she quietly reaches for his hand; forgiveness assured when De Becque leans across the table to accept it.
South Pacific was a colossal smash; by far the most popular film musical of 1958. Audiences flocked to see the spectacle in Todd A-O. On stage, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza had originated the roles of Nellie Forbush and Emile De Becque. But Martin’s inability to make it as a film star, coupled with Pinza’s virtual invisibility on the radar, practically ensured neither would make the transition to the screen. In casting Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi in their stead, Rodgers and Hammerstein were betting on Gaynor’s recent ascendance as a popular ingénue. In retrospect, South Pacific really is the end of Gaynor’s splashy movie career; a definite step up from the featherweight roles she usually played in musical comedy, but also putting a definite period to her work in movies. Gaynor would eventually find a temporary home on television before effectively retiring as an actress in 1963, only sporadically appearing on variety shows like Ed Sullivan thereafter.
Rossano Brazzi’s film career was only slightly more distinguished. For although he had appeared, often in support, in some high profile movies throughout the 1950’s and 60’s – mostly as the swarthy Italian lover – South Pacific can justly be called his most prominent role; certainly, in which his prowess as a leading man is never questioned. Incidentally, Brazzi’s rather thin voice was dubbed by Pinza; Juanita Hall’s too by the London stage’s Bloody Mary - Muriel Smith, despite the fact, Hall had sung for herself in the Broadway original. Interestingly, France Nuyen and the late, John Kerr would go on to have the more prolific careers, as reoccurring characters in some very high-profile television dramas.
Viewed today, South Pacific retains its intangible potency as a critique of racial prejudice. Almost all of the reasons are in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s superior score; steadfast in its melodic evaluation, defying the shortcomings in Joshua Logan’s color-induced rainbow malaise. With such magnificent hits as the buoyant ‘Cockeyed Optimist’; thought-provoking ‘Carefully Taught’; bittersweet ‘This Nearly Was Mine’ and iconic ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, South Pacific soars beyond the misfires in Logan’s direction. The principle cast is competent. But rarely do any of them triumph above the material in ways that would earmark their performances as standouts. Mercifully, it’s the weight of the score and the story that proves the inspired counterbalance to offset their mediocrity. When we reconsider the film, it is the totality of the presentation, rather than any deconstructing assessment of its individual parts – or cogs, as it were, in this multi-spoke wheel that continues to fortify our minds, bring enchantment to our hearts, and ultimate nourishment to our souls.
Fox Home Video’s Blu-Ray is a reissue of the disc released in 2006; a pluperfect mastering effort, fortunately void of the current pox of teal/orange tinting that has otherwise submarined the hi-def release of The King and I (1956). We get both the theatrical and extended roadshow cuts, spread over two discs. Like the previous minting, the roadshow footage has not been restored before being reinstated into the film and is woefully subpar to the rest of the 1080p image quality. I would have preferred Fox to color correct this reinstated footage; also to clean it up and bring the entire image into focus with current Blu-ray mastering standards. Perhaps I was expecting too much.
Since, most will recall South Pacific only from its theatrical engagement, we can attest to the fact South Pacific in its theatrical cut sports one of the most pristine and startlingly gorgeous/reference quality transfers anywhere. Prepare to be dazzled by the film’s ultra-vibrant color saturation (at times, overpowering) and its razor-sharp Todd A-O clarity: simply breathtaking in all respects. You are going to LOVE this presentation. South Pacific won an Oscar for its sound design and it’s easy to see why. The 5.1 DTS audio is robust beyond all expectations, with exquisite separation across all channels. The R&H score sounds magnificent to say the least. But dialogue also exhibits a naturalized clarity that is engaging.
Extra features include Ted Chaplin’s audio commentary on the theatrical cut and Richard Barrios’ on the road show. There’s also a brief ‘making of’ featurette and Diane Sawyer’s 60 Minutes interview with James A. Michener from the 1980;s. All of these features were included on the standard DVD release. New and exclusive to the Blu-Ray is the documentary: Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific – a beautifully produced and thoroughly engrossing feature-length look back at the story behind the film. If you already own the previously issued Blu-ray from Fox you’ll want to pass on this one. If not, then South Pacific comes very highly recommended herein. It’s still ‘Younger than Springtime’ and more than capable of providing you with ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ in front of the TV.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Theatrical Cut - 5+
Roadshow Version – 4.5