Rodgers & Hammerstein were greats of the American theater. Their movie musicals are a lasting legacy which will probably never be matched, even if the musical (or Rock Opera) form has a resurgence. I guess it is easy to tell I am a big Rodgers & Hammerstein fan.
South Pacific is not their most politically involved movie, but it does use the events of World War II in the Pacific as background. However, this film really concerns itself most with the common events which are often important in the lives of free people: love, family, making your way in the world and the courage to strike out on your own and carry on through adversity. In that way South Pacific is much like Carousel or Oklahoma. However, the conflict generated by politics and war provides a setting that makes South Pacific a bit like the The Sound of Music too. In any case, it has some of the best songs, melodies and performances in movie musicals.
After the opening overture which introduces the movie's musical themes over still shots of the South Seas, the film starts with the melody of “Bali Ha’i” introduced while the credits roll over more still and moving scenes of south sea island life. However, the peaceful and harmonious life of the islands is being disturbed by World War II as a plane (the “Bouncing Belch”) piloted by Buzz Adams (Tom Laughlin, who later became well known in Billy Jack) brings a Marine, Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr), to the Solomon Islands. The Marine is curious about a Frenchman, Emile de Becque, who lives in the area. Buzz tells him few know much about de Becque other than that he is wealthy, owns a plantation on the islands and that he left France years ago. Buzz asks to help the Marine on his mission. Lt. Cable implies the idea he is on a mission is a mistake. As they fly over the islands, Buzz points out highlights: where the nurses live, the place where the Seabees play.…
The scene shifts to the Seabee “playground” where the sailors are comically singing to “Bloody Mary” (Juanita Hall) a native of the islands. Mary has an entrepreneurial spirit and trades with the Americans. Luther Billis (Ray Walston, great in this musical as he was in Paint Your Wagon) arrives in a jeep. With friends “Stewpot” (Ken Clark, a deep bass) and “The Professor” (Jack Mullaney), Luther attempts to make a deal with Mary selling her grass skirts produced by the Seabees. She’s wise to his deals and instead piques his interest with a boar’s tooth bracelet from Bali Ha’i, which is off limits to the sailors. Talking of the forbidden island and its delights brings on singing: “There Is Nothing Like A Dame.” While they sing the nurses come jogging by interrupting when Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor, superlative in this role) gets a delivery of sewing from Luther, who she calls a treasure, but she runs off after the other nurses.
Lt. Cable is scoping out the area and encounters “Bloody Mary,” who seems to take a shine to him, calls him a “sexy man” and offers him a shrunken head to take home to his sweetheart. He replies "his sweetheart" is a Philadelphia girl who probably wouldn’t like it and asks where she got it. She replies “Bali Ha’i” and sings the island’s song (“Bali Ha’i”) to him and the Seabees. Afterward the Naval Captain commanding (Russ Brown) and his executive officer (Floyd Simmons) arrive on the scene to berate “Bloody Mary” for her grass skirt business (perhaps an early “sweatshop”). “Bloody Mary” is making it difficult for the planters to hire islanders since she pays them more. Lt Cable orders the Seabees to move Mary’s trading goods outside “Navy property,” and then discusses his mission, to spy on the Japanese sea traffic, with the naval officers. He needs the help of someone who knows the island they plan to use as a base for the spying. They hope to recruit Emile de Becque to help.
The scene changes to de Becque’s plantation where Emile (Rossano Brazzi, with singing by Giorgio Tozzi) is entertaining Nellie Forbush. She asks Emile if it is true that all the planters in the islands are “running away from something.” Emile replies by asking “Who is not running away from something? There are fugitives everywhere, New York, Paris, even in Small Rock.” He means Little Rock, Nellie’s home town, which leads to discussion of her past there, her desire to see new places and her optimism (she sings “Cock-Eyed Optimist”). The subject of meeting different kinds of people comes up and she becomes nervous. He offers her a drink and we hear them each sing their introspective thoughts. After conversation resumes they discuss life in the islands. Emile, who has been waiting for someone like Nellie, proposes to her using one of the most romantic songs from the movies: “Some Enchanted Evening.”
That introduces all the major characters, with one exception: “Bloody Mary’s” daughter Liat, played by France Nuyen in her first movie role. Mary hopes that Lt. Cable will make a good match for Liat. The two love stories; Liat and Joe Cable, Emile and Nellie form the base on which the movie’s story is built.
I’ve only summarized a small part of the movie. There is much more, with more fine songs. However, all is not happiness on the island. There are two “serpents” in this tropical “paradise” – the obvious one of World War II, and the more subtle but perhaps deadlier one of racial prejudice. These “serpents” corrupt Joe and Nellie introducing problems into an otherwise idyllic setting. How the personal lives and dreams of determined individuals surmount those problems constitutes the remainder of the film, accompanied by some of the greatest music ever presented in movies. South Pacific is a classic musical and deserves to be considered a masterpiece. See for yourself by giving it a viewing.
Remastered DVD Set