South Pacific (1958) ****
dir. Joshua Logan
Starring: Mitzi Gaynor, Rossano Brazzi,
Ray Walston, Juanita Hall, John Kerr, Tom Laughlin, France Nuyen
Review By Greg Klymkiw
South Pacific is a great movie musical. Its detractors will have you believe it’s clunky, theatrical to a fault, hampered by poor casting choices and a waste of actual locations on the Hawaiian island of Kauai because of the aforementioned. It is none of those things.
In fact, it’s quite the opposite and I daresay it might well be one of the great movie musicals of all time and as thrilling and stunning a MOVIE musical as the best work of Vincente Minnelli, Rouben Mamoulian, Rene Clair and Busby Berkeley.
Based upon the huge Richard Rodgers/Oscar Hammerstein II Broadway success (first launched onstage in 1949 and recently afforded a highly acclaimed remount) and in turn taken from James Michener’s bestselling “Tales of the South Pacific” (recounting his own experiences in the Eden-like setting of the title), South Pacific charts the love lives of several characters who find themselves in a paradise on Earth. The main love story involves a vivacious female Navy Ensign and nurse, Nelly Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), who is stationed, along with hundreds of other military personnel on an American island during World War II in order to prepare for an offensive upon the Empire of the Rising Sun and to keep an eye on the nearby Japanese-controlled islands.
A local French landowner and man of mystery, Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), is courted by the U.S. navy to assist them with gaining access to one of these islands, the enchanting Bali Ha’i. The island, bearing two volcanoes and a bevy of beauties (male and female) and fresh fruits (edible, I would argue, in more ways than one) acts as a magnet for all these sailors, but is, alas, off-limits to them.
When a Hawaiian Earth Mother named Bloody Mary (the brilliant Juanita Hall) beckoningly sings of the island’s virtues to the young Lt. Cable (John Kerr) he, not unlike the other American seamen and women, is drawn to the “special island [where] the sky meets the sea”. And of course, before you can sing “Cockeyed Optimist” (one of the immortal Rodgers-Hammerstein songs in this musical), love begins to blossom between Nelly and Emile as well as Lt. Cable and Bloody Mary’s gorgeous daughter Liat (France Nuyen).
Bring on the bare-chested hunks and grass-skirted babes, please.
Volcanoes were made for erupting, mais non?
And eruption of the most pleasurable kind is what happens to me whenever I see this musical. Aside from the fact that it’s a pretty agreeable narrative with great characters and terrific tunes, what really get my juices flowing are Joshua Logan’s stunning and brave visual choices as a director.
Logan gets a bad rap from most film critics. Originally a stage director (and yes, he mounted the original Broadway production of South Pacific), Logan is often criticized for not using the medium of film in a “cinematic” fashion and that his attempts to do so are mistakenly labeled as clunky.
Here’s where I really have to disagree with my colleagues on the matter. In fact, the knee-jerk negative reaction to utilizing a proscenium-styled frame in film adaptations always gets this fella’s yarbles in a wringer. I love the use of proscenium, the tableaux approach if you will, as much as I love the dipping, whirling shots of Mamoulian and Clair, the kaleidoscopic, only-in-a-film stylings of Berkeley, the stunning splashes of colour in Minnelli (and most of the pictures out of Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM). The proscenium is only wrong if it’s done without passion and imagination. That’s not Logan’s problem at all.
Using the stunning 65-millimeter TODD-AO widescreen process he manages to create one of the strangest and I daresay imaginative visual hybrids ever created for a motion picture. Perhaps it’s the hybrid effect that stymies critics, but for many viewers, myself obviously included, the effect is always a treat – more so because it is rooted in the emotion of the narrative, the characters and the truly magical settings.
First of all, you get the intense clarity of the huge 65mm negative that delivers a truly widescreen image without anamorphic compression. Shooting on location, one gets all the real-thing backdrops instead of theatrical backdrops or, for that matter, the studio-bound backdrops of other musicals. Then, utilizing a variety of coloured filters, Logan brings movie magic to the proceedings wherein we can feel the filmmaker’s hand applying a wash of colour to transport us to a realm of Never-Never-Land so that we ALWAYS feel we’re watching a movie, and most importantly, a world within the movie that feels like a world unto itself. Blending this with stationary chorus line compositions, we get to see the beauty of the choreography and enjoy the various bits of business without a barrage of cuts and cutaways that purportedly move us emotionally through the action using a variety of shots at different lengths.
We get to experience all the action in as pure a form as the dance numbers in the RKO Astaire-Rogers musicals. Logan lets the action occur WITHIN his frames. He uses theatrical convention as one piece of his extremely rich visual palette. Logan makes us feel like we’re watching something we’ve NEVER seen before. Ultimately though, we have. By distorting the reality of the on-location settings with both cinematic and theatrical techniques, Logan ventures boldly into the world of expressionism that, frankly, feels perfectly apt for a tale that examines love and magic against the backdrop of war.
This directorial decision is a stunner. Then again, for anyone who loves Logan, it makes perfect sense. His occasional forays into the world of movies almost always yielded strange, uncompromising work. Picnic, his film adaptation of William Inge’s play still has the power to move and provoke while Bus Stop, also from Inge, is as funny and heartbreaking as any of Marilyn Monroe’s great work and Sayonara, a straight-ahead examination of American-Japanese relations and racism taken from writing by James Michener is one of the great dramas on these themes. Even his tremendous flop, Paint Your Wagon, is not without the expressionistic qualities of his best work – the mere thought of juxtaposing Harve Presnell’s outstanding vocal rendition of “They Call The Wind Maria” and Clint (I kid you not!) Eastwood half-singing, half-whispering, semi-rasping out “I Talk To The Tress” delivers the kind of satisfying gooseflesh very few movies are capable of.
The Blu-Ray release of “South Pacific” is a mixed bag. It features both the theatrical and Roadshow versions of the picture. Alas, the Roadshow version is presented from a solid, but definitely standard definition transfer – which is a real shame, since it adds footage that is not in any way, shape or form extraneous. That said, the shorter theatrical version is still a mind-blower and to see it in a high definition transfer is to experience a lifetime of orgasmic pleasure in one huge dollop. Also, the extra-features – including a terrific feature length documentary – are magnificent supplementary materials to an already magnificent motion picture. “South Pacific” is available in a special Blu-Ray release on the 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment label.