South Pacific (1958) Review
By David Bezanson
This is an embarrassing statement for a man to make but I think that South Pacific is one of my favorite old movies. As an art form, the musical is dubious at best. And Joshua Logan was not one of the great Hollywood directors -- as demonstrated by the film's uneven pacing and use of colorful camera filters during certain intense scenes.
So why is this movie a classic? Because it was produced soon after WWII, when even Hollywood war romances had a serious edge. Because it was filmed on location (well, Hawaii, I think) and in full Technicolor glamour. And because the occasion brought out the best in Rodgers and Hammerstein, when the songwriting team wrote poignant and thoughtful lyrics put to classic melodies.
The musical was based on James Michener's novel, which was based on Michener's tour of duty in the Pacific. So the novel, musical, and movie all have more authenticity than is typical of musicals or war movies (or Michener novels). Most of the script's pathos and drama stem from the forced clash of American and island cultures, and the film captures the tragedy of war without on-camera blood. The romance between an American sailor and a Tonkinese island girl is an interesting case of Hollywood tackling a sensitive subject head-on. The movie's treatment of racism is not its greatest strength, but still is less awkward than a lot of movies that won plenty of Oscars.
A few years ago, I read an article in the New York Times accusing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of being inferior to today's musicals because no lead character ever dies in them. I'm not sure that the number of dead bodies should be the only criterion for judging art -- was Die Hard 2 a thousand times better than Citizen Kane? -- but the Times reporter was guilty of sloppy reporting, because one of the leads in South Pacific does, in fact, die at the end of this movie. That's still a low body count by today's standards, but there's enough drama in this film to make it clear that the filmmakers, and their audience, knew that war is hell.
Facts and Figures
Cast & Crew