'South Pacific' is arguably Rodgers and Hammerstein's most widely praised stage musical and roundly criticized film adaptation. In 1949, reviewers hailed the original Broadway production for its stirring, lyrical score and bold attack on racial prejudice, yet pilloried the 1958 movie version for its artificial use of color, questionable casting choices, and general malaise. (Even Richard Rodgers himself reportedly said the film "stunk.") Such negative buzz made me avoid 'South Pacific' for many years, but when Fox announced its Blu-ray edition, I decided to end my personal boycott and give the film a long overdue chance. Much to my surprise (and delight), I discovered 'South Pacific' isn't nearly as bad as many purport it to be. Unfortunately, it's also not nearly as good as it could – and should – have been.
Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning short stories by James Michener, the film takes place in the South Seas during World War II. Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) arrives on one of the U.S.-occupied Tokinese islands to run a reconnaissance mission against the Japanese, and as he prepares, he falls under the region's exotic spell and becomes entranced with Liat (France Nuyen), daughter of feisty local trader Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall). A romance blossoms, but Cable's deep-seeded racial biases impede its progress. In the film's parallel narrative, sprightly Navy nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) has similar problems. The Arkansas native – by her own admission a "cockeyed optimist" – has fallen in love with French expatriate Emile De Becque (Rossano Brazzi), a rich plantation owner many years her senior. De Becque has led a colorful, turbulent life and views Nellie as his last chance at happiness. Yet when Nellie discovers Emile has fathered two mixed-race children, her Southern bigotry flares up and she breaks off the relationship. The balance of the picture looks at how these two love affairs play out, how the characters deal with their prejudices, and how the war intervenes.
An enigma among film musicals, 'South Pacific' possesses many elements that work well individually, but somehow don't gel when tied together. The score – featuring such hummable standards as Some Enchanted Evening, Bali Ha'i, Younger Than Springtime, There Is Nothing Like a Dame, Wonderful Guy, Bloody Mary, and I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair – ranks with Rodgers and Hammerstein's best; the performances, especially those of Gaynor and Brazzi, exceed expectations; the substantive themes, though not as explosive as they must have seemed a half century ago, still strike a chord; and the gorgeous Hawaii locations provide an authentic and breathtaking backdrop.
Yet despite all the lifeblood coursing through its veins, 'South Pacific' is oddly sterile, rarely provoking the passionate responses we expect from such revered material. And that's strange, considering the fact that much of the creative staff who so meticulously molded and nurtured the Broadway production also helped transition it to the screen. With all the tools for success at their fingertips, it's mind-boggling 'South Pacific' didn't turn out to be a masterpiece. Perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein's inexperience as film producers contributed to the lackluster presentation; perhaps the pressure to duplicate the original was too great; perhaps all involved tried too hard to achieve perfection. Though there's certainly enough blame to go around, one man must squarely bear the brunt: director Joshua Logan.
By all accounts, Logan was a brilliant stage director (and 'South Pacific' was his Broadway baby), but his films, which include 'Picnic,' 'Bus Stop,' 'Camelot,' and 'Paint Your Wagon,' never quite reach their potential. He often seems to struggle to embrace the subtleties that make film such an intimate medium, and has trouble finding a rhythmic flow to sustain his lengthy, often clunky works. 'South Pacific' is no exception. A cumbersome weight saddles the movie, and choppy editing and awkward transitions often disrupt the flow. More cohesion and energy, especially after the intermission, would perk up the picture, which loses vital steam as it progresses.
Logan also fails to maximize his location. Stunning visuals aside, the South Sea setting does little more than beautifully frame the action. In 'The Sound of Music,' Robert Wise made Austria a character in the story by immersing his actors, as well as his camera, in the country's culture. Though plenty of natives run around in 'South Pacific,' the atmosphere often feels contrived. Sure, the islands represent a kind of Shangri-La and Garden of Eden for its characters, and Logan does a good job highlighting their mystical allure, but the area is also a real place involved in a very real war, and even in the battle sequences, we never feel the urgency and danger.
And then there's all that business with the color. Logan wanted the musical numbers to exude a more theatrical feel, so he and cinematographer Leon Shamroy chose to film them through a variety of tinted filters, which, depending on the song, bathe the screen in shades of violet, azure, and chartreuse. At best, the technique adds a warm glow to the image; at worst (which is most of the time), it's completely distracting and breaks all suspension of disbelief. (When he first pulls the trick during Bali Ha'i, I thought one of my kids had spilled red Kool-Aid on my Blu-ray player.) Logan also periodically softens the screen's edges with a gauzy haze that looks pretty and directs focus inward, but again draws way too much attention. While I appreciate his willingness to experiment, Logan – who later termed the filter experiment the worst mistake of his film career – should have known better than to try and inflict so much artificiality into a location film. Maybe if he shot 'South Pacific' on a stylized Hollywood soundstage such a technique would have worked better, but it seems foolish to monkey with the wonders of Kauai and pour cold water on the realism the setting so effortlessly provides.
Such problems, however, can't quash the spirit of Rodgers and Hammerstein's show. The songs retain their passion and pluck, the romance feels genuine, and the theme of overcoming barriers of race and age, and acting upon what stirs your soul instead of stubbornly adhering to ideas others inflict upon you strongly reverberates. Though 'South Pacific' may not rival the cinematic treatments of R&H's 'Oklahoma!,' 'The Sound of Music,' and 'The King and I,' it often combines eye-filling images with fine entertainment. Flawed? Yes. A disaster? Far from it.
If ever a movie deserved a lavish video treatment, it's 'South Pacific,' and Fox complies with a knock-your-socks-off 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer. Filmed in Todd-AO, itself a primitive high-definition process, 'South Pacific' benefits from exceptional clarity and a lush grain structure that lends the image marvelous texture, balance, and depth. Three-strip Technicolor was long gone by the time 'South Pacific' went into production, but this transfer features gorgeously saturated hues that truly pop off the screen. The colorful costumes and dramatic vistas plunge us into the exotic atmosphere, and both day and evening scenes flaunt fine detail levels and an intoxicating richness. Sometimes when color is so vibrant, fleshtones can look out of whack, but Brazzi's olive complexion, Gaynor's lily-white skin, and the sunburned Navy Seabees all look natural. Close-ups are often striking; Bloody Mary's leathery skin and Brazzi's sun-kissed ruggedness are nicely accented, yet still flaunt a polished Hollywood look. Black levels are deep and strong, shadow delineation is excellent, and contrast remains well modulated throughout. It's no wonder the cinematography earned an Academy Award nomination.
The aforementioned color filters, however, add a unique wrinkle to the transfer. The challenge is to tint the image without making it look monochromatic or washing away the true colors underneath, and Fox technicians have done a superior job maintaining the integrity of all the picture's various elements. The blue and yellow filters work best, adding a cozy warmth to the on-screen numbers, while the violet haze that washes over Bali Ha'i is way too intense. Transitioning in and out of the filtered scenes is tricky, too, but it's done relatively smoothly.
The source material is practically spotless and no digital enhancements distract us from the pristine image. This is a spectacular effort from Fox, which continues to treat its classic films with the care and reverence they so richly deserve. Bravo!
A multitude of audio options are included, but the marquee track is a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that sounds great, but never quite delivers the level of power and nuance we expect. The overture's opening strains, marked by dimensional, full-bodied sound with wonderful tonal depth and presence, really grabbed my attention, but once the film begins, the track settles down and doesn't distinguish itself beyond the norm. Typical of a 1950s film, most of the sonic action is anchored up front, but stereo separation is quite good and well synced with the widescreen presentation. Dialogue is clear and comprehendible, and switches from the center channel to the right and left speakers when warranted, and though the rears stay pretty quiet, bits of island ambience flesh out the sound field.
The musical numbers don't make enough use of the surround channels, but the vocals – most of which are dubbed in by other singers – are dynamic and robust. The Oscar-nominated orchestrations, care of Fox stalwarts Alfred Newman and Ken Darby, exhibit marvelous fidelity and add welcome emotion to many scenes, while fine balance ensures they never overwhelm the performers. Some pleasant bass adds some heft to the songs and nicely punctuates the war scenes toward the end of the film, and any age-related defects, such as pops and crackles, have been scrubbed away.
The film's original 4.0 Dolby Digital track is also included, as well as a two-channel stereo track. 5.1 DD mixes in French and Spanish round out the audio menu.
Fox packs on the extras in this two-disc set, providing rare and interesting content that both educates and entertains. Fans of musicals in general and Rodgers and Hammerstein in particular will find much in which to sink their teeth, but history buffs and literary aficionados are also well served. This release, along with the recent issue of 'The Robe,' proves Fox is strongly committed to offering comprehensive supplements on their classic releases, and rivals the high-quality extras Warner routinely includes on their Blu-ray discs.
'South Pacific' is an American institution, and Joshua Logan's film version, while far from perfect, honors it well. Despite some questionable creative choices and a flagging pace, this irrepressible musical racks up points with its iconic score, finely drawn portrayals, and jaw-dropping beauty. The exquisite video transfer and solid audio bring the movie to life like never before, and the comprehensive extras explore almost every facet of this mammoth production. Musicals fans will certainly want to add this disc to their collection, while classics buffs should take it for a spin first.
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