The supplements on the lavish new Blu-ray edition of 1958’s South Pacific explain at length why the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s musical broke new ground when it debuted in 1949. Adapted from James Michener’s short-story collection Tales Of The South Pacific, the play used a group of sailors stationed in the South Seas during World War II to explore racial prejudice. It was a daring topic, one Hammerstein had approached before with Showboat, and it found a receptive audience, thanks in no small part to songs—“Some Enchanted Evening,” “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair,” “Happy Talk,” “There Is Nothin’ Like A Dame,” and others—that became an indelible part of the post-war soundtrack. The play’s success fed into the era’s interest in all things South Pacific; the film version arrived at a moment when widescreen epics dominated. So shooting it on location—or at least using Hawaii as a substitute—seemed like a natural approach. Yet if there was ever a movie that added up to less than a sum of its parts, it’s this one.
Director Joshua Logan, who co-wrote the play, is hamstrung from the start by what ought to be one of the film’s selling points. As the beautiful vistas of Kauai rest behind them, the cast and director have a hard time figuring out how to make the film move. The songs remain peerless, but everything else that makes a film musical great—from dynamic camerawork to eye-catching choreography—get sacrificed to the god of scenery. During one low point, star Mitzi Gaynor shuffles around the beach, desperately kicking up sand as if trying to chicken-scratch the movie to life. Sometimes even the scenery gets obscured, thanks to Logan’s choice—made worse by the studio—to futz with the color to set the mood. Whole scenes are dominated by red or gold, and one sequence feels like watching a 3D movie without glasses. What ought to be an immersive experience instead feels as artificial as a back lot, and the movie trudges along under the illusion that it’s providing far more entertainment than it actually is. (The spirited-but-annoying Gaynor fits in perfectly.)
As a handsome time capsule, however, it may be worth a look, and the Blu-ray restores 20 minutes of footage that hasn’t been seen in years. South Pacific was initially released in two editions—a 65mm “road show” cut and a shorter, 35mm cut for general release—but both seem like the product of a bigger-is-better approach to filmmaking that’s just all wrong for the delicate material. It’s hard to focus on those people trying to sing away their heartache and prejudice when the movie keeps emphasizing the swaying palms and towering mountains behind them.
Key features: Fans looking for background information will not go wanting, thanks to a 90-minute making-of documentary and other bonus material.