Aren't musicals strange? I mean it is genuinely a bit odd that the narrative suddenly shifts as various characters stop what they are doing and burst into song. Fortunately, those rather clever composers Rodgers and Hammerstein realised that the songs were excellent vehicles for communicating the emotional states of the characters whilst also moving the plot along. R&H are, of course, legendary for their contribution to the stage and film musical forms and South Pacific is one of their best. I have to say it isn't one of my favourites, I much prefer The King And I and The Sound Of Music, but like all their work it raises the bar on musical theatre storytelling whilst also examining American colonialism and U.S military power overseas during the Second World War.
Whilst it is full of familiar and very wonderful songs, 'Some Enchanted Evening', 'I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy', 'Younger Than Springtime' to name a few, it's a musical and a film that dared to tackle the issues of racial prejudice head on, is at its core about loneliness and loss, and tries to suggest that there is a way for people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds to come together in a common cause. For those of you not familiar with the musical, it's a romance and a war story set on a South Pacific island where the US army has stationed a strategic military base. A young nurse, Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), falls in love with a middle-aged French plantation owner, Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi). The two have a troubled romance as Nellie slowly discovers the details of de Becque's past. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Cable (John Kerr) arrives to head a mission to create a spy post on a Japanese-held island. Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall), the island's Polynesian souvenir dealer, tries to set Cable up with her daughter, Liat (France Nuyen) in the mystical paradise of Bali Hai. Cable, however must go on a dangerous spying mission and has to persuade de Becque to go with him.
...a shifting sense of play between heterosexuality and homosexualityFrom my own perspective it's a very valid example of why gay men, in particular, embrace musical theatre in the way they do. Musicals, particularly those released during the Golden Age, generally considered to have begun with Oklahoma! (1943) and to have ended with Hair (1968), appealed (and still do, I would argue) to gay men not just through the songs, the lavish production values, the oscillation between kitsch and camp, but also as forms of utopianism and sublimated desire. A number like 'There Is Nothing Like A Dame', featuring a highly stylised and erotic chorus of beefy marines being led by a rather camp Ray Walston, playing the duty shirking spiv Luther Billis, is a whirlwind of multiple readings. There is at once a fluidity of gender options, including Billis' semi-transexualised costume and the eroticisation of the many male bodies in the number, that provides a shifting sense of play between heterosexuality (the insistence that all these beefy men simply need a woman) and homosexuality (Walston's feminisation and role as Nellie's 'special friend' as well as his come ons to various homoeroticised and sexually objectified men in the number) that certainly at the time would have provided a closeted gay community with plenty of food for thought. This sense of play reaches its height in the 'Thanksgiving Follies' number where Nellie and Billis entertain the troops. It's a cross dressing, queer spectacular where Gaynor is dragged up as a sailor in an oversized white uniform and Walston is wearing a set of falsies made from coconuts. It's camp, kitsch and impressively scrambles the film's gender roles and highlights how many musicals rely on a feminisation of both male and female sex objects within their construction.
...the tensions of prejudiceThe romances between Nellie and Emile, Cable and Liat, whilst read as 'straight', can also be successfully sublimated by a wider non-straight audience and the film also exoticises race through the number 'Bali Hai', for example, where Bloody Mary positions the mystical island as a symbol of otherness to a bewitched Cable. Cable and Billis have a shared fantasy about visiting the island and the consequences of this are that Cable falls in love with Liat, and even though, quite radically for the 1950s, he shares an on screen kiss with a Polynesian woman, he flatly refuses to marry her simply because it wouldn't go down very well in his home town of Philadelphia. The song 'You've Got To Be Carefully Taught' examines his upbringing and there is a sense that he may well go against the proprieties that require him to marry a nice white girl and join his father in business. The tensions of prejudice are also a major element of Nellie's initial rejection of Emile. She discovers he has previously been married to a Polynesian woman and has two mixed race children. She is so horrified by this that she tries to get a transfer off the base. South Pacific received much scrutiny for its commentary regarding relationships between different races and ethnic groups. 'You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught' was widely criticised and judged as very inappropriate for the musical stage, condoning as it does mixed race relationships and suggesting that racism is an effect of society rather than something 'in born'.
...the incongruity of harsh reality and romantic fantasy
Beyond the cultural and sexual politics, it's a visual and musical treat and is unashamedly romantic escapism. Even though the characters are fairly crude representational symbols, the film draws you into their intertwining saga of loss and love and all the actors offer compassionate and energetic performances; Walston and Hall are particularly enchanting as the comic reliefs, John Kerr is simply gorgeous as Lieutenant Cable and the Gaynor/Brazzi romantic chemistry is very appealing. The dream like quality of the South Pacific location, the heightened romance and emotions are all captured in director Joshua Logan's very surreal use of heavy coloured tinting and edge of frame diffusion for many sequences. It deliberately pushes the emotional content of particular scenes into an almost hallucinogenic state. 'Bali Hai', for example, swamps the viewer in a rainbow of primary colour filtering that perfectly encapsulates the mysticism and exoticism of the fabled island. The filters alter the tone of the film, which some may find an unnecessary distraction, and delineate the incongruity of harsh reality and romantic fantasy as the narrative progresses. The highs and lows of the relationships between Nellie and Emile, Cable and Liat, burst into various hues and illustrate the over-riding 'love doesn't quite conquer all' theme of the film where dizzy romance is punctuated by conflict, prejudice, loss and sacrifice.
You will simply not believe what you are seeing and hearing from a 50 year old film
For its debut on Blu-Ray, Fox have certainly pulled out the stops for this 2 disc edition. It's a ravishing 1080p transfer that suggests classic cinema titles can have a new lease of life when the transfer to High Definition is given this much attention and care. With stunning colour that's bold and lush and pin sharp detail that is truly gob-smacking, this is exceptional, reference quality material and must surely rank as one of best Blu-Ray titles now on the market. The audio is also presented as a lossless DTS 5.1 soundtrack and manages the sound field with great aplomb. Song lyrics are clear, the music and choral arrangements are particularly haunting, dialogue perfect and the ambient sounds of aircraft, the noise of battle, the crash of waves stunningly rendered with clarity and crispness. You will simply not believe what you are seeing and hearing from a 50 year old film. And it is packed with extras:
On Disc One:
- Audio Commentary - With Ted Chapin, president of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organisation, and playwright/director Gerard Alessandrini.
- Karaoke Sing-a-long & Songs-Only Option
On Disc Two:
- Extended "Road Show" Version Of South Pacific (in Standard Definition, 172 minutes) - A version that played exclusively in cities and features 15 minutes of additional material.
- Audio Commentary - With musical historian Richard Barrios, who examines the road show version of 'South Pacific.' Lots of anecdotes and production history and a focus on the additional material.
- Documentary: "Passion, Prejudice and 'South Pacific': Creating an American Masterpiece" (HD, 94 minutes) – A thorough and comprehensive documentary, hosted by Mitzi Gaynor, exhaustively examines the production and contextualises the social and cultural themes of the film.
- Vintage Featurette: Making of 'South Pacific' (HD, 14 minutes) – A black-and-white vintage behind the scenes of the production featurette.
- 60 Minutes: Tales of the South Pacific (HD, 22 minutes) – 79-year-old author James Michener goes back to the islands which served as the setting for the film.
- Vintage Stage Excerpt (HD, 10 minutes) – The original stage stars, Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza guest on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' and offer a trio of songs.
- Fox Movietone News (HD, 2 minutes) – A newsreel covering the premiere and an honourary event in Belgium.
- Screen Test: Mitzi Gaynor (HD, 7 minutes) – Gaynor auditions with 'Cockeyed Optimist' and 'Wonderful Guy'.
- Still Gallery (HD) – Massive collection of colour and black and white stills - everything from the publicity department, including loads of behind the scenes photos too.
- Theatrical Trailer (HD, 3 minutes) – A 1960s re-release preview trailer.
(Screencaps courtesy of Blu-ray.com and DVD Beaver. Many thanks to them.)
South Pacific (Fox Blu-Ray 50th Anniversary Edition - Region A Locked - 2 Discs - Not Rated - 2254165 - Released 31st March 2009)
Cathode Ray Tube South Pacific 50th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray