There are many different ways to appreciate South Pacific just as there are many ways to dislike it. You can start off with the simple fact that it is a musical – you either love them or you hate them. If you love them, you have to admit then that South Pacific is not only one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s best musicals, but one of the best and most typical examples of the genre.
Based on stories by James A. Michener and on the original stage play by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Joshua Logan shot much of the film on location, making the best use of the exotic settings as well as enhancing the atmosphere through striking visuals and colourful camera filters and effects to strike the fantastical non-naturalistic element we associate with musicals.
The story itself is a fairly inconsequential and a typical romance story, although to the film’s credit, it did attempt to include issues of racial intolerance, prejudice and mixed marriages. GI Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) is romantically attracted to a French planter in the South Pacific Polynesian islands, Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazi), but has concerns about the difference in their ages. These fears are overcome somewhat more easily than the concerns she has when she finds out that he has two children from previous marriage to a Polynesian woman. The Little Rock small-town prejudices instilled in her by her parents and friends cause her to doubt the wisdom of marrying such a man.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid/Of people whose skin is a different shade
You have to be taught before you’re 6, 7 or 8/To hate all the people your relatives hate.
The same prejudices cause problems for Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr) who has met the beautiful and exotic Liat (France Nuyen) on the romantically beautiful isle of Bali Ha’i. Cable has come to the islands to head a secret mission and he wants to enlist the help of de Becque, who is known to have fled to the islands after killing a man in France, as they need his help with an important war mission.
The plot and the story don’t matter so much as the songs and the performances, and it is here that South Pacific excels. In the film you will find such classics as There Is Nothing Like A Dame, delivered by a score of rugged, bare-chested sailors, Some Enchanted Evening, I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair, I’m In Love With A Wonderful Guy, and of course, the irrepressibly joyful Happy Talk with its wonderful underwater scenes. It is all pure and wonderful and unselfconsciously camp (as opposed to the less successful, I believe, arch and intentional high camp of Moulin Rouge). Some of the songs are the typical golly-gee-whiz Rodger’s and Hammerstein and a little bit twee and forced - “We are not alike, probably I’d bore him/He’s a cultured Frenchman, I’m a little hick”, sings Nellie at one point – but it is a romantic melodrama with lots of intense looks and dramatic gestures, and you can’t help but being swept along with it. If you look at the hard of hearing subtitles, you will find many descriptions of [Romantic instrumental music], [Poignant instrumental music] and unsurprisingly, more than a few [Crescendo]’s.
Another reason for loving the film is because it looks absolutely gorgeous. The Todd-AO widescreen photography and the beautiful Technicolor printing process mean the film looks remarkable. The director experimented with filters and colours, perhaps unnecessarily since the locations are already simply spectacular, but it does give the songs a certain fantastical element, distancing the heightened emotions and sub-vocalisations from the "realistic" side of the film.
The picture, not even considering the age of the film, is quite impressive, however there are a couple of problems that could easily have been avoided. First of all, the film is presented letterboxed. There is no reason why a beautiful 2.20:1 widescreen film like this shouldn’t have the benefit of anamorphic enhancement. That said, it can be zoomed on the screen without too much loss of resolution. The second problem is the rather heavy edge-enhancement on the film, which is really very noticeable and distracting in such a colourful film. I noticed a few jerky frames at the end of shots around the middle of the film (Cable on Bali Ha’i) – but this is not overly distracting or particularly serious. Otherwise there are few marks of any consequence on the print, grain is minimal and overall we have a nice warm transfer of the not-at-all-natural colouring of the original Technicolor print. There is a lot of experimentation with colouring and filters, which many people don’t like in the film. I’m not too bothered by it myself, but it will certainly be more noticeable here than ever before and can be sometimes distracting. There is a lot of ‘frosting’ effects framing the subject (see below) which may not have been as noticeable on previous pan and scanned versions of the film. The transfer copes well with the heavy saturation of colour effects and for the most part is remarkably sharp and clear.
The 5.1 soundtrack is really good. I’m not sure how much the soundtrack was remastered or how much the original 6-track elements of the original soundtrack were used, but the overall effect is superb. Again, considering the age of the material it is not always crystal clear and is sometimes a little bit rough around the edges, but that is only to be expected. Overall the volume is quite low and a little thin – it would sound better if there was a bit more low-frequency and the songs would definitely benefit from having a bit more of a punch to them. There is a little bit of background noise and it is a little bit muffled on occasions, but is generally clear with no real problems. The songs are lush and sweeping and excellent use is made of stereo effects. Singing is clear and that is what really matters on the soundtrack. Some of the panning of spoken voices sound forced and show some problems with the original elements of the soundtrack, but overall the soundtrack is good and is lovely to have in surround sound.
There are very few extras provided for the DVD which is disappointing for such a major film. We have a Movietone News Premiere (1.13), an original news item showing the stars attending the premiere of the film. This is of course, black and white and 4:3. The rest of the extras – the Cast and Crew listings and Production Notes are text based and interesting if somewhat brief.
South Pacific has everything you expect from a good musical – bright and colourful, great songs, a lush, romantic storyline and idyllic settings. The plot might not convince everyone, but it is sufficient to carry the great songs and melodies that this particular musical is famous for and the underlying theme of racial intolerance and general campness take the edge off the sometimes cloying sweetness of the characters and the situations. Great entertainment, this is one of the best musicals from a classic period and it looks pretty good on this DVD release. They really don’t make them like this anymore.