South Pacific, the Rogers and Hammerstein stage musical, brought lushly to the screen in 1958, is one of the Must See movie musicals. Based on James Michener's Tales of the South Pacific (he called it a novel, most reviewers called it a short story anthology), the movie has an ensemble cast and tells several different stories about the lives and loves of Americans stationed on a South Pacific island during World War II.
Small Town Girl Sees the Big Wide World
The primary plot follows young Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor), a Navy nurse. Nellie is being romanced by rich, worldly, middle-aged French planter Emil de Becque (Rossano Brazzi).
Secondarily, we follow Lt. Joseph Cable (John Kerr) as he romances island beauty Liat (France Nuyen), egged on by her mother, the scheming wheeler-dealer Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall).
And for comic relief, there is world-class scrounger Seabee Luther Billis (Ray Walston) and his attempts to make it to the mysterious island of Bali Hai, which he is sure will be full of artifacts to make his fortune.
The progression of the romances is told in songs. Nellie and Emil give us "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Out Of My Hair", "I'm In Love With A Wonderful Guy", and "Some Enchanted Evening". Cable romances the non-English-speaking Liat with "Younger Than Springtime". Even Billis' infatuation with the distant island is immortalized in the tantalizing "Bali Hai." Meanwhile, frustrated Seabees sing that "There Is Nothing Like A Dame", and stage a variety show.
The Underlying Plot Driver - Racism
The element that pushes both romantic relationships into crisis is the racism of the era. Nellie has overcome her worries about whether people of such different ages and backgrounds can be compatible - or so she thinks. But learning that Emil had a previous marriage to a native woman, who is now dead but has left him with two beautiful mixed race children, sends her running from Emil with heartbroken horror a modern audience might find difficult to comprehend.
Cable genuinely loves Liat, but it is the prospect of marrying her and having children that causes him to reject her. Liat's furious mother hauls her off to marry a man she doesn't love. Too late, Cable regrets the mindset he was raised with, singing the bitter "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught".
Two men whose love lives have been devastated by racism, Cable by his own and Emil by that of the woman he loves, they are in the right frame of mind when the military proposes to them a suicidally dangerous mission, slipping to a distant island and reporting back on Japanese troop movements. And only one of them will come back alive.
South Pacific Credits
Music by Richard Rogers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, book by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan, South Pacific premiered on stage in 1949, and was brought to the screen in 1958, directed by Joshua Logan. The stage version of South Pacific won eight Tony Awards, and the movie version received an Oscar for Best Sound.