Blu-ray Review: South Pacific -- 50th Anniversary Edition (1958)

Now Available on Blu-ray

Bookmark this on Delicious
submit to reddit
Print Page


When you have a song as instantly powerful as South Pacific's main love ballad “Some Enchanted Evening," it's easy to overlook just how incredible the film is on a multitude of levels. And sure enough, it's ten times likelier when you take into consideration that it's just one of a string of memorable hits in the 1958 audacious cinematic undertaking by 20th Century Fox which transported Rodgers and Hammerstein's Tony award-winning Broadway smash in “the only theatrical film adaptation” of the duo’s work “to feature all its original songs."

Of course, when you recall South Pacific, the first genre that springs to mind is that of the musical as the strains of “There is Nothing Like a Dame,” “Bali Ha’i” and “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” fill our heads.

However, South Pacific-- which was based on 36-year-old Quaker textbook editor, prep school teacher and would-be World War II lieutenant James A. Michener’s nineteen vignettes he put together in the semi-autobiographical Pulitzer Prize winning Tales of the South Pacific is much more than a “song and dance picture.”

In fact, neither word enters into the equation as it's beautifully described by its unforgettable star Mitzi Gaynor as “a story rooted in the realities of war and racial prejudice,” in the feature length documentary hosted by the Golden Globe nominated actress that is included on the second Blu-ray in this marvelous 50th Anniversary Edition.

A movie that Turner Classic Movies host and film scholar Robert Osborne explains worked because “every piece of the puzzle was absolutely perfect,” South Pacific seems all the more vital when you realize just how daring it was not only initially in its 1947 book publication and the subsequent 1949 musical release but also the 1958 feature film as the civil rights battle heated up even more.

An ensemble World War II work, as it opens we find the predominantly male group of American navy and marines taking part in the tireless “hurry up and wait” strategy as they all try to movie via—as the documentary describes the “operational hopscotch”-- one island closer to invading Japan following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Living and working side-by-side with Polynesian residents and other foreigners from neighboring countries, the movie-- which begins with a charming blend of comedy and traditional musical whimsy from Mister Roberts director and veteran Joshua Logan-- soon focuses primarily on two love interracial love stories.

The first occurs as the young “sexy lootellan” Joseph Cable (John Kerr) is set up by the fiery matchmaker Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall) as a possible match for her lovely daughter Liat (France Nuyen) in a tale wherein sensuality and chemistry overcome any language barrier. Yet, this is in stark contrast to the much different, old-fashioned courtship between Gaynor’s sunny “cockeyed optimist” Arkansas native nurse Nellie Forbush who gets caught up in a whirlwind two-week romance with a French planter roughly twice her age (played by the handsome Rossano Brazzi).

Although Nellie understands that the older Emile DeBecque is a man filled with mystery—realizing along with some other soldiers that he would’ve most likely fled France for legal reasons as a man "with a past"-- when she additionally uncovers the fact that he’s a widow with half-Polynesian children, she struggles to reconcile her own prejudice. While she first tries to debate that prejudice is something that's simply born within her, soon Cable and others deliver the most central message of the film in their revelation that hatred is something that is taught.

Still quite timely today, South Pacific is undeniably one of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most socially conscious and thoroughly rewarding musicals (following their earliest woks including the smash hit Oklahoma! and the popular but in my view, extremely flawed Carousel).

And 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment—which has always excelled via the Blu-ray format most recently seen in the classic update of William Friedkin’s The French Connection which was so impressive that even the director admitted he’d never seen the film look so incredible—sets the bar at a much higher level with their phenomenal transfer of South Pacific to 1080 pixel high definition picture and sound.

In fact it's a work that always played best on larger screens in order to truly showcase the inventive Oscar nominated cinematography by Leon Shamroy for his Broadway inspired “lighting changes” that consisted of a complicated “system of coloured camera filters that he devised, whereby various scenes could be tinted in the colours that portrayed specific feelings,” as publisher Polly Manguel cited in the book 501 Must See Movies(249) and so you can only imagine how breathtaking it is on Blu-ray.

Featuring both versions of the film including the original theatrical one as well as the “Extended ‘Road Show’” option that runs 15 minutes longer as well as two separate commentary tracks—one for each edition—along with the options to view the film’s songs only or to play “sing a-long karaoke” with English subtitles, the second Blu-ray is a film lover’s dream.

As in addition to the Blu-ray exclusive aforementioned riveting feature length documentary, it also serves up a classic Diane Sawyer 60 Minutes interview with Michener, as well as vintage and incredibly rare excerpts from the stage production starring Mary Martin and the unbelievable Ezio Pinza (as history’s first opera star to appear in a Broadway musical).

Likewise, boasting Mitzi Gaynor’s remarkable star-making screen test that found her beating out such A-list performers as Audrey Hepburn and Doris Day (Manguel, 249), it's safe to say that the 50th Anniversary Edition of the film makes it far more than just "some enchanting" Blu-ray to bring home in time for Mother's Day but a historical piece of American cinema now wonderfully preserved to the highest level in quality.

Other Editions, Versions & Related Items