The songwriting duo of Rodgers and Hammerstein are perhaps the greatest minds behind the musical. They are responsible for "The Sound of Music," "Oklahoma!," "The King and I," "South Pacific" and a few other vintage examples of the musical. "South Pacific" began its life as a James A. Michener novel "Tales of the South Pacific" and was then adapted by Oscar Hammerstein and writer Joshua Logan into a singular story with lyrics and music by Richard Rodgers. The musical was released to Broadway in 1949 and earned a Pulitzer Prize. After finding tremendous success, writer Logan took the reins as director and helped bring "South Pacific" to Hollywood with the 1958 cinematic adaptation of the musical.
The film version of "South Pacific" is a very long story filled with numerous memorable songs. Early in the film Luther Billis (Ray Walston) is introduced as a enterprising young American sailor who haggles with native business woman Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall) as they try to earn a few dollars selling grass skirts, shrunken heads and other touristy items. Bloody Mary is a large woman and not very attractive, but she garners attention as Luther and his fellow sailors pine to journey to the next island where women are rumored to be plentiful. Unfortunately, that island is off limits to Luther and the naval sailors. Fortunately for Luther, the beautiful Ensign Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor) arrives on the island to capture their fancy.
The nurse is eventually romanced by the widowed French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi), who is the father to two half breed children, Ngana (Candace Lee) and Jerome (Warren Hsieh). Emile and Nellie's romance begins very uneasily as they have worries surrounding both the war and each other. Commander Bill Harbison (Floyd Simmons) wants Nellie to spy on Emile after information surfaces that the Frenchman had previously killed a man and they want to know what kind of man Emile is. She is uneasy about spying on the man she has fallen in love with, but her duty as an American military nurse has her do as her commander requests. At one point the overly familiar song "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right out of My Hair" is sung by Nellie and Emile overhears her.
Another major character in the film is Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr). Cable is a handsome young man and has arrived on the island to assist in a major operation against the Japanese. He is to work covertly behind enemy lines and gather much needed intelligence. Bloody Mary finds interest with Cable and tells the ‘sexy' young man to travel with her to the forbidden island where he meets her lovely daughter Liat (France Nuyen). Although Joe is engaged to another woman in the States, eh quickly falls in love with the lovely native woman and this makes Bloody Mary very happy. However, the subject of bi-racial relationships quickly submerges the relationship of Joe and Liat, as well as that of Nellie and Emile when Nellie learns Joe has two ‘dark skinned' children.
With the holidays approaching, Luther and Nellie decide to put on a musical show for the sailors stationed on the island. Nellie is distraught at losing Emile, but she soldiers on with the show and takes the part of playing a naval sailor. The masculine Luther dons a grass skirt and a coconut bra and plays the love interest of Nellie's character to the heckling and ridicule of his fellow sailors who wanted to see a real woman in a coconut bra. Emile attends the show and sends flowers to Nellie, but Luther hands them over to the pretty nurse and wrongly takes credit for the kind deed. Luther earns a kiss for the flowers, but eventually comes clean about his misleading deed.
The story moves along and Joe manages to persuade Emile into joining him on the covert intelligence gathering mission as Emile is familiar with the islands. Luther had attempted to join the mission, but his bumbling left him floating in a raft at sea where a very expensive rescue mission saved his life. Emile agrees because of losing Nellie. The two men find themselves in a precarious situation when the Japanese step up their military efforts. At this point I won't spoil the ending of what happens to Joe and Emile, nor will I ruin if either man returns to rekindle their broken romances. You'll have to sit through either the 151 minute or 172 minute version of the film to find out the ending. It isn't a happy ending for everybody, but as with all Rodgers and Hammerstein ending, there is at least reason for a couple people to happily sing.
I am not the biggest fan of the musical genre. There are a few I've enjoyed over the years and the far more recent "Moulin Rouge" is among my list of favorites. I'm not sure "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" counts, but I do love that film as well. While I won't typically select a musical for my evening's entertainment, there is one thing I cannot deny and that is that Rodgers and Hammerstein are the undisputed master of the musical. "The Sound of Music" is one of those special films and "South Pacific" is another absolute gem from the two legendary figures. Some have called "South Pacific" the greatest musical ever made and while I'm not going to subscribe to that theory, I must say that it is one of the more beautifully shot and orchestrated musicals created.
One little fact I found to be rather interesting was that "My Favorite Martian" actor Ray Walston and co-star Mitzi Gaynor were the only cast members whose voices were actually used for the film. The remaining members of the cast were dubbed over in post production. My best memories of Walston were as Mr. Hand in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and in "The Stand." He was a very good actor and his performance in "South Pacific" came as a surprise as I was not accustomed to seeing Mr. Walston in his earlier days. He is wonderful as Luther Billis. Gaynor is very good as well in the lead female role and nothing should be taken away from her singing performance. The remaining members of the cast and supporting cast are perfectly fine as well, but Gaynor and Walston deserve the most praise for acting and singing through the entire film.
As far as "South Pacific" the film, I found the Road Show version of the movie to be the better flowing picture and it didn't seem as long as the theatrical version. Part of that could be attributed to the fact that I watched the theatrical version a couple days after the Road Show version and already knew what was going to happen. Both versions of "South Pacific" begin to feel a little long in the tooth and the romantic stories that occur in the film feel less of an emotional ride than it does as a lesson in racial bigotry. The film tries to teach a major lesson in life and it tries to be romantic while providing a historical story about the American and Japanese conflict during World War II. The musical lacks the heartfelt warmth of "The Sound of Music" and while it is a good story, there are long lengths of time when I felt that "South Pacific" felt flat.
I was able to sit through "South Pacific" twice in less than a week and probably spent ten hours total with this film between two viewings, the supplements and writing this review. This has given me ample time to think about the picture and my thoughts towards it. To keep things simple, I will say that "South Pacific" is an absolutely gorgeous musical and one of the finer crafted musicals from the powerhouse team of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those who love musicals have probably watched "South Pacific" more than once and already know this is a truly classic musical. For those who do not typically watch musicals, "South Pacific" is a decent film, but it is far too slanted at serving as a musical to have the cross genre appeal of "The Sound of Music." I enjoyed the film and was entertained enough to sit through it twice, but I think it will be quite some time before I take another trip to the "South Pacific."
The new Blu-ray release of "South Pacific" needs to be looked at twice when it comes to picture quality. The two-disc set contains two versions of the film and there is a definite difference between them. The theatrical version is allowed to stretch out and use the full capacity of the Blu-ray disc for a lovely 1080p high definition picture. However, the "Road Show" version of the film is fifteen minutes longer and gets nearly three hours of supplemental material added to it. To accomplish this, the longer cut of the movie is mastered at a standard definition resolution of 480p and the difference is dramatic and quite apparent. I began my viewing experience with "South Pacific" watching the longer cut of the film and I was immediately unimpressed with the visual quality and felt it was DVD quality at best. Then I saw the longer version outputted only the SD resolution and everything began to make sense.
When switching over to the theatrical version of the film, it was an eye opening experience. The clarity, coloring and overall improvement of the high definition transfer was instantly apparent. "South Pacific" looked absolutely gorgeous and I felt disappointed that I had watched the far inferior standard definition transfer first. These old films can look incredible in high definition and "South Pacific" is a fine example of what a next generation touch up can do to the viewing experience. The level of detail lets you see each leaf and grass skirt strand in strong clarity. Colors are remarkably strong and show good saturation and no color bleeding as what was prevalent on the longer version of the film. I didn't particularly like the color filters used for some of the musical numbers and from my understanding these have always been a spot of contention for some. Black levels are strong and the print is clean and without any major digital flaws.
The two versions of the film again find differences in quality in regards to audio. The theatrical version with its roomier confines is provided with a strong sounding English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio score, while the Road Show version of the film is given only an English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix. Both versions come equipped with an English 4.0 Dolby Digital mix, as well as the original English stereo soundtrack as well as French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes. There are a lot of subtitle options. Comparing the two versions shows that the DTS-HD mix has a warmer feel to it and more depth, but the difference is nowhere near as dramatic as what can be seen in the difference in video.
I'm not sure why the 4.0 track is included, but the stereo mix is very good for comparison between the way the film sounded originally and its new digital expansion to multi-channel surround. I preferred the six channel mix and felt the musical numbers greatly benefitted from using more than just two speakers and the new mix is more detailed and has some nicely added directional effects. You certainly would not compare "South Pacific" to a film created during the era of surround sound, but listening to the film is pleasing enough. While this is a musical and the songs are the most important part of the film, I found the overall sound quality to be beneficial to my viewing experience and each spoken word was as clear today as it was when the tracks were recorded and I'm sure this film never sounded anything close to this good in theaters.
The first disc contains a Commentary by Ted Chapin and Gerard Alessandrini. Chapin is the president of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Foundation. I didn't catch Alessandrini's role in the world, but he is quite versed on all things "South Pacific." They provide a very good overview of the film and compare the stage and road show versions of "South Pacific." While I didn't listen to the entire commentary, my skipping around always provided good information on the film. The first of two song-based supplements is the Sing Along (45:18) feature. This brings up karaoke style lyrics and you can select the nineteen songs individually or go for the Rodgers and Hammerstein marathon with "Play All." Selecting Songs Only Chapter List (45:18) allows direct access to the film's songs and provides the ability to select each individual song or to "Play All." If you really enjoy the music from "South Pacific," this is a wonderful way to enjoy the songs and saves a lot of time.
The second disc features the Extended "Road Show" Version of the Film (2:52:01). This version is fifteen minutes longer and adds depth to the motion picture that was removed for the theatrical release. I found this version to be a better film, but the picture quality wasn't nearly as good as discussed in the "Video" portion of this review. This longer version includes a Commentary by Richard Barrios. Barrios is a film historian that specializes in musicals and this track was recorded for the DVD release. Barrios is a good speaker and engaging in his commentary and gives a good deal of information on this longer cut of the film. The commentary and sing along features are not ported over for the extended version, but the greater compressed picture does allow for some space for standalone features.
The features included show a good amount of history on "South Pacific." Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific: Creating an American Masterpiece (1:34:05) is a very long and highly detailed look at the musical that is called maybe "the greatest musical ever made." This four act documentary looks at the themes of racial prejudice, the history of the film and the Broadway history of the musical. If you love "South Pacific" and musicals you'll want to watch this. I enjoyed parts of this far more than I enjoyed the film itself. The Making of South Pacific (14:01) is a far shorter black and white newsreel style making of featurette that serves to promote the film with some behind-the-scenes footage.
The features that are less about the film and more about the history of the story are also engaging. 60 Minutes: The Tales of The South Pacific (22:25) finds Diane Sawyer interview author James Michener. She mentions Michener's history in the Pacific Theater during the war and how the novel launched his career. This is a good little feature on the novelist and the book as well as the genesis of the story. The Vintage Stage Excerpt (9:38) finds Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza performing excerpts from "I'm Gonna Was That Man Right Outta My Hair," "Some Enchanted Evening" and "A Wonderful Guy." This is rough looking and in black and white, but provides a look at the stage production. The two Fox Movietonews (2:12) clips promote the film. The Screen Test: Mitzi Gaynor (6:51), a Still Gallery and a Theatrical Trailer complete the bonus offerings.
When one hears the term musical, the names Rodgers and Hammerstein are usually not far behind. There are not many people on this green Earth that have not seen "The Sound of Music" and watch that film annually. "South Pacific" helped define the careers of the legendary duo and many consider "South Pacific" one of the absolutely finest musicals ever created. It is a stunning and beautifully shot film that showcases the late talents of Ray Walston and features many familiar songs that will stick on one's head for quite some time after watching the film. The new Blu-ray release features both the shorter theatrical version and the longer Road Show version of "South Pacific." To show off the beauty of this film and the high definition sight and sound provided by Blu-ray, the theatrical version is my recommendation. To see the best version of the film, the less impressive looking and sounding Road Show version is the better film. There are enough supplements to keep anybody busy for quite some time and all-in-all this is a wonderful package that is a high recommendation to anybody looking for a good musical on the Blu-ray format.