Fox // 1958 // 157 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // April 13th, 2009
Intact! Uncut! All the wonderful romance...all the songs...all the cheer of the entertainment that ran over a year on Broadway!
The legendary songwriting duo Rodgers and Hammerstein (Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II) created some of the biggest musical hits in the history of Broadway, inclding Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, and, in 1949, South Pacific. A few years after ending its five-run year, Fox turned the show into a big-budget musical, which would become one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1950's. Now, over fifty years after its initial release, Fox is releasing a two-disc Blu-ray version of South Pacific: on one disc is the theatrical, 171-minute roadshow version; on the other, the 151-minute cut for general release.
In the midst of World War II, on the U.S. military base in the South Pacific, love is in the air. There's Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor, The Joker is Wild), a small-town girl from Arkansas, who falls in love with Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi, The Bobo), a middle-aged French plantation owner. There's Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr, Gaby), who's brought to the island to take part in a spy mission, but ends up falling in love with Liat (French Nuyen, Battle for the Planet of the Apes), a Tonkinese girl. Then there's the restless American sailors, who are aren't so much in love, but in lust, and seem to be exorcising their carnal desires through jaunty song and dance.
Of course, love is never that simple and straightforward in a lavish musical. In plot turns that were surprisingly progressive at the time, racism rears its ugly head: Nellie is uncomfortable with Emile's dark-skinned children, and Joe fears what his friends and family back home would think about him marrying a native. So, what is the more powerful emotion: love or racism?
The big-budget Hollywood musical is now about as fashionable as a handlebar mustache. As someone born in the late Seventies, right around the time of the musical's last gasp (thanks a lot, Xanadu), this hasn't been something to mourn, just a fact of life. So films like South Pacific, which already seem dated just because of the sixty-some years that have passed since it was written, seems especially dated, what with young men traipsing around an island, singing about how there's nothing like a dame and all.
To be honest, it's not easy to get past some of the film's more oddly exuberant numbers and get involved in the plot -- which is, as previously mentioned, almost edgy, at least for films from this era. The movie -- at least the roadshow version -- is also bloated at nearly three hours. However, the parallel love stories are affecting. The difficulties of interracial relationships is obviously still a relevant topic today, though South Pacific doesn't really provide much beyond superficial, lovelorn posturing -- at least until a dramatic and powerful conclusion.
Then again, South Pacific is, first and foremost, a big brassy musical, and on that front is far more successful. As one largely ignorant of musical theater, I had no idea so many standards were here: "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," "Some Enchanted Evening," and "Happy Talk" were all songs I recognized, but had no idea originated in South Pacific. As important as plotting and characterization are to drama, in musicals -- especially grand musicals like this -- music seems to be the key, and South Pacific is certainly no slouch in that department.
Still, for musical philistines like myself, I'm not sure if this will prove to be a successful gateway into the genre. To be sure, there are some classic musicals I've seen and revere: West Side Story and Guys and Dolls come to mind, and I would recommend them to any film lover. But for those who already love the classic musicals, South Pacific will likely be a welcome addition to the Blu-ray library; for those indifferent to the genre, you could wait this one out.
One other reason for South Pacific fans to add this to their library is the fantastic presentation of the film on Blu-ray -- although, that said, many of the additional features here were already available on the two-disc DVD set that was released in 2006. Like that release, this Blu-ray set includes both the theatrical and roadshow versions of the film (quite a coup, as the footage for the roadshow version was at one point considered lost), unique commentary tracks for each cut, and an episode of 60 Minutes that features James Michener (who wrote the book the musical was based on) returning to the South Pacific to reminisce about his time there and his later relationship with a Japanese-American wife. These are all excellent features, and should make this a must-buy for fans of the film who don't already own the DVD set.
In addition to these extras, for the Blu-ray release there is also a feature-length documentary, Passion, Prejudice and South Pacific: Creating an American Masterpiece. This is an exhaustive piece that examines several aspects of the film: the historical context of American involvement in World War II, the writing and staging of the original musical, and the eventual adaptation to film, including casting searches and filming techniques. While many studios create throwaway featurettes on the making of their movies, Fox has got to be applauded for creating such an extensive account of what went into the making of South Pacific.
Of course, one other difference between the DVD and Blu-ray releases are the sound and picture qualities. Though I haven't seen the DVD version of South Pacific, I have to believe this is a huge upgrade. I haven't seen any film of this age look so pristine. Presented in a 2.20:1 aspect ratio, nearly every scene presents scenic views of the Hawaiian Islands, including brilliantly detailed sandy beaches and volcanoes towering over the action. With bright pastel costuming adding to the color palette, this film can be a marvel to look at, especially considering its age. One detriment, which is not the fault of the transfer, is the extensive use of filters for several of the songs, which create sudden drastic changes in the color. The rediscovered footage for the roadshow version also appears far more faded than the material from the theatrical version.
With a DTS-HD 5.1 soundtrack, the musical numbers are presented in a vigorous and gorgeous surround sound. The center channel is used for the solos, with great use of the side channels for choruses and backing vocals. In addition, the myriad sounds of the island are presented with perfect subtlety on the soundtrack, such as faint waterfalls or rolling waves accentuating the conversation in the center channel. Like the extras and the video, it's clear Fox has put a lot of time and care into the audio presentation.
For fans of South Pacific, this Blu-ray is a must-buy, and probably worth the upgrade even if you already own the 2006 DVD release. For those still on the fence about musicals, this might not be the best film to start with, but the presentation will still likely impress. Regardless, everyone should appreciate the fantastic job Fox has done restoring and releasing a classic film to take advantage of the new Blu-ray technology.
Guilty of some overexuberant singing, dancing, and emoting -- not that there's anything wrong with that.
Review content copyright © 2009 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.20:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 157 Minutes
Release Year: 1958
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Roadshow Version
* Photo Gallery