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South Pacific (1958)
South Pacific is a 1958 musical romance film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific, and based on James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific. The film was directed by Joshua Logan and starred Rossano Brazzi, Mitzi Gaynor, John Kerr and Ray Walston in the leading roles with Juanita Hall as Bloody Mary, the part that she had played in the original stage production. Following the success of the film version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, the producers decided to tackle a big-screen adaptation of South Pacific as their next project. The film was produced by "South Pacific Enterprises," a company created specifically for the production, owned by Rodgers, Hammerstein, Logan, Magna Theatre Corporation (owners of the Todd-AO widescreen process the film would be photographed in), and Leland Hayward, producer of the original stage production. 20th Century Fox partially invested in the production in exchange for some distribution rights. Additionally, all the departments and department heads were Fox's. The producers' original plan was to have the two leads of the original Broadway cast reprise their respective roles for the film.
So why is this movie a classic? Because it was produced soon after WWII, when even Hollywood war romances had a serious edge. Because it was filmed on location (well, Hawaii, I think) and in full Technicolor glamour. And because the occasion brought out the best in Rodgers and Hammerstein, when the songwriting team wrote poignant and thoughtful lyrics put to classic melodies.
The musical was based on James Michener's novel, which was based on Michener's tour of duty in the Pacific. So the novel, musical, and movie all have more authenticity than is typical of musicals or war movies (or Michener novels). Most of the script's pathos and drama stem from the forced clash of American and island cultures, and the film captures the tragedy of war without on-camera blood. The romance between an American sailor and a Tonkinese island girl is an interesting case of Hollywood tackling a sensitive subject head-on. The movie's treatment of racism is not its greatest strength, but still is less awkward than a lot of movies that won plenty of Oscars.
A few years ago, I read an article in the New York Times accusing Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals of being inferior to today's musicals because no lead character ever dies in them. I'm not sure that the number of dead bodies should be the only criterion for judging art -- was Die Hard 2 a thousand times better than Citizen Kane? -- but the Times reporter was guilty of sloppy reporting, because one of the leads in South Pacific does, in fact, die at the end of this movie. That's still a low body count by today's standards, but there's enough drama in this film to make it clear that the filmmakers, and their audience, knew that war is hell.