James Michener began his career writing stories taken from his experiences in the islands of the Pacific during a World War II. Serving in the Navy, he was stationed in the area of the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu (formerly New Hebrides). He published Tales of the South Pacific in 1947 and later authored another book of stories about the South Seas, called Return to Paradise (1950). This one inspired a movie starring Gary Cooper in 1953. Michener produced his two-volume opus on Hawaii in 1959. See Hawaii.
Return to Paradise (1953)
Based on an early work from James Michener (1951), this is an essential component in the Hollywood treatment of South Seas fantasy. Gary Cooper stars as the archetypal American beachcomber, surpassing Herman Melville for two-fisted individuality and rejection of authority. He is dropped at the island of Matareva by a passing sailing craft and has a yen to stay for a while. It was filmed at Upolu in the Samoan group. He is immediately greeted by a hostile British missionary who directs his Nazi-like wardens to eject the unwanted intruder. Cooper repels them using a piece of driftwood as a baseball bat. He is called Mr. Morgan (from the story of the same name), or Morgan-tane (say tahn-ay) by the natives. The missionary does what he can to make him unwelcome but he is given some defiant local hospitality and soon makes the acquaintance of a pretty young vahine (say va-heen-ay) named Maeva.
True to the Michener formula, he has no immediate interest in sex and only wants to live on the island unmolested. He is also non-political but he helps to foment a rebellion against the missionary merely because of infringements on his own freedom. Eventually he succumbs to the charms of the devoted Maeva and she becomes pregnant. Mr. Morgan is deeply conflicted on this matter. When Maeva dies from complications of childbirth, he leaves the island and his infant daughter not to return for over a decade.
The story is framed by a narration from the island schoolteacher, a Samoan youth who has been a foster brother to Turia, Morgan’s daughter. While attending college in Apia, the young man meets Morgan and lures him back to Matareva. The humbled missionary has mellowed and urges Morgan to take an interest in his daughter. World War II is now under way. When some American flyers are downed in the lagoon at Matareva, Morgan feels compelled to protect his daughter from the advances of the plane’s captain. This brings about a reconciliation between father and daughter and he elects to stay on the island while sending the Americans away. Michener was fascinated by interracial love on the islands during the midcentury and sensitive to the pitfalls for those who crossed racial boundaries. The repressive missionary becomes in the end the voice for protecting his island “children” from inadvertent abuse by outsiders.
South Pacific (1958)
Based on the Broadway musical by Rogers and Hammerstein, this one might better have been left to the stage. The filming of the Michener world, based on his Tales of the South Pacific, is idealized but not often satisfying. There are some absurd native dances choreographed by Agnes de Mille. This is a tale of ordinary American service men and women finding ways to get themselves through the war. At the center is Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gayner), who has fallen in love with a French planter, stiffly played by Rossano Brazzi. She would have done better with John Kerr, but he is in love with the daughter of Bloody Mary. Both couples come to grief over racial issues. Kerr must ultimately tell Mary he cannot marry her daughter because the people in his hometown would never accept her.
Rossano is a widower with children by island wives, and Nellie finds she can’t handle it. She takes her mind off these matters by working on a show for the troops. The commanding officer assures her that she has no idea how important her efforts are. She looks real cute in shorts. Rossano comes to the show and pleads for Nellie’s love, but she cannot accept him and runs off. Rossano turns to Kerr and asks why this must be, and Kerr sings, “You’ve Got To Be Taught To Hate.” Nellie, incidentally, is from Little Rock. In the end, Rossano and Kerr go off on a dangerous mission against the Japanese. Kerr is killed. When Rossano returns, Nellie is waiting with the children. There is an admirable effort to deal with racial issues, and the side effects of war in nudging the world toward a mulatto complexion some day, but it is largely lost under the artificialities of a 50s musical. Joshua Logan directed.