Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of movies about Polynesia. The first of these are laden with bitterness about what has been done to the islands by outside intruders. The other category is full of beautiful sunsets, waving palms, blue lagoons, and willing maidens; it is the South Seas fantasy. The romanticizing of Polynesia will be covered in Fantasy Islands: Bali Hai. Here the lens of history will be concentrated on the underside of paradise.
Two sets of authors stand out for the hard look they have taken at the islands where they have lived and loved. First is a group of writers and filmmakers, anchored by Frederick O’Brien, who followed in the wake of Herman Melville and saw both sides of the pretty picture of Polynesia. His popular book, White Shadows in the South Seas (1919), became a movie in 1928 that had little to do with the original material. Others who pursued this same seatrail suffered similar ups and downs. Among them were Robert J. Flahrerty, W.S. Van Dyke, and F.W. Murnau. Most of their artistic shipwrecks involved a serious desire to mix authentic ethnographic footage with exotic drama.
The other set of observers is the literary duo of Charles Nordoff and James Norman Hall. They are best known as the authors of The Bounty Trilogy, which inspired the 1935 and 1963 Mutiny on the Bounty movies (see blogs below). Another of their works that made it from book to movie was The Hurricane, written in 1933 and released as a major motion picture in 1937 (remade in 1979). There are other books and movies that fit into this category but on this page I will feature the two mentioned above.
White Shadows in the South Seas (1928)
Based on the 1919 book of the same name by Frederick O’Brien, this film is set in the Marquesas and owes something to Melville. The success of the book had created a fad for South Seas romance (see Facing the Pacific*). Robert J. Flaherty (Nanook of the North) was involved in the early stages of this film project but left in a clash over creative differences. He objected to the emphasis on a melodramatic screenplay over documentary footage. It was filmed in Tahiti and the Marquesas, as I understand it. Directing credit goes to W.S. Van Dyke, who went on to make the first Weissmuller/O’Sullivan Tarzan movie in 1932).
There is some sound and some color added to this black and white silent film. The opening shots evoke an island paradise and liken it to the biblical Eden. Print legends, however, immediately point to the avaricious intrusions of white men with their saloons, exploitation of dancing girls, and exercise of economic power. Pearl fishing is the focus of white greed.
While the O’Brian book is a first-person narrative, the movie has invented a drunken doctor who is corroding with resentment against the white exploitation of the Tahitians. He makes enough of a nuisance of himself that he is expelled from the island and ends up shipwrecked on the shores of the Marquesas, which he finds to be welcoming and free of European exploitation. Anyone familiar with Herman Melville’s account of his stay on these islands in the previous century would find this unlikely. The doctor’s love interest is a pretty native girl called Fayaway. This name is shamelessly borrowed from Melville’s book, Typee. She is played by Jane Powell in the hard-to-find movie, Enchanted Island (1958). A good deal of on-site ethnographic footage is used to depict the happy life on the unspoiled isles of the Marquesas. The drama arises from Doc’s efforts to be accepted as a prospective husband for Fayaway, daughter of the chief, and his ill-fated determination to keep the pearl traders from landing in the pristine harbor. It ends sadly.
The Hurricane (1937)
Based on the novel by Nordhoff and Hall, this film classic stars Dorothy Lamour and Jon Hall. The 1979 re-make was not well received (though I thought it was worth watching). The original film opens with a cruise ship passing a devastated island in the South Seas. An old doctor (Thomas Mitchell) reflects on the days when it was once the most beautiful of the Tuamoto isles.
A flashback returns to the days when the lovely islands groaned under harsh French colonial rule. A sailing ship arrives and the islanders flock into the lagoon. Dorothy Lamour swims to meet her lover, Jon Hall, who is first mate and looks like Tarzan. Her name is Marama, his name is Terangi. They are to be married in the Catholic church on the island. After the wedding, the jubilant islanders strip off their Western clothes and hold a Polynesian ceremony with lavish feasting. The lovers run off down the beach and jump into a canoe to spend their wedding night in their own hideaway.
Soon, Terangi must return to his ship where he holds the coveted position of first mate. At port in Tahiti, he runs into trouble and is put in jail. The ship’s captain pleads with the governor, saying that Tuamoto natives can’t stand confinement. Terangi is seen toiling under the French lash. He attempts an escape and another year is added to his sentence. The colonial governor refuses to get involved, saying “I represent a civilization that cannot show confusion to the people it governs.”
Terangi’s troubles grow and his sentence is extended over and over. It takes some years for him to make a successful escape and return to his wife and the daughter he has never met. The governor is enraged but his mounting ire is outmatched by an approaching hurricane. It is a terrible storm that wipes the islands clean. This tale is one-quarter Polynesian romance and three-quarters treatise on repressive Civilization against a free people. This movie suffers greatly from the limitations of black and white film among islands lush with color. The perpetual problem of representing mixed marriage in Pacific films is solved here by casting darker skinned Caucasians in Polynesian roles. Dorothy Lamour built her career on this strategy. Author James Norman Hall was the uncle of Jon Hall.
Polynesian Triangle Related Posts:
Additional movies researched for History, Travel & the Movies, are in Movie Archive above.