While I was writing the text for this website, a friend in Honolulu took me to a bookstore that specialized in “Hawaiiana” and Polynesian subjects. There I found a book called Facing the Pacific: Polynesia and the U.S. Imperial Imagination, by Jeffrey Geiger (2007). It sounds more heavily political than it actually is. For the most part, it is a survey of movies made in the 1920s and early 30s that reflect Hollywood attitudes and misconceptions about the South Seas. Okay, it’s a bit of a slog, but I found it fascinating to read about these movies, most of which were new to me.
Mixed with the movie themes were literary accounts of early sightings of the islands, beginning with the first British ships of Captains Wallis, Cook, and Bligh. Then came the artists and writers: among them, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and the painter Paul Gauguin. In all of the representations of early visits to the South Seas, the islands take on the quality of Eden, lush and fertile, clothing optional. With the notable exception of the experiences of Captain Bligh and his crew on the isle of Tahiti, there have been very few Hollywood movies that offer this view of paradise through the eyes of these early visitors, or those who stood awaiting them on the beach.
Instead, we get more modern works of pure fantasy. Made almost entirely from the male perspective, these movies are generally of the “I was a marooned on a deserted island with a beautiful Polynesian maiden” genre. It may not be surprising to learn that after the early National Geographic-style films of the 1920s, almost none of these maidens were played by Polynesian actresses. Dorothy Lamour (from New Orleans) set the mold for the Hollywood star in a sarong (more often called a “pareo” in Polynesia).
In the play and movie of South Pacific, the imagined isle of Bali Hai is held as the ideal of “your own special island.” It is a place where love can be found without care for race or religion or nationality, and where life can be lived without the invasion of foreign ships with destructive missions.