Since the days of silent movies, Hollywood has shared the fascination with the South Pacific felt by poets and novelists. In fact, many of the best films about the region are based on books by Somerset Maugham, Charles Nordhoff, James Norman Hall, and James A. Michener. And like the printed works, most of the films are about Europeans temporarily in the islands rather than the islanders themselves. The clash between the simplicity of paradise and the complexity of civilization is a recurrent theme.
Somerset Maugham's famous short story Rain about a hooker and a repressed missionary thrown together beneath Samoa's monsoon rains has been filmed three times. In 1928 Gloria Swanson and Lionel Barrymore starred in the original silent movie version of Sadie Thompson. Four years later director Lewis Milestone cast Joan Crawford as Sadie Thompson in an outstanding remake titled Rain. Though set in Samoa, Milestone's production was actually shot on Catalina Island off Southern California. Rita Hayworth and José Ferrer starred in the 1953, 3-D version Miss Sadie Thompson.
Two classics of the silent movie era really were filmed in the region. In 1925 Robert Flaherty made Moana of the South Seas in Samoa. Six years later Flaherty teamed up with FW Murnau to create Tabu, the story of two lovers who flee to a tiny island on Bora Bora's barrier reef. In 1932 Douglas Fairbanks Sr and Maria Alba traveled to the Society Islands by private yacht for the filming of Mr Robinson Crusoe.
DVDs of all of the films mentioned can be ordered through The South Pacific in Film
Three generations of filmmakers have used the Bounty saga popularized by American novelists Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall as their way of presenting paradise. In 1935 Frank Lloyd's Mutiny on the Bounty won the Oscar for Best Picture, with Charles Laughton starring as the cruel Captain Bligh and Clark Gable as gallant Fletcher Christian. Lloyd portrayed the affair as a simplistic struggle between good and evil, and the two subsequent remakes were more historically accurate.
The extravagant MGM production of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) starring Trevor Howard as Captain Bligh and Marlon Brando as Fletcher Christian is well remembered in Tahiti due to Brando's ongoing ownership of Tetiaroa atoll. Unlike the 1935 Bounty movie filmed on Catalina Island, California, MGM captured the glorious color of Tahiti and Bora Bora in what may be the most spectacular movie ever made in the South Pacific.
The Bounty (1984), with Sir Anthony Hopkins as a purposeful Bligh and Mel Gibson portraying an ambiguous Christian, comes closer to reality than the other two Bounty films and the views of Moorea are stunning.
The theme of the despot is picked up by director John Ford who adapted Nordhoff and Hall's story of a young couple fleeing the haughty governor of tropical Manikoora in The Hurricane (1937). Surprisingly, this black and white movie remains an audiovisual feast, and the climactic storm is not soon to be forgotten. Dorothy Lamour stars in Ford's film. In 1978 Dino de Lautentiis remade Hurricane on Bora Bora with Mia Farrow and Trevor Howard in the starring roles.
The Moon and Sixpence, Albert Lewin's 1943 film version of Somerset Maugham's novel about the life of Paul Gauguin in Polynesia, appeals to the mind as much as to the senses. It's the dissonance between the main character's private mission and his social obligations gives this movie depth.
Although entirely filmed at Camp Pendleton, California, the wartime propaganda film Guadalcanal Diary (1943), starring William Bendix and Anthony Quinn, brings the battles in the Solomon Islands to life. The Thin Red Line, a 1999 reevaluation of the same battle, was far more sophisticated with a lyrical soundtrack and psychological musing.
Films based on James A. Michener's writings dominated the 1950s, beginning with Return to Paradise (1953) filmed on the Samoan island of Upolu. The beach where Gary Cooper played his role is now a popular tourist attraction.
James A. Michener's first book, Tales of the South Pacific opened on Broadway as a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical in 1949. The 1958 screen version South Pacific was filmed on Kaua'i, Hawaii, starring Mitzi Gaynor as a wartime US navy nurse in love with a middle-aged French planter on an enchanting South Seas isle.
Fiji wasn't discovered by Hollywood until the The Blue Lagoon (1980). In this romantic tale Fiji's Yasawa Islands are the setting for a pair of child castaways who fall in love on a deserted isle. This film is worth seeing for the lush beauty of the islands and not for Henry DeVere Stacpoole's rather insipid story. It stars Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. The 1991 sequel Return to the Blue Lagoon is about the two-year-old son from the first Blue Lagoon film. It was made on Taveuni with Milla Jovovich as the female lead.
Filmed on Monuriki Island in the Mamanucas, Castaway (2000) conveys well the savage beauty of Fiji's westernmost islands. Lead actor Tom Hanks had to lose 40 pounds and grow a ragged beard in the middle of production, forcing an eight month recess in the filming.
In all of the above films, the indigenous peoples of Oceania appear only as extras. The main characters are invariably Europeans who act out their roles against the exotic backdrop of the South Pacific. In Kevin Costner's 1994 production Rapa Nui about the ancient conflict between the "long ears" and the "short ears" on Easter Island, the islanders themselves become the main protagonists. Yet Costner's film was panned by the critics, and the filmmakers themselves were condemned by social activists for their negative impact on Easter Island.