South Pacific and Racism

DKC and I spent 2 hours and 47 minutes of our lives yesterday to watch South Pacific, the classic Rogers and Hammerstein production done back in 1958. If you’re into classic movie musicals, then you’ve no doubt seen this one. If you’re not, then you probably have little desire to watch it. I’ll say this much: I enjoyed the film, but parts of it really dragged, and I felt like the characters were severely underdeveloped in most cases. Still, the music saves it and earns it its 3 star rating.


One element of the film that stuck out like Pinocchio’s nose at a lying festival was the plot line that involves the two main characters, Emilie and Nellie. They’ve only just met weeks before, but they’re already madly in love. Everything’s going great, until . . . she finds out he’s already been married and his wife has died. This upsets her so much, that she refuses to see him anymore. Huh? That was my first reaction. Then I figured out the real reason–the one that I suppose would have been oh so apparent to me if I were back in 1958: he’d married a Polynesian woman. You know–someone NOT WHITE. Which made him unclean or something. I didn’t live in the 50s–I don’t get it.

The whole theme of racism is woven throughout the film, including some romance scenes between a white man and a Tonkinese woman which were supposedly quite shocking those days. The thing is, today, the conflict there was so dated that it took DKC and I a long time to figure out why the characters were behaving the way they were. Was the world really that closed minded only 50 years ago, that such a plot line was considered edgy? And where will we be 50 years from now? If I were in my 80s, would I still be shaking my head at the audacity of that South Pacific movie today? Is there something today that is considered totally taboo, but which my children just won’t understand what the big deal was?

It makes one wonder . . .

6 thoughts on “South Pacific and Racism”

  1. Maybe if they make a movie next year about NOT having a Facebook Account…
    Wakka wakka.
    I have thoughts about potential issues today that could be heading in a parallel direction, but have no desire to wax controversial on your blog. ๐Ÿ˜€

  2. Re: Maybe if they make a movie next year about NOT having a Facebook Account…
    Neither do I. Which is why I left those thoughts out of the post. There are some blatantly obvious ones, but I see no need to go there.

  3. It’s a good thing we don’t “get” this musical anymore, I say.
    This post has taken me back…I took an American Musical Theater class back in college and wrote a couple of papers on South Pacific. It does seem that the themes from the musical–specifically racism and the beliefs we pass on to our children–were addressed in ways that we don’t really relate to today. And I think that the world really was that closed minded not too long ago (not that we’ve got it all figured out now). It is interesting, though, to study the scores and see the many ways those same themes are carried into the music–the use of different intervals and rhythms to show to the differences in race, the repetitive melody in the song “Carefully Taught” parallels it’s message, and even (if I remember right) Nellie and Emilie never really sing together (except in their “thoughts”…though there were other reasons for this historically).

  4. Re: It’s a good thing we don’t “get” this musical anymore, I say.
    Interesting–it would be fascinating to study musicals from an academic angle. Which college and what class, O Nameless Commenter on My Blog? ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. If you had heard my grandfather complaining about all those “colored boys” on the sports teams or heard the common use of the term “nigger” when I was a child, you’d understand how South Pacific was totally believable.

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