Yep, this review probably contains spoilers. Also, because its themes address directly environmental issues, I’ve given it a more thorough critical treatment than I gave The Charge at Feather River. Thanks in advance for taking the time to read it. Finally, this movie contains intense battle scenes and a frightening pirate villain, either of which might be unsuitable fare for sensitive minds, be they adult minds or juvenile.
The beauty, intensity, and flair of this 1940 action-adventure flick caught me by surprise. After watching the Dorothy Lamour vehicle, The Jungle Princess, I expected a tropical paradise movie of similar ilk. Geographically displaced animals. Childlike but sexually forward leading men or women. Backward natives who are slaves to superstition. Lots and lots of giant ferns. I anticipated cartoon villains and expected that the water beneath their pearl-scooping pirate ship would have more depth than the ship’s crew.
Boy was I wrong. Although its plot does indeed turn on cogs of stereotypes, South of Pago Pago grabbed me, from its gorgeous Hawaiian setting to its underwater diving scenes to its tragic and at times brutal (albeit manipulative) storyline. Topping off the visually beguiling display of exotica: exquisite, lava-lava clad men and women in the bloom of youth. Even though it’s a black-and-white film, South of Pago Pago displays the beauty of the human form with some power €”especially the male body, and to a purpose that reaches beyond merely stocking shelves in an eye-candy store. Leading the stunning parade of sculpted brown torsos and yep-uh-huh thighs is the handsome (and, in reality, part-Polynesian) Jon Hall, who plays good-hearted Kehane, son of the island chief.
The movie opens with a sentence that steers us into the shadowy back-alleys of 1880s Singapore: €œThis is the story of days not so long ago, when Singapore spawned a race of steel-fisted, iron-jawed adventurers, who lived hard, fought hard and died hard €”as they ravaged unknown seas, lured by the priceless luster of virgin pearls. € The camera ushers us into a Singapore bar where we find beautiful but hard-bitten Ruby Taylor (Francis Farmer) sitting companionably among cutthroats and gnarly privateers. Weary of it all, she wants to find her way out of Singapore. Smelling an opportunity, fortune hunter Bucko Larson (Victor McLaglen), an ugly brute of a man, prods her to ply her charms on another bar patron, a Portuguese sailor named Ferro (Abner Biberman).
Ferro, Bucko has learned, is key player in a pearl-plundering enterprise that Bucko’s rival Black Mike Rafferty is about to launch. With Ruby’s help and a promise of one-third of the haul, Bucko lures Ferro away from Black Mike. His crew then sets sail for what Ferro tells them is the fabulously pearl-rich oyster beds off the South Pacific island of Manoa. When the ship nears the oyster beds, Bucko has no more use for Ferro. The steel-fisted captain knocks Ferro out cold with one punch then dumps him into the sea, saying, €œI’ve been wanting to throw him to the sharks ever since Singapore. € €œWouldn’t surprise me none if the sharks threw him back, € quips one of Bucko’s sailors. Har-har-har, pirate humor. Ruby is disgusted but sees Bucko’s pearl harvest as her ticket out of squalor.
As the sails of doom appear on their horizon, the innocent natives frolic on the beaches of the thoroughly romanticized island of Manoa. Whenever Bucko Larson speaks of the natives, his favorite refrain is €œThey’re just like kids. € Indeed, the opening scene between Kehane, his childhood sweetheart Malia (Olympe Bradna), and his best friend Luna (Rudy Robles) could pass as a charming portrait of happy childhood €”except everyone involved is well €”very well €”into their adult years. Island life, we are shown, is untroubled, happy, pure. The natives live in harmony with each other and with their gods and nature, unimpressed by the wealth of pearls lying in oyster beds just off their beaches. Kehane, Malia, and Luna’s pearly physical fitness and luminous beauty anchor the sentiment. And indeed, not only are the oyster beds about to be ravaged but also the islanders’ virginal nature is likewise on the verge of suffering through-and-through strip-mining.
When the natives spot the ship, they paddle out to meet it in the traditional exuberant welcome party. Apparently a repeat offender, Bucko has been through all this before and plays the €œchild-like € natives well. That night, Kehane’s village throws a luau to honor the visitors. We’re treated to a gorgeous spectacle of hula dancing, men and women together. Kehane dances with his sweetheart Malia but can’t take his eyes off Ruby €”the first white woman he’s ever seen. The chief’s son’s fascination with Ruby is not lost on Bucko. He encourages the jaded bar girl to make the most of Kehane’s open interest.
Lindsay (Gene Lockhart), a white recluse who has lived among the natives for years, comes to the luau to find Bucko’s crew in rowdy attendance. He recognizes the pirates for what they are, and as Bucko and his buccaneers hand out gifts of dresses and cuckoo clocks to the excited islanders, he pegs Bucko: €œBeware of Greeks bearing gifts. € Bucko exploits the islanders’ practice of returning favors and urges them to dive for pearls for him in exchange for the presents he’s bestowed. They’re happy to oblige, saying diving isn’t work, it’s play. The following day, the island’s best free divers, all young men, all beautiful and powerful swimmers, take the plunge for Bucko and raise a number of oysters. The camera follows them beneath the waves to show us what graceful water creatures the islanders are, how much they belong in the sea. Greedily, Bucko and his men pry apart the mollusks the islanders bring up only to find they contain few gems. Disappointed, the pirates decide they must move the dive to deeper water.
Meanwhile, Kehane charms open Ruby’s rough shell and we begin to see the shine rise on her character. As she softens under Kehane’s attentions, she is herself seduced by the idea that the natives are all one big family. She has shed her barroom frippery to slip into a lava-lava. Many of her scenes from here on show her supine, relaxing into vulnerability, luxuriating in the peace and beauty surrounding her even as she participates in Bucko’s scheme to take every advantage of the villagers’ good natures.
The next day the divers refuse to dive, protesting that the water is too deep. Larson jeers them, and a young man named Hono (Robert Stone) decides he must attempt the challenge. Despite Luna’s attempts to dissuade him, Hono slips beneath the waves, swims to the depths, and begins gathering oysters. But the dive proves too much and he suffers an attack of decompression sickness. Kehane arrives to learn that down in the oyster bed Hono is in trouble. He swims down and rescues him. He orders a stop to the diving and sends the islanders back to the village, but Bucko discovers from the few oysters that Hono managed to raise before succumbing to the bends that the dangerously deep bed is pearl-rich. He’s set on prodding the natives into returning to the job but meets an unmoving obstacle in Kehane, who places a taboo on diving in the deep waters to protect his people from Bucko, whom the island prince has at last realized is a dangerous man. Bucko is unimpressed with Kehane’s decision. €œNo taboo every stopped Bucko from getting anything he went after, € he says with a scowl. He goes looking for Kehane’s soft spot €”Ruby €”and finds her packing, preparing to leave. She’s satisfied with the few pearls they’ve managed to prize from the harbor. Hers is a more modest philosophy of exploitation of a resource: €œI believe in take a little, leave a little, € she tells Bucko. €œThese islanders are pretty nice folks. € She wants to ship out €œbefore the trouble starts. € But Bucko convinces her that if she can get Kehane out of the way for a week, by the time he returns, €œwe’ll have the bottom ripped out of his habour. €
The plan works; love-struck Kehane proposes to Ruby. Their marriage is arranged, and the pirates yuk it up over the bar girl’s impending union with island royalty. Ruby is ashamed and declares she feels like she’s taking €œcandy from a baby, € but she can’t help herself and presses forward with the plan. The recluse Lindsay mocks her, telling her €œYou can’t get away with it. € €œMind your own business! € she snaps, and Lindsay prophetically pronounces, €œIt’s your funeral. € The chief (Pedro de Cordoba) marries his son to Ruby, and the couple paddles off to nearby Tua Tua for their honeymoon.
In Kehane’s absence, Bucko liquors up the young men and sends them on a drunk diving spree. The underwater scenes are harrowing: eardrums burst from the pressure and the divers suffer internal injuries. They twist in the depths like gored fish. Their beautiful, straight bodies become crippled; some lose their hearing, others, their lives. In Kehane’s absence, Luna paddles to the schooner to confront Bucko for violating the taboo, but Bucko tells him that before Kehane left he lifted the taboo. When Luna expresses his doubts, Bucko knocks him unconscious with one of his powerhouse punches and throws him overboard. This brutal treatment is enough to sober up the other divers, who now realize they’re in terrible peril from Bucko and his rapacious picaroons. But lacking their leader Kehane, they’re lost for what to do. Luna is forced to dive at gunpoint and nearly loses his life.
Too late, Lindsay goes to the old chief, who has fallen ill €”perhaps from a white man’s disease? €”and urges him to take control of the situation or his people will be destroyed. The chief is carried out to meet Bucko, who has come ashore. €œYou’ve taken my people away from their laws, away from me, € the tribal father tells the pirate. Bucko’s flings at the chief a classic abuser’s retort: €œWell, if they’d rather be with me, there must be some reason. € The chief orders Bucko off the island, but Bucko now think of himself as the island’s master. He rips the chief’s necklace from his chest and shoots him and then Lindsay when he tries to intervene. The natives revolt, but they’re no match for Bucko’s guns and lack of conscience.
Meanwhile, on Tua Tua, Ruby realizes that with Kehane she has a chance for true happiness. It turns out she does have a conscience after all and it finally kicks in. Without telling Kehane why, she demands they end their honeymoon early and €œgo home € to Manoa. They arrive to find paradise in chaos and a funeral for Kehane’s father underway. Crippled-for-life Luna hobbles up to fill in Kehane on what has transpired in his absence. First things first: Kehane takes charge of his father’s funeral. At its end, the island shaman (or priest €”the role is non-specific) pronounces Kehane chief and commands him to lead his people. Kehane tells the islanders, €œWe have honored our dead. Now we have another duty. Arm yourselves. €
Ruby is drawn to the dying Lindsay, who Bucko mortally wounded. This is Lindsay’s big moment in the movie; he lives just long enough to give The Speech. In response to Ruby’s expressed anxiety over the islanders’ pounding war drums, he says, €œThose drums are beating on Manoa just like they beat out the death of a lot of islands in the South Seas €”islands that were like Manoa €”paradise €”until white men came along and made them hell. €
As mentioned, Bucko is a repeat offender. He completely expects Kehane and his islanders to do just what they do and prepares for their attack. Some of the movie’s nighttime battle scenes are enacted with models €”plastic or clay figures in toy boats €”but you’ll get the idea. The final fight scenes where Kehane sneaks on board Bucko’s ship with a handful of his warriors is realistic and gripping. The €œchild-like € islanders fight hard to overcome a ruthless crew armed with superior weapons. Ruby, of course, flings herself into the line of fire to save Kehane’s life. Kehane pursues Bucko up onto the mainmast, where the two leaders slug it out in a spectacular, to-the-death struggle. In the end, what the natives do with the bodies of Bucko and his crew will get your attention. Child-like, indeed.
South of Pago Pago is a very attractive and engaging movie. It had the right visual and dramatic elements to sweep me up as well as made an interesting run at themes of environmental and social justice. But while I appreciated the movie’s storyline and art, I knew it to be a competent piece of audience manipulation. The device of casting victims of vicious exploitation in the roles of defenseless, innocent children (the movie really leans on that horn) in order to bring into the sharpest possible relief the irredeemable evil of their abusers bothers me for a number of reasons.
First, it participates in the objectification of the exploited parties by romanticizing the South Seas islanders for purposes of driving home a message. Although it’s Bucko me hearty that obviously relegates the islanders to the role of children and thus easy pickings, I wonder if the movie’s overall treatment of the islanders might partake in another, perhaps more subtle way of the dehumanization (adults-reduced-to-children) of a group in order to make thematic use of them. Perhaps part of the intent is to provoke the protective instinct that many audience members will feel toward the islanders in response to what amounts to classic kid-jeopardy (a manipulative device that hits many viewers hard). But I think that the practice of handpicking and inflating some cultural and physical qualities of a people or place to heighten dramatic effect or fill out an otherwise incomplete picture leads us into foggy, deceptive waters.
Second, by virtue of their highly romanticized portrayal in the movie, intentionally or not, the stunningly attractive, child-like islanders appear to be presented as living the ideal life, not only as far as their harmonious society goes but also as far as their complete integration into their natural environment is displayed. I think this kind of idealization oversimplifies the possibilities, again limiting them. As an act of stereotyping, it suffers the usual failures of imagination. I’m aware that scripture and folk wisdom associate children with key qualities of spirituality and valuable native insight. Yes, the child-like islanders are about as straightforward and charming as can be. They occupy the John Denver order of wisdom: €œBut it’s you who must begin / to seek the wisdom of the children / and the graceful way of flowers in the wind €¦ With their innocence and trusting / they will teach us to be free € etc., etc. If those lyrics happen to play when my kids are around, in my best Yoda voice, I say, €œBeing a child not make one wise. € Innocence is not sufficient to act a part in creation’s unfolding potential. If it were, we’d still inhabit the Romper Room in the Garden of Eden Petting Zoo. God, I think, has higher hopes for us and for the containing world that stretch far beyond the wonder and comforts of eternally magical childhood.
Ah, well. I could go on, but my critical approach might make it sound like I don’t like this movie. Actually, I do like it, quite a bit €”I’m just not falling for its tactics. I deeply appreciated the film’s showcasing the human body as it does. I’d just been through a round of peek-a-boo Clara Bow movies where the main purpose for showing skin is to exploit both poor Clara and her fans’ Victorian strain of repression. Pago Pago isn’t like that. This story is about exploitation. Its task is to show the resource suffering exploitation in all its heart-wrenching beauty. To do so, it truly and tastefully celebrates the human being, body if not soul. Also, though he’s a monster, and we all know that monsters must be killed so that we can get back to life how we like it, Victor McLaglen plays Bucko Larson as a believable, cold-blooded, no-frills freebooter. A serviceable portrait of common, enterprising evil, he’s worth the watch.
Bottom line: I recommend South of Pago Pago to environmental writers and other champions of the mortal sphere. It’s an excellent example of traditional dipolar environmental thematics (and theatrics), where the evil, ugly, soulless exploiters and the good, beautiful, vulnerable exploitees are so highly toned and separated that even a child will grasp the difference. I’m not sure how effectively such tactics present an audience with meaningful choices–they might actually restrict them. But see the movie, if you can. You’ll find much about it to respect and admire.
Rules for the giveaway: Same as for The Charge at Feather River. If you’d like a free copy of South of Pago Pago, post a comment in the comment section. I’ll contact you to request your address for shipping purposes. Overseas shipments are fine–we’re equipped to handle them. If you win a movie on one post, please allow others a chance on the other post.
Image at the head of the post and the artwork it shows are by Saul Karamesines, used here with his permission. Thank you, Saul!