South Pacific : A Blu-ray Review

Evan Powell, March 2, 2010

Well, I've got some good news, and some not so good news.

The good news is this: The Blu-ray edition of Rodgers & Hammerstein's South Pacific is a great transfer of a classic film. The glorious TechniColor is rich and sumptuous (if anything perhaps a bit too saturated). There is excellent high resolution detail resulting from 1080p scans of the original super resolution Todd-AO 65mm film negative. South Pacific is only the third of 16 feature films ever to have been produced in Todd-AO. (see list)

Due to the large negative original, the picture is abundantly clear, with low levels of digital noise. It is natural looking, with no sign of overdone artificial processing. The audio is brilliant, as one might expect from the source's six channel audio that won the Oscar for Best Sound in 1958. If you are collecting classic films in HD and you want to include major musicals from the 1950's, this Blu-ray version of South Pacific is an excellent rendering of the film that definitely belongs in your collection.

South Pacific was a historic production both on stage and in the cinema. The original Broadway play won 10 Tony Awards in 1950, back when they only gave 16 awards total. Joshua Logan was the co-writer and director of the 1949 stage play. He also directed the film adaptation which came out in 1958. South Pacific had a production budget of $5.6 million, making it the most expensive musical film yet produced in its day. It had terrific commercial success as the # 1 box office hit in that year. However, the film version of South Pacific did not garner as much love at the Oscars as the play did at the Tonys. It was nominated for just three Academy Awards--Cinematography, Music, and Sound--and it won for Sound. Some thought it had been snubbed by the Academy due to its blockbuster box office success.



The famous logo is a dramatic opening to the film.

And now for the not so good news.....

People buy Blu-ray discs because they want excellent resolution, color, and sound. And while the Blu-ray of South Pacific is true to the source, the source itself is what some will consider to be an artistic disaster.

If you are not familiar with the film, here's what happens....you fire up your Blu-ray player (we used the Oppo BDP-83 for this review) and believe it or not, you go straight to the menu screen. There are, thankfully, no advertisements of other movies to fast-forward through first. You hit the play button, and the screen goes black while an overture plays for the first 3.5 minutes. Yes, this is odd for a Blu-ray or DVD experience. But after all, this is a film adaptation of a stage play, and it replicates the cinema and theater experience. This is just the first of many elements that give it the look and feel of a stage play on the screen, rather than a piece designed for film to begin with.

So far, no problem. This is what the director wanted, and it's fine with me. Once the overture concludes (which you can skip by hitting the chapter forward button), the magnificent opening title scenes splash on the screen with the famous South Pacific logo. This is one of the most dramatic opening sequences you'll ever see. Color is magnificent, and you are drawn immediately into the world of the Pacific Islands (actually, it was filmed on location in Kauai.)



Color is beautiful -- when the color filters are not there.

For the first 22.5 minutes of the film, you get beautiful high resolution imagery in blazing TechniColor. But then...just as Bloody Mary begins to sing Bali Ha'i....it suddenly appears as though your projector has suffered a catastrophic failure of the green channel. The picture goes pure magenta. Contrast drops to nothing. You sit in shock, wondering what sort of technical failure just occurred.

Actually, nothing happened. Your projector is fine. What you have just experienced is the first of the notorious color filter effects that have been a source of controversy since the day the film opened. As it happens, the first one is the worst one. But what is going on here?

The idea was this: When South Pacific was performed on stage, the color of the stage lighting shifted to create a mystical mood during the more romantic scenes. The director Logan and the cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, thought, "Hey, why not create the same effect in the film?" So Shamroy fitted his camera with external color filters in front of the lens. This way, scenes could be rendered in magenta, or blue, or yellow, or gold, or whatever was deemed appropriate.



None of the color filters are particularly attractive,
but the heavy magenta used in the performance of
Bali Ha'i is horrible, the worst in the entire film.

The bottom line is this: In South Pacific, scenes which are supposed to depict everyday reality are rendered in beautiful color. On the other hand, scenes that represent fantasy, romance, or a dream-like state are rendered with color filters. The light-hearted and comedic tunes (There is Nothing Like a Dame, I'm Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair) are presented in natural, vibrant color. Romantic songs (Bali Ha'i, Some Enchanted Evening, I'm in Love with a Wonderful Guy) are color filtered. The visit to the mystical island of Bali Ha'i is done entirely in warm/gold tint. Back in 1958, these color filters did little to diminish the public's enthusiasm for the film. Though the color filters were controversial, many people liked the effect.

However, for today's home theater enthusiast, the effect of the color filters will be at least off-putting, and probably offensive. For one, they are heavy-handed. They appear to have been applied with no finesse whatsoever. Worse yet, not only do they destroy the color that is so good in the non-filtered scenes, but they substantially reduce contrast and detail definition as well. Some of the gold-tinted scenes on Bali Ha'i look as if they were done in standard definition.



Mitzi Gaynor is beautiful in this movie, but in this scene
the yellow filter and blurred vignetting on the corners
is extremely annoying.

One is tempted to blame all this on the incompetence of the cinematographer, but that would be hasty. Shamroy was nominated for 18 Academy Awards in his career, and he won four of them. He died in 1974, and to date, no one in the history of the Academy Awards has ever been nominated for an Oscar more times than Leon Shamroy. His talent was widely respected and acknowledged. All indications are that the director Logan was enthused about the color filter effects at the time of the filming, though he attempted to disavow responsibility for it after the fact.

In one sense, one can appreciate what they were trying to achieve, whether they were successful or not. Bali Ha'i was supposed to be a tranquil paradise populated by natives from a world different than the one the American troops were used to. They did not have the computer technology back then to render the natives tall, skinny, and blue like they did in Avatar. So they used color filters to create a similar mystical effect.

Come to think of it, parallels between South Pacific and Avatar do not end there. South Pacific explored the topic of inter-racial romance, while in Avatar it is inter-species romance. Both depict idealized fantasy worlds that the Americans are unfamiliar with. Both contain romances that are threatened by the intrusion of war. Both condemn racism. Both use novel and groundbreaking visual effects to support the story. Both were shown in theaters that needed to be equipped to handle the new film medium in which they were produced. Of course, the two films are radically different in many respects, so the parallels only go so far. But the common elements are intriguing.

The Road Show Version

The film was originally released in what they called a "road show" edition. It was screened only in the largest and finest movie palaces in downtown locations. People bought hard tickets (seat and row numbers) in advance for the limited screenings. They would dress up and make it a night on the town. Seeing the road show version of South Pacific in the movie theater in 1958 was like seeing a Broadway show or concert today.



Disc Two's "Road Show" version contains an extra
14 minutes of footage. The extra material that has
been spliced in has muted color with a sepia tone.

The Blu-ray edition of South Pacific contains two discs. Disc One contains the general release of the film in 1080p/24. The general release is the version of the film that went to full theater distribution. It is the version that most people saw back then. However, if you lived in a major metro area and were able to acquire advance tickets to the limited road show screenings, you saw the "road show version." Disc Two gives you the road show version, which you might think of as the director's cut. This version is 14 minutes longer, but much to the chagrin of HD enthusiasts, it is not in HD.

Part of the problem with the road show restoration is that the original 70mm negative no longer contains those 14 minutes that were cut. Thus, restoration had to be done from positive prints. On Disc Two, the segments that have been spliced back into the film are of lower quality; color is substantially muted, and they have a sepia toned look to them. Thus, as you view the film, the color characteristics jump back and forth between full color and soft color/sepia tone. If you happen to be a student of film, and want to study how the road show version was edited for general release, this presentation is quite handy. You can tell immediately which segments were reinserted, and which were part of the general release.

The general release of the film runs about 2 hours 50 minutes, so the additional 14 minutes does not make a dramatic difference. There is a bit more continuity in the storyline, but when you view the road show version, then view the general release afterward, you don't get a sense that anything of substance is missing. In fact, one gains an appreciation for the fact that the editing for general release was done with great care.

Warning: Very Large Screen Required

As with the movie Patton (see review), there is not a lot of rapid camera cutting in South Pacific. It is not unusual for a scene to run 30 seconds, 45 seconds, or even a minute or more between camera cuts. In some instances one gets the feeling that they planted the camera in front of the stage and create a video of a live performance. This means that South Pacific MUST be viewed on a very large scale screen for it to have visual staying power over a three hour sitting.




Compositions are designed for very large screen viewing,
but don't work well on smaller TV screens.


It looks spectacular on our 11-foot wide Da-lite JKP Affinity screen. With this type of display the picture pulls you in, and your eye can move around comfortably in the scene. The eye cannot do this if the whole thing is being viewed on a 42" flat panel TV. If you have tried to watch South Pacific on a TV before and found it to be visually tedious, try upgrading to a larger screen. This is not the only movie that benefits from very large scale display.

Conclusion

If you happen to be a fan of the great Broadway musicals of the 1950's and 60's, and you have the home theater rig to take full advantage of it, the Blu-ray edition of South Pacific is probably one that you'll want in your collection. Be forewarned that most of the color filter effects are heavy-handed, counterproductive, and sometimes just flat annoying. But the controversy over the color filters is an integral part of the history of this film. In the end, you would not want to see this film with the color filters digitally removed, any more than you'd want to watch a Ted Turner colorized version of Casablanca.

(ps. as a side note, in researching this film I found one curious factoid that I feel obligated to pass on in case you need it for a bar bet: Oscar Hammerstein, of the duo Rodgers & Hammerstein, is the only person named Oscar to ever have won an Oscar.)


Reader Comments(11 comments)

Posted Sep 27, 2014 8:33:53 PM

By Cad

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My problem with this review is that it's a critique of the actual cinematography as some sort of preventable glitch. It's certainly debatable from an esthetic standpoint but not from a home viewer/collector's POV. This is how the film was projected and exhibited.

Posted Dec 10, 2012 8:53:38 AM

By William McCarty

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I was in the real Pacific during WWII and saw "South Pacific" soon after it arrived on Broadway. It was then a great production, as were the movie and TV versions that followed. The film-color versions take nothing from the wonderful story; it would be great in black and white! Based on my personal experience in the Pacifi it contained many truths and great lessions in human behavor.

Posted Aug 3, 2011 8:19:24 PM

By Gregory G. Stangal

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SOUTH PACIFIC is the motion picture that got me interested in motion pictures. It was the wonderful use of the special color filters that really blew me away. Maybe seeing the film on a small television is the problem for most people, but seeing it on a giant Todd-AO screen makes all the difference in the world. The film was designed for the giant screen. Just try watching the horrible 2001 remake starring Glenn Close and you will really miss the color filters. The color filters did what they were suppose to do; enhance the musical numbers and put them in a dreamlike setting. SOUTH PACIFIC is now and will always be my favorite motion picture.

Posted Feb 7, 2011 3:46:58 PM

By John DelGobbo

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The reviewer does a fine job of not lambasting Academy Award winner cinematographer Leon Shamroy about his use of filters, but I have far less class...

The first time I saw this film was on TV, and I thought there were actually problems with certain reels, and found it hard to believe they couldn't mix and match a decent set of reels to make a decent color print. Imagine my surprise when I considered this movie for my BR collection, Googled the problem, and found the poor color was INTENTIONAL. I think it was a horrible choice, and does nothing to improve the film and, in my opinion, really detracts from the scenes where they were employed.

Posted Oct 24, 2010 2:51:06 AM

By Sam Longoria

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Evan, it's Hollywood marketing code.

Yes, in the "South Pacific" titles, the title card says, "Color by TECHNICOLOR." That is different from "Filmed In TECHNICOLOR," which would indicate the three-strip 35mm Technicolor process, which ran three strips of 35mm black-and-white film through a refrigerator-sized camera, and made dye-transfer imbibition prints.

"Color by TECHNICOLOR" indicates the film was shot in Eastman Color Negative, and chemically DEVELOPED at the Technicolor lab.

Many other color processes (like Warnercolor, for example) were Eastman Color Negative, developed at whichever studio or company was in the name. (In this example, at Warner Brothers).

A similar code is employed in marketing for other Hollywood film processes.

For example, some films are "Filmed in PANAVISION," which means they employ Panavision's Anamorphic lenses.

Other films are credited, "Cameras and Lenses by PANAVISION," meaning Panavision rented the production company those items. The lenses, in those cases, were usually spherical lenses, and not anamorphic.

Sam Longoria http://samlongoria.blogspot.com

Posted Apr 18, 2010 10:43:38 PM

By JOÃO PEREIRA BASTOS

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I need to refer immediatly that I am a South Pacific maniac! I've been in Bradford to the English premiere of the restoration and I assume that the Blu Ray version with a good home projector is even better that the film with traditional projection. Everything is more vivid and crystal clear with this new media.

One very important information about the color filters - special with Bali Ha'i. When I have buyied this BD my projector bulb (an Optoma top model) was in the end of its life; and the colors were almost horrible as refered in this review. Meanwhile I'v buyied a new bulb and everything have been changed dramatically. Only the magenta in the very begining of the song appears with a little distortian. And the whites brilliant and clear without any saturation. All the other filters included in the full film function very well.

I'm very happy with this BD restoration and edition.

I will enjoyed if we have a Smilebox disc of the show "malgré" that South Pacific was the first TODD-AO film planed to be projected in a flat screen and not in a huge curved one as it was idealized in the beginnig of TODD-AO productions.

It is a pitty also that we haven't yet seen a good transfer with full image and perfect focus of the THE MIRACLE OF TODD-AO. The Oklahoma DVD restoration that icludes the refered short film is a tremendous disaster including the main film in TODD-AO)(The Cinemascope version was the only good work of 20th Century Fox with that titled of R & H opereta)

18 APR 2010 LISBOA PORTUGAL

Posted Mar 30, 2010 6:22:00 AM

By Michael Ellis

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The suggestions that an overture and entracte were included in an attempt to duplicate the stage version of SP suggests an acute unawareness of how SP and many other 70mm roadshow films were exhibited. Most included an overture, an entracte and exit music. Indeed, the overtures to Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments are audience favorites and are frequently performed at pop concerts of major symnphony orchestras.

There also is insufficient mention of the film's well-deserved Academy Award for achnievement in sound, which the blu-ray version comes close to duplicating.

Posted Mar 5, 2010 1:55:44 PM

By Evan Powell

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Robert, thanks for your input. I guess we will have to agree to agree on your most salient points. As far as the color technology goes, the director attributed it to Technicolor, so I will follow his lead on that. For me, the relevant issue is how the color looks on the Blu-ray. On that score, it does indeed look terrific in all the scenes where the color filters are not employed.

Most of the readers on this site are particularly sensitive to color accuracy, contrast, and high definition resolution. Those buying Blu-ray discs for use on 1080p home theater projectors do so to get the maximum video performance in those areas. Therefore, since the color filters in South Pacific compromise not only the natural color, but contrast and resolution as well, I feel it is appropriate to alert readers to these effects. That is not to say that the color filters should not have been used. But many, including me, will feel they are overdone. I agree that many people enjoy the effects of the color filters. Obviously, they are still a source of controversy to this day, as they have always been.

I certainly understand that the film was made for widescreen viewing, but not only that, it was for large-scale widescreen viewing. I've read several complaints that this film is tedious to watch. I suspect that those complaints come from people trying to watch it on TVs rather than large format home theaters. I feel it is vital to see it as it was originally intended--on a grand scale. So I wanted readers to be aware that the size of the video display they view it on will have an impact on their ultimate satisfaction with it. It was not my intent to suggest that the film should have been made with rapid camera cuts and close ups to accommodate small screen viewing.

Posted Mar 4, 2010 10:19:47 AM

By Robert Smith

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1. SP was never in dye-transfer Technicolor. The 70MM prints were Eastmancolor made by the Technicolor company. Fox (which released the 35MM version) was not using dye-transfer during this period and had their own Deluxe label and lab. The Technicolor company never did 70MM dye-transfer prints of any film. 2. The use of overture, intermission and exit music was the way this film and other 70MM films were released. The Blu-ray disk (like other LD and DVD versions) replicates this. We should praise this practice of following the original release, not question it. 3. The color filters are a matter of taste. The screen captures you include in your review do not, however, do them justice at all. On a theatre screen, or a good home system, they have a very special appeal. People who saw it in original release tend to like the effect. I thought they were beautiful, as did most of the people I knew. 4. The road show version was thought completely lost until a 70MM print was discovered in a collector's hands. I saw the print at the Egyptian in LA, it is actually very magenta. Fox has tried to do some color correction on it and intercut the extended scenes into the road show presentation. It is probably about the best we will see of it. Yes, I would have preferred it in Blu-ray. The cuts made between the roadshow and general release were for time and most viewers over the years have not found the cuts to be very serious. There was no particular artistic reason for the cuts. 5. You fail to mention the excellent special features.

This film was created for wide-screen viewing. If you want a fast-cut, close-up driven film, this is not it. Many of us find long shots much more involving.

Overall, I find your review to be uninformed about the film in general and to fail to understand how the film was designed to be seen in the first place. Films are created for a certain time and place, and one can greatly benefit in one's viewing by trying to understand that context. The grand road show presentations of the 50's and 60's have their own aesthetic.

Posted Mar 3, 2010 11:48:53 AM

By Evan Powell

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Technicolor began making dye transfer prints of large format negatives in 1954. That process was adapted for use with Todd-AO, Ultra Panavision 70 and Technirama. At 5 min 20 sec into South Pacific, the credits read "Color by TECHNICOLOR."

I tried to be clear in the review that the color filters were used intentionally. Though it is part of the artistic design of the film, I believe most home theater enthusiasts these days will find the effects problematic. Nevertheless, as I stated in the conclusion, you wouldn't want to see the film without them, even if you could, as they are part of the original production.

Posted Mar 3, 2010 6:34:20 AM

By John Whittle

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You should be aware that this picture is NOT in Technicolor. That was a color process used in the early 1950s that exposed three negatives and used a dye transfer process to make prints. Technicolor never made any dye transfer prints on 70mm film. It is Eastmancolor.

As for the color distrubances that upset you. Those were done on purpose in the original photography and are well documented in an American Cinematographer Magazine story covering the orginal photography back when the film was made.

That doesn't mean you have to like it, it's just the way it was made and those filter were placed in front of the camera lens in photography and not added later in processing.

John

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