South Pacific : A Blu-ray Review
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.
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.)