The South Sea tourism industry was opening up in the ‘50s and ‘60s with the progress of jet planes and consumer society. One result was the “Tiki” boom of fashion and musical exotica, bespeaking an aura of fascination eventually leading to Hawaii’s statehood.
Folks in Europe and the US were encouraged to vacation in the South Seas, and those who couldn’t afford it had to content themselves with postcard movies like Tiara Tahiti, which exists to stoke fantasies of lush tropical beaches, topless island girls (and lads), and the ever-present dialectic between the “immoral” and the “natural”.
Ever since Europeans and Americans started visiting and writing about Pacific islands, they have been the site of twin, mutually exclusive fantasies: the missionary impulse to “save” or convert the heathen and “civilize the savages”, and the escapist impulse to join them in their “freedom”, to “go native” like Gauguin. If we wanted to spin a whole thesis, we could point out that these twin impulses have always defined race relations everywhere so that, for example, for every American fear of the savage Indian (as in the phrase “The only good Indian is a dead Indian”), there was a matching desire to become one with Rousseau’s “noble savage” (as expressed in the song “I’m an Indian, Too”). But we digress.
Anyway, the latter fantasy always frets about the encroachment of civilization into the supposedly unspoiled splendors. For example, it’s the theme of a lyrical classic of silent cinema called White Shadows in the South Seas, and it’s here again in this paradoxical travelogue that practically yells “Come to Tahiti” at the same time as its story is about fighting off hotel developers and keeping the place lovely for the other foreigners who already live there: the French, the Chinese, and a stray Brit. (Meanwhile, with some acuity, there’s a native woman who can’t wait to leave.)
The film opens with the seductive rhythms and images of island lasses shaking their hips in grass skirts while native boys beat drums. This turns out to be a teaser from a scene later in the movie, and it’s placed here to reassure us of the pleasures to come as we first sit through 20 minutes in British-occupied Germany just after WWII.
The antagonists are based on class. Colonel Southey (John Mills) is a jumped-up clerk who’s made good and runs a tight command, while the dissolute Brett Aimsley (James Mason) is the privileged son of his former boss. Southey’s ambitions and motives are partly driven by what he perceives as Aimsley’s condescension, and we never know for sure if he’s right about that or if he’s projecting his insecurities. Both are possible, and both might be true in a complicated way.
Several years later, they meet in Tahiti where Aimsley lives in exile with a native woman, Belle Annie (Rosenda Monteros), who tolerates him because she thinks he’s her ticket off the island. She wants to go to London, New York, San Francisco. Southey wants to build a hotel, which nobody else wants. A Chinese merchant (Herbert Lom in yellow-face make-up—embarrassing, though he’s rather good anyway) spouts racist remarks about the “white trash” polluting the island and tries to entice Belle Annie. It all looks like nobody is set to get what they want with the possible exception of Aimsley, who wants nothing but the freedom to loaf, and that’s in grave danger when the story gets more serious that you expect.
The BAFTA-nominated script by Geoffrey Cotterell and producer Ivan Foxwell, based on Cotterell’s novel (with additional dialogue by Canadian novelist Mordecai Richler), is a carefully thrashed-out series of motivations and cross-purposes, sub-Conrad with a vein of dry satire. In the end you may feel it’s all been about little or nothing except the cheap vacation and the brief glimpse of Belle Annie bathing by a waterfall and the more startling sequence where she’s topless and frankly inviting.
A highlight is when she sticks her foot in the mouth of a babbling sailor who says he’s not only thinking about one thing. For regions where the breastage wouldn’t be allowed, the filmmakers shot an alternate version where she’s wearing a bikini top, and that’s provided as an extra for the sake of completeness.
This is one of many J. Arthur Rank productions being released in a flood by VCI. The image looks attractive and there are two soundtrack options; the mono track has irritating crackles but the “5.1 enhanced” track sounds clear as a bell.