PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Tiara Tahiti': The Natural vs. the Immoral in a Balmy Post-Colonial Postcard

A carefully thrashed-out series of motivations and cross-purposes, sub-Conrad with a vein of dry satire.

Tiara Tahiti

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Cast: James Mason, John Mills
Distributor: VCI
Rated: Not rated
Year: 1962
Release date: 2011-06-05

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Jefferson Starship Soar Again with 'Mother of the Sun'

Rock goddess Cathy Richardson speaks out about honoring the legacy of Paul Kantner, songwriting with Grace Slick for the Jefferson Starship's new album, and rocking the vote to dump Trump.


Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll (excerpt)

Ikette Claudia Lennear, rumored to be the inspiration for Mick Jagger's "Brown Sugar", often felt disconnect between her identity as an African American woman and her engagement with rock. Enjoy this excerpt of cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon's Black Diamond Queens, courtesy of Duke University Press.

Maureen Mahon

Ane Brun's 'After the Great Storm' Features Some of Her Best Songs

The irresolution and unease that pervade Ane Brun's After the Great Storm perfectly mirror the anxiety and social isolation that have engulfed this post-pandemic era.


'Long Hot Summers' Is a Lavish, Long-Overdue Boxed Set from the Style Council

Paul Weller's misunderstood, underappreciated '80s soul-pop outfit the Style Council are the subject of a multi-disc collection that's perfect for the uninitiated and a great nostalgia trip for those who heard it all the first time.


ABBA's 'Super Trouper' at 40

ABBA's winning – if slightly uneven – seventh album Super Trouper is reissued on 45rpm vinyl for its birthday.


The Mountain Goats Find New Sonic Inspiration on 'Getting Into Knives'

John Darnielle explores new sounds on his 19th studio album as the Mountain Goats—and creates his best record in years with Getting Into Knives.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 60-41

PopMatters' coverage of the 2000s' best recordings continues with selections spanning Swedish progressive metal to minimalist electrosoul.


Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.