South Pacific (film) – directed by Joshua Logan, 1958

 Broadway show, Hollywood film posters

Bosley Crowther, the film critic of The New York Times, spent half of his review raving  about cinematic aspects of Hollywood’s celluloid take on the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein Broadway smash. (Filmed in Todd-AO! Stereophonic songs! Photographic magic that bathes musical numbers in “changing rainbow hues!”) But I’m not here to discuss production values. I’m here to comment on Americans behaving like Americans.

In this special case we’re situated on South Pacific islands that are admittedly outside my Southeast Asia target area.

I’m going to pass on the questionable often hilarious transgressions of Seabee Luther Billis and his swabbies. There’s a war on but they’re busy dealing in contraband tiki statues and boar tusks and doing double-duty on the chorus line in musical numbers.

Being a true romantic, I’ll focus on the two love stories. Each has a serious interracial subtext and in one, we find a female in the role of an Ugly American.

While serving in the Pacific theatre, the U.S. Navy nurse Nellie Forbush is doing something little ladies from Little Rock don’t normally do. She’s dating a dashing, grey-haired French planter who’s planted a few seeds in his day. Not only is Emile deBecque enchantingly French, he is the father of two children with a native woman. When deBecque reveals his demi French-Polynesian children to his fiancée, Nellie is charmed by the kids but shocked to think the man she loves previously lived with a dark-skinned woman. People back home did not cotton to interracial love affairs. In fact, Arkansas was one of 16 states where anti-miscegenation laws made interracial cohabitation a felony until the U.S. Supreme Court stuck down miscegenation laws in 1967. In a rage of confusion and prejudice, Nellie breaks off the engagement and resolves to wash that man right out of her hair.

Meanwhile the handsome young Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable arrives on a dangerous mission. Awaiting deployment, Cable comes under the spell of a plus-sized, middle-aged, betel-chewing peddler of grass skirts and tropical paraphernalia. The monumental Bloody Mary hails from the mythical island Bali Hai but she’s Tonkinese. Let’s get our geography straight: Tonga is in the South Pacific but Tonkin is part of Vietnam. Bali is an island in Indonesia – in Southeast Asia not the South Pacific – but Bali Hai is a fictional Fantasy Island that’s supposed to be somewhere near Vanuatu. Now back to love.

Bloody Mary dreams of making a heavenly match between Cable and a guileless young Tonkinese girl named Liat, who turns out to be her daughter. The gorgeous young people fall instantly in love and on Bali Hai, there’s nothing to stop them from spending the night together. But in the strong glare of daylight, Cable confesses that he can never marry Liat. What would his family and friends say if he married a Vietnamese girl, with eyes oddly made and skin of a darker shade?

Ironically it is the spurned deBecque who confronts Cable over his prejudice. The more worldly man makes the U.S. Marine reach down into his own psyche and come out singing one of Richard Rodger’s most brilliant, biting songs, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”

“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught”

Cable and deBecque join forces, taking up a position behind enemy lines to spy on the Japanese. The mission succeeds when a Japanese convoy is destroyed but the young Lieutenant Cable is yet another casualty of war.

As one love dies, the other is reborn. When the lovelorn Liat is overcome with grief, her pain stabs the heart of Nurse Nellie. When deBecque returns, the Arkansas native overcomes her prejudice and opens her heart to her enchanting beau and his biracial children.

 

The King and I – Broadway musical (1951) and film (1956)

In an American musical, an Anglo-Indian woman arrives in Siam in 1862 to teach English to the many children of King Mongkut (Rama IV). The King, who was in his 60s, was played by Yul Brynner, a Russian-American still in his 30s when he first enacted the role on Broadway.

Respecting Thailand’s strict laws regarding lèse majesté, I won’t comment on the play’s handling of the touchy relationship between Anna Leonowens, a widowed English-language tutor, and the King, who reportedly had 39 wives and 79 children.

As my brief is to discuss America’s relations with Asia, I note that, as mentioned in the play, King Mongkut offered to send elephants to help mobilize the Union Army. President Lincoln declined the generous offer, noting that America’s climate did not favor the multiplication (breeding) of elephants, and that the United States found it practical to rely on steam engines for transportation.

My commentary here deals with a very American topic, the struggle for civil rights. The Rodgers and Hammerstein hit musical The King and I premiered only three years after President Truman issued a controversial order calling for complete desegregation of the U.S. military. The issue of race relations in American society was a hot-button issue about to hit the fan in what became the Civil Rights Movement.

The librettist Oscar Hammerstein II was looking for a hook to adapt an American novel that was based on the real-life Leonowens’ autobiography about her time in Siam. Hammerstein’s interest in furthering civil rights in this country is reflected in the attention he devotes to a play-within-a-play called “Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a Thai retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

You may know that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel, is deemed the best selling novel of the 19th Century and credited with jump-starting the Civil War, a.k.a, the War Against Slavery. You may not know that slavery was part of Siamese society for centuries. When Siamese armies sacked an enemy’s capital they brought all the residents back to Siam as slaves, to build the great palaces you see in Thailand today. Some Siamese children were sold into slavery. Children born to slaves were slaves. Debtors also become slaves.

In Hammerstein’s libretto, the schoolmarm Anna learns that the Burmese king has given the Siamese king a gorgeous slave girl named Tuptim to wed as a minor wife. Every musical has a pair of star-crossed lovers and here it turns out that Tuptim is in love with Lun Tha, the Burmese temple-builder who escorted her to Siam. When they find time to be alone, the lovers make beautiful music together, singing “We Kiss In A Shadow,” “I Have Dreamed,” and with Anna, “Hello, Young Lovers.”

Tuptim reads “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” and presents her version of the story as a ballet before European envoys at a Palace soiree. Tuptim provides a charming narration in which the evil King Simon of Legree pursues a runaway slave named Eliza. Through the Divine Intervention of The Buddha, a raging river turns to ice and snow falls to hide Eliza from the King. When the ice melts, floodwaters wash away the wicked slave-keeping King. The dinner show’s anti-slavery message is not lost upon the clever King Mongkhut character of the play. That night, the lovers escape from the Palace. Alas, Tuptim is apprehended and brought before the King, who seizes a whip to punish his runaway slave. In this critical scene, Anna’s civilizing influence renders the King unable to harm the slave girl. But when police find Lun Tha dead in the forest, Tuptim is taken away and for all we know, forever silenced.

It was King Mongkhut’s son Chulalongkorn (Rama V) — portrayed as a thoughtful, adolescent in the play — who ascended the throne in 1868 and took several steps to free household slaves.  At the time, one-third of Siam’s population was enslaved. King Chulalongkorn wrote that the American Civll War, with its wholesale slaughter over the issue of slavery, influenced his decision to free slaves in his Kingdom. It wasn’t until 1905 that all forms of slavery were abolished in Siam.

Siam was first renamed Thailand in 1939. Following Japanese occupation, the name reverted to Siam in 1946, until 1949, when it re-reverted to Thailand.