In his great The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson writes of Burt Lancaster: he was ‘a strapping athlete, his smile piercing, his hand outstretched, but with the hint that his grip could crush or galvanize. His vitality was more than cheerfulness or strength; he seems charged with power’ (586). He’s the only reason to see South Sea Woman. It’s a South Seas ‘romp’ which is largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of even the concept.
Watching him glare he seems the embodiment of G.I Joe
He’s totally aware of the camera, conscious of gesture and look.
His smile and the energy of his movements somehow life affirming, there’s a precision, a grace, a joy in the performance, which is also a performance for others. Look at his stance after he punches Chuck Connors below
and look here at the power evoked by his gesture, and that smile. He’s not just the film’s duracell battery, he’s a a whole generator providing energy to this otherwise lethargic, half-baked and half-dead enterprise.
…and he’s not just a set of muscles for show. He’s strong and agile and can do things like this below, which in spite of being his most graceful, makes one marvel at what the human body can do, The evident joy he takes in his acrobatics and the filmmakers letting the audience see that it is indeed he who is doing this is easily transferred to the audience.
South Seas Woman is an easy watch but a poor film. It’s a South Seas ‘romp,’ largely tone deaf, b&w when everything about it screams for colour, dripping with the kind of racism that only flows when all involved are completely unaware of it, and with some poor performances (Chuck Connors’ is not even the worst). The story begins with Burt — why pretend here he’s even play a character? — being court-marshalled for a whole series of offences and then through the device of the trial, we get all the flashbacks showing that in fact it was all derring-do and that he deserves medals instead. Virginia Mayo is ‘the girl’ who was initially meant for Chuck Connors but — duh! — ends up with Burt.
Kate Burford in Burt Lancaster: An American Life calls South Sea Woman, ‘a forgettable World War II buddy tale with the loose integrity of a veteran’s reverie (girls, guns, jokes and heroics)’, (loc 2424, Kindle). Lancaster’s presence in the film was due to his wanting to quickly wrap up his Warner Brothers contract.
As a sideline, but of interest, Burford writes, ‘Lancaster’s marine pal in the movie, Chuck Connors was a tall, lanky, first baseman for the minor-league Los Angeles Angels and would later say he owed his career to Lancaster, who pushed him for the part and coached him for his screen test. The two men ribbed each other…..with a naturalness that both reinforced a new set of underground rumours that they were romantically involved and might have prompted goofy buddy sequels if the star were anybody but no-sequel Lancaster (Loc 2435).