Ah, who can forget actress Mitzi Gaynor working up a lather while singing "I'm gonna wash that man right outta my hair” in that famous scene from the 1958 Hollywood movie 'South Pacific''?
The movie was based on the hit Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of the same name (that was in turn, based on a book by James A. Michener entitled Tales of the South Pacific) and tells the tale of an American nurse played by Mitzi, stationed in the South Pacific during World War II who falls in love with a silver fox played by Rossano Brazzi, but is horrified to discover that he has two mixed-race (though adorable) children.
The bold tackling of racism could be a blog on its own and is one of the reasons why the movie is a classic, but here in South East Asia the movie became famous for an entirely different reason: it was rumoured to have been filmed on the island of Pulau Tioman in Malaysia.
This rumour is so firmly entrenched here, that travel guides, newspaper articles and coffee table books dating as far back as the 1970’s, all repeat this fact with utter assurance. (The earliest newspaper reference that I found in Singapore was in the Straits Times in 1978).
And such was the power of this myth, that when I wrote the segment on Pulau Tioman for the Bluesails Sportfishing website, I automatically waxed lyrical about "finding your own Bali Ha'i'" on Pulau Tioman! I mean, if established guidebooks like Globetrotter, Rough Guides and Eye Witness were all repeating this fact then who was I to doubt such august rumour pedigree?
Luckily, following the hound-like instincts of a good journalist, I decided to check my facts…and I found absolutely no official corroboration that the movie was filmed, in part or whole, anywhere near Pulau Tioman.
Official movie resources (read: IMDB) state that the movie was filmed on Kauai in Hawaii, and the entry in Wikipedia says in more detail that it was filmed on location in (and I quote): "Hanalei Bay on Kauai, one of the Hawaiian Islands, together with Portinatx Beach and the island of Es Vedrà in Ibiza (Balearic Islands)…with special effects providing distant views of the fantastic island Bali Ha'i (Es Vedrà). A second unit filmed aerial views of Fijian islands…"
The author of this entry goes on to say in a slightly confused tone that "some sources claim footage of Tioman Island, off Malaysia's south east coast, were also featured, though this seems unlikely given the logistics involved.”
That, as they say in Dragnet, is "just the facts”, ma’am.
A few seconds reflection should suffice to render the rumour of 'South Pacific'' being filmed on Pulau Tioman ridiculous. I mean, why would a Hollywood studio fly an entire movie cast and crew half-way around the world to an obscure island in South East Asia that at that time, was still colonised by the British? (Malaysia only became a Federation, 31st August 1963). The island didn’t even have water and telephones until 1963!
And if you want to get technical, the famous beach where Mitzi Gaynor sings about washing inappropriate men out of her hair happens to be propping up several large screw pines (genus Pandanus), a plant not usually found occurring naturally along the shores of islands in the South China Sea.
A careful study of the movie does suggest a certain Pulau Tiomanesque quality, most notably the magnificent mountains forming the beach backdrop, but then again anyone who has been to Kauai (I have; neener neener) will immediately recognise the topography.
I can only conclude that the person who started this rumour was too distracted by the pert ‘little figure of Mitzi Gaynor bouncing around in that microscopic green beach wrap to take a close look at the beach behind her. Or maybe the strange coloured lenses that the director of the film, Josh Logan, used to film the movie made the beaches of Kauai unrecognisable?
All this myth-debunking is not meant in the least to detract from the movie 'South Pacific’ a charming and romantic classic featuring dreamy songs like 'Some Enchanted Evening’; or from the island of Kauai, an unspoilt and (rare in Hawaii) uncommercialized paradise; and least of all, from Pulau Tioman; an island that remains one of the most beautiful in the world even if it can't claim to be the mythical Bali Ha'i.