8 August 2014 | JamesHitchcock
Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl nor good red herring
In 1944 U.S. Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant James O'Hearn is facing a court martial for desertion, theft, scandalous conduct and destruction of property, charges which in time of war carry the death penalty. ("Scandalous conduct" in this context means sex outside marriage; if that were to be regarded as a capital offence under military law I suspect that the fighting strength of most of the world's armies would be drastically reduced overnight).
The above might suggest that this is a serious courtroom drama along the lines of "The Caine Mutiny". Admittedly, the film starts off in serious vein, but as soon as Ginger Martin (she with whom O'Hearn allegedly conducted himself scandalously) takes the stand seriousness goes out of the window and it descends into ridiculous comedy.
Ginger is presumably the "South Sea Woman" of the title, but she is actually a white American rather than a Polynesian and only finds herself in the South Seas by chance. When O'Hearn first meets her she is working as a showgirl at a nightclub in Shanghai, where his regiment is stationed, and is the girlfriend of his friend Private Davy White. An attempt by White to slip away to marry Ginger leads to the three finding themselves adrift at sea on a small motor boat. In a series of increasingly farcical misadventures, in the course of which they inadvertently commit the acts which will form the basis of the charges against O'Hearn, they are rescued by a Chinese junk and eventually cast away on the French-ruled island of Namou. As the Governor of Namou is pro-Vichy, and as the attack on Pearl Harbor has now brought America into the war, the two Marines have to pretend to be deserters in order to avoid being interned. White and Ginger attempt to marry several times, but are always frustrated.
It is at this point that the film changes direction again, largely abandoning comedy and turning into a patriotic wartime adventure as O'Hearn and White discover a fiendish Nazi plot and decide to take action to thwart it, to seize a boat and to rejoin the Marines who are fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal.
Mixing genres in this way is often a risky business, the risk being that the resulting film can end up as neither fish nor flesh nor fowl nor good red herring, or in this case neither drama nor comedy nor action. I don't think there was ever any possibility of this film being a sort of "Caine Mutiny Court Martial", but it could certainly have been made either as a comedy about the adventures of a pair of bungling Marines and a girl or as a standard gung-ho action war film about two heroic Marines with a sub-plot about their love-interest.
The attempt to make the film as a combination of these two approaches simply results in a misbegotten dog's breakfast, a film which is not very amusing when it tries to be a comedy and not very exciting when it tries to be a wartime adventure. About all one can say for it is that Virginia Mayo looks lovely, as she normally did.
This is not quite Burt Lancaster's worst movie; he normally saved his worst for those occasions, mostly in the sixties and seventies, when he allowed his political judgement to overcome his artistic judgement and ended up playing a villainous right-wing fanatic in turgid, paranoid left-wing thrillers like "Executive Action" or "The Cassandra Crossing". It is not, however, one of his better ones, and is one that is probably best forgotten by all but the most obsessive Lancaster fans. 4/10