In the South Pacific, Australian Navy Commander Frank Houghton (Trevor Howard) has to "convince"—read: coerce—an old friend, American beachcomber Walter Eckland (Grant), into becoming a coastwatcher for the Allies. Eckland, who is uninterested in anything other than fishing and drinking, is taken to deserted Matalava Island to watch for Japanese planes. To ensure Eckland remains on duty, Houghton's naval vessel "accidentally" hits his boat, leaving a large gaping hole in its hull.
Houghton later finds a replacement watcher who happens to be in distress, but Eckland has to retrieve him from nearby a nearby island. Eckland unexpectedly finds, not the island watchman, but a Frenchwoman by the name of Catherine Freneau (Caron) and seven young schoolgirls under her care stranded there instead. She informs him that the man he came for was killed in an air raid, and Eckland reluctantly takes them back to Matalava with him.
Now having to take care of the prim and proper school teacher and her students, Mr. Eckland tries to maintain his privacy and get the ladies off the island as fast as possible, a task easier said than done.
Tropes in the film:
- Belligerent Sexual Tension: So belligerent that when Water requests a chaplain, the Commander thinks that he killed Catherine.
- Children Are Innocent: Subverted, the girls know that they are taking advantage of Walter when Ms. Freneau asks them to steal his things. Though they get better by the end of the film.
- Dead Hat Shot: Subverted, after the Catherine is destroyed, Eckland's hat is recovered by the girls in the dinghy, followed by Eckland himself about a minute later.
- Dissonant Serenity: The opening scene has Walter motoring into some random harbor, cheerfully whistling and singing a sea shanty. While Japanese bombs are falling all over the place, as the Australian Navy personnel in the port are hurriedly evacuating.
- Distracted by the Sexy: Walter starts to teach Catherine how to catch fish with her bare hands putting his arms around her to demonstrate whereupon both not only forget what they are doing but become incapable of coherent speech:Catherine: What?
- Flipping the Bird: It couldn't be shown onscreen at the time, but still made clear as day: "He...he made a gesture, sir!"
- Gender-Blender Name: Harriet insists on being called Harry, which eventually gets her named as Walter's best man.
- Hands-On Approach: Walter's attempts to teach Catherine how to reach down and grab a fish in the lagoon leads to the first moment of sexual tension between them, as they both realize what's going on at the same time.
- Hidden Depths: Walter used to be a schoolteacher.
- Houseboat Hero
- Imaginary Friend: One of the girls has an imaginary friend called Gretchen.
- I'm Cold... So Cold...: Played for comedy, as Catherine and Walter think she's dying of snakebite when she's really just drunk.
- Insistent Terminology: Walter refuses to use the fairy tale-based code names he's assigned. On the other side, Stebbings adheres to the code names so much that he uses them even in private conversations with his commanding officer.
- Lampshade Wearing: At one point Ms. Freneau accidentally got drunk because of the mistaken belief she was bitten by a snake (long story). Later Mr. Eckland led her to believe she did dance naked with a lampshade on her head.
- Nailed to the Wagon: Walter is nailed to the wagon twice in the same movie:
- In the first instance his friend and employer Cmdr. Houghton hides his booze around the island that Walter is using as a coastwatching base, giving him the hiding places only when Walter radios in with Japanese troop movements. Houghton then has to give up all the booze locations as incentive to get Walter to go on a risky mission.
- Having got all the booze, the mission turns out to be the rescue of (initially) prudish school teacher Catherine and her students. Catherine then arranges for the children to steal all the booze and hide it again.
- Only Sane Man: Walter, cynical though he may be he's usually in the right.
- Royal Brat: Catherine mentions she is part of a rich and powerful family.
- Running Gag: Walter absolutely refuses to talk to Frank's aide, and demands he bring Frank over at the start of every call.
- Slap-Slap-Kiss: More like "Slap Slap Marriage"
- Smitten Teenage Girl: Elizabeth is this toward Walter, but gets over it pretty quickly.
- Spoiled Brat: Catherine
- Suck Out the Poison: Subverted, when Catherine thinks she's been bitten by a snake, Walter tries sucking out the poison before calling Houghton for information on whether poisonous snakes are on the island. Before going to check, Houghton warns Walter not to try sucking the poison out until they know what they're dealing with.Houghton: Oh and Walter. Until we know what we're dealing with, don't try to be a movie hero and suck out the venom.Walter: (gets a worried look on his face)
- Tropical Island Adventure: The film is set in Matalava Island somewhere in the South Pacific.
- Wartime Wedding: Walter and Catherine's marriage, on some tiny island in Japanese-held territory.
- Wedding Smashers: Walter and Catherine marry while the shack is being shot at by Japanese fighters.
- Women Are Wiser: Catharine is a firm believer of this due to her wealthy and sheltered upbringing, thankfully she gets better by the end of the movie thanks to Character Development.