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Film / White Shadows in the South Seas

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White Shadows in the South Seas is a 1928 silent film directed by W.S. Van Dyke, starring Monte Blue.

It is set in the islands of south Polynesia (the credits cite the Marquesas, but the film was actually shot in Tahiti). The film opens on a ratty-looking trading post set up by Sebastian, a slimy white pearl merchant. Sebastian ruthlessly exploits the locals, driving them to make highly dangerous dives down into the coral reef and fetch pearls, and paying the ignorant natives in worthless trinkets for the priceless pearls.

Dr. Matthew Lloyd (Blue) is so ashamed by the conduct of white colonists that he has mostly left his medical practice behind for alcoholism. But he still stands up to Sebastian's unethical practices, which leads Sebastian and his cronies to set Lloyd adrift at sea on a plague boat. A storm eventually blows Lloyd's ship onto the reefs outside an uncharted island, unknown to the white man. The natives greet Lloyd as a "white god", and after Lloyd saves the life of the chief's son, the chief offers Lloyd the intimate companionship of the chief's daughter, Fayaway (Raquel Torres). Lloyd lives an idyllic existence on the lovely little island...until he finds out that the reefs outside this island are also a fruitful source of pearls.

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White Shadows in the South Seas was loosely inspired by a travel book of the same title. It is notable for taking a shockingly modern, enlightened view of white colonialism and exploitation of native peoples. It is also notable for technically not being a silent film, but rather the first film ever released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with a synchronized soundtrack (consisting of sound effects and a score and exactly one word of spoken dialogue),note  and the first ever roar of MGM's iconic Leo the Lion.

Compare Tabu, another silent film shot three years later in the same place and dealing with many of the same themes. Robert Flaherty was involved in the production of both. Or compare The Pagan, the next film that Van Dyke directed, shot in the same area and again with similar themes.

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Tropes:

  • The Alcoholic: Lloyd still carries around a stethoscope embossed with the grateful thanks of a ship he served on, but at the start of the film he's a grimy drunk cadging drinks at Sebastian's grimy cantina.
  • The Black Death: A plague ship sails into port. Since the captain, who survives, knows that the ship would have to be burned anyway, he's perfectly OK with setting Lloyd adrift on it.
  • Blood from the Mouth: How the movie indicates that the bullet Lloyd took will be fatal.
  • Book-Ends: The film starts with a long tracking shot of the sleazy, dirty little trading post Sebastian has created. It ends with the exact same shot of the sleazy, dirty trading post that Sebastian has created on Lloyd's island.
  • Call-Back: The chief's son has been written off as dead, when Lloyd, holding him, notices that the boy's breath is fogging his belt buckle. At the end the boy tries this test with Lloyd, but the buckle doesn't fog, because Lloyd is dead.
  • The Chief's Daughter: Lloyd is initially denied the charms of Fayaway because she is "tapu" (taboo) as the "virgin daughter" of the temple. After he saves the life of the chief's son, said chief lifts the tapu and gives him Fayaway.
  • Downer Ending: Lloyd is killed and Sebastian befouls this island just as badly as he did the first one.
  • Evil Colonialist: Sebastian remains cheerfully unconcerned as the local pearl divers die from collapsed lungs and shark attacks and the bends (the bends, not The Bends!). He despoils the beautiful little island by building a dirty, grubby trading village.
    "But the white man, in his greedy trek across the planet, cast his withering shadow over these islands....and the business of 'civilizing' them to his interests began...."
  • Fade Out: A unique spin on this that ties into the title, as several shadows pass in front of the camera at the end, gradually darkening the image of Fayaway in mourning on a hilltop.
  • Greed: What drives men like Sebastian to victimize the people of Polynesia, and Lloyd's downfall, as he gets carried away by finding pearls and signals for a white ship.
  • Mighty Whitey: Even in this film that was made as a searing indictment of evil white folks oppressing and exploiting natives, this trope is still present. The people of the island decide Lloyd is a "white god" and treat him with reverence.
  • Noble Savage: An otherwise enlightened film gives a rather condescending view of Polynesians. Lloyd says "these people are like birds...like flowers."
  • Scenery Porn: Hard to go wrong with Tahiti, really, especially when you throw in stunning underwater photography of pearl divers. This film won the second Oscar for Best Cinematography.
  • Skinnydipping: Mostly, the girls of Tahiti wear more clothing than they probably did in real life, sarongs everywhere, but there is a scene where Lloyd intrudes on some native girls skinnydipping, which causes them to flee.
  • Third-Person Person: Fayaway refers to herself thusly when speaking to Lloyd, whom she pretty much worships.
  • Title Drop: Multiple references to the rapacious "white shadows" (white people) despoiling Polynesia.
  • Widow's Weeds: Ends with Fayaway wearing a Western black dress, in mourning for Lloyd.
  • Worthless Yellow Rocks: Lloyd is dumbstruck when a native, fashioning a fishhook out of an oyster shell, casually tosses away the pearl he finds inside.
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