Release Date: March 18, 1931
Director: F. W. Murnau
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
F.W. Murnau, famed for directing Nosferatu and Sunrise, made this “Story of the South Seas” on Bora Bora as his last film before dying. The film purports to tell a legend of the indigenous people of Polynesia. This is a silent film in that it has no dialogue, but sound effects and music are synchronized with the film. Like many of the best silent films it doesn’t have frequent intertitles, but when it does they are presented as letters written by the character, which is a clever and attractive effect.
The opening title card also states that “only native-born South Sea islanders appear in this picture with a few half-castes and Chinese”. But there are also clearly white actors portraying French colonial officials. The film has the feel of Nanook of the North, a docu-fiction that attempts to recreate traditional ways of Polynesian people, but is filtered through a western gaze (and Nanook director Robert J. Flaherty, was in fact co-writer of the film with Murnau).
The story regards a young couple, a Boy (Matahi) and a girl named Reri (Anne Chevalier) whose romance is interrupted by the arrival of The Old Warrior (Hitu). Reri is selected by her royal bloodline to be a maiden scared to the gods, and Hitu declares it tabu for men to form a relationship with her. Matahi and Reri flee to another island under French colonial control where Matahi becomes a successful pearl diver, but they continue to suffer ill-fate they attribute to the tabu.
The movie is well-filmed and feels unique and sympathetic for a Hollywood production of the era, but nevertheless I think there’s a lack of cultural competence in its production.