Sunday, July 2, 2017


Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had a fascination with noble savages during the golden age of Hollywood that found expression not only in Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan movies but in a small cycle of pseudo-ethnographic films that includes White Shadows in the South Seas, Eskimo and this picture, presumably filmed on some French Polynesian locations also used for Mutiny on the Bounty. Richard Thorpe, who moved on to Tarzan pictures from here, directed a screenplay by John Farrow that reunited the romantic leads of Eskimo, "Mala and Lotus," aka Ray Mala and Lotus Long, with the implication that, despite their previous film appearances, the stars -- Inuit and Japanese-Hawaiian respectively -- were natives of the location, speaking their authentic language. Last of the Pagans is one of the first Hollywood features, to my knowledge, to use subtitles translating foreign-language dialogue into English while the characters speak. Previous experiments, including Eskimo and the German scenes in Hell's Angels, used silent-style intertitles for translation. You can tell especially with Mala that you're dealing with actors of some experience, at least in the lead roles, but the foreign dialogue helps sustain an illusion of authenticity.

The story -- Wikipedia says it's based on Herman Melville's Typee but since my sole experience with that novel is another film adaptation, Alan Dwan's Enchanted Island, I saw little resemblance -- is that Taro (Mala) claims Lilleo (Lotus) as his bride in his island's time-honored fashion, by raiding another tribe with his buddies and stealing her away. Lilleo is little more than irked by this, probably having been brought up to expect it, and then only temporarily, for Taro is good humored, a good provider, and presumably good in other ways that Hollywood under Code Enforcement could not suggest as plainly as they used to. The problem is, the local chief has eyes for Lilleo as well, and takes advantage of the arrival of a white trading ship to recommend Taro to the whites as an ideal candidate for a five-year labor contract in a faraway phosphate mine. This matter-of-fact expose of French colonialism -- all the European characters speak English, by the way -- got this film heavily censored in France, but the chief's selfish complicity in sending many of his young men off this way makes him the film's real villain.

Initially rebellious, Taro's forced to work in shackles until a near-disaster allows him to show the whites his true good character. He's in such good graces after that that arrangements are made to bring Lilleo to the mining colony, but it soon becomes apparent that taking her from the chief could create a crisis on his island. Lilleo is allowed to make a conjugal visit -- and despite what I said about Code Enforcement it could not be more clear why the bosses allow Taro to quit early when she arrives -- but Taro only learns later that it's to be a temporary and last visit from her. He's not having that, however, and stages a breakout with her, defying a storm and eventually finding a new island to live on free from oppressors of all races.  That denies us a perhaps-desired showdown between Taro and the chief, but such a climax may have underscored the picture's pulpy nature too strongly for audiences struggling to suspend disbelief. It's a pretty thin story but has some documentary value, presumably, in its presentation of the phosphate mine if not in its portrait of tribal life. Last of the Pagans benefits from a halfway-decent budget and especially from lead performances by actors whose charisma really needs no translation. It may be hooey, but at least it's entertaining.

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