Yesterday afternoon, I drove past a group of protestors waving pro-Palestinian flags and shouting anti-Jewish and anti-American slogans ... which suddenly made me feel that my innocuous trip to the grocery store had brought terrorism way too close to home.
So, soon after I pulled into my driveway, I turned on my television set and began to scroll through options for something amusing to blot out the realities of the day. But as soon as I saw the 1958 movie South Pacific – based on the 1949 musical by Rogers and Hammerstein – even though I knew that the story was hardly “escapist,” I was instantly glued to the screen.
The plot of the movie is multi-layered but not complicated: In the middle of World War II, a group of American Seabees is stationed on an island in the Pacific surrounded by Japanese. French planter Emile de Becque had once lived on a nearby but now enemy-occupied island, and he knows it very well. Lieutenant Joe Cable was sent to recruit de Becque as a guide, the objective being that he and the French planter secretly embed themselves on that island with a radio to surveille incoming Japanese ships and alert Allied forces about their movements.
Entwined with these military adventures are two love stories: The first concerns Emile de Becque, (widower and father to two half-Polynesian children) and nurse Nellie Forbush, who was raised in notoriously prejudiced Little Rock, Arkansas. De Becque is crazy about Nellie: “This is what I need; this is what I've longed for, someone young and smiling, climbing up my hill!” but Nellie is repelled by the idea that he was once married to woman of a different race. So, even though she loves Emile as much as he loves her, she rejects his marriage proposal and runs away.
The second love story involves Lt. Joe Cable from snooty Philadelphia, PA, who was once engaged to his “girl back home – I’d almost forgot! A blue-eyed kid – I liked her a lot,” but is now madly in love with Liat, a beautiful and innocent Tonkinese girl.
Liat’s mother, knowing that Joe loves Liat ... “Younger than springtime, are you. Softer than starlight, are you. Warmer than winds of June are the gentle lips you gave me” ... insists that Joe marry her daughter. But Lt. Cable cannot overcome (or so he thinks) his inherent prejudice against marrying a woman of a different race.
Hearing this, an indignant Emile de Becque rages at Joe Cable, “Why do you have this feeling, you and she (Nellie)? I do not believe that it is born in you. I DO NOT BELIEVE IT!”
In response, Joe angrily shouts back, “It’s not born in you. It happens after you’re born!”
Then Joe begins to sing this insightful and incisive song which, so aptly and tragically, describes what we are seeing today as terrorists and their supporters chant “Kill the Jews; Gas the Jews” (thank you, Australia, for leading the pack) more vociferously that any pro-Nazi groups had the nerve to do in the United States or Canada before and during World War II.
The lyrics below were introduced in 1949, which means that Rodgers and Hammerstein were not ahead of the times when they produced a musical designed to combat prejudice, but that we, who live in 2023, are far, far behind. In fact, the mammoth scale acceptance we see today of rape, beheadings, kidnappings, murder, and bombings indicate that those who want to destroy us (and by that, I mean ALL of us) are far, far worse.
But I still haven’t given you the lyrics to the angrily self-deprecating song that Joe Cable sings to explain why he cannot marry Liat and why Nellie will not marry Emile de Becque:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear— You’ve got to be carefully taught!
“You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a different shade— You’ve got to be carefully taught.
“You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate— You’ve got to be carefully taught! You’ve got to be carefully taught!”
In this wonderful movie – which everyone playing the Moral Equivalency Game should watch – is a fierce reminder that hate, although taught, can be untaught. And nothing can make us face our worst selves but ... our better selves.
Perhaps a visit to the South Pacific will enable us to do that.
Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2023. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com