No less than John Ford had directed the original film in 1937, about the misunderstanding and mistreatment of a South Pacific native-turned-sailor who flees to his home island in order to evade a rules-oriented governor and a sadistic jailor. He’s just in time to meet a ferocious tropical cyclone that wipes everything practically clean. The film boasted a fine cast that included Dorothy Lamour, Jon Hall, Mary Astor and a roster of character actors such as C. Aubrey Smith, Thomas Mitchell, Raymond Massey and John Carradine with special effects that remain jaw dropping even today. It's exotic-looking stars Lamour and Hall remain iconic to cinephiles (and who cares if they were actually born in Fresno and New Orleans?!)
The Dino De Laurentiis-produced remake ran into rough waters from the start when original director Roman Polanski became embroiled in his (still not completely resolved, lo these thirty years later!) statutory rape case, causing him to withdraw from the project. He was replaced by Jan Troell, a Swedish director with limited experience in English-speaking films, though he had garnered a number of awards and nominations before and also has after this mess.
Chief star Mia Farrow (thankfully playing someone other than the native girl Lamour portrayed!) stuck with the film for reasons known only to her. She's the single daughter of a strict naval Captain (Jason Robards) who is in place in 1922 Samoa to uphold order. Once there, she catches the eye of a young native man (Dayton Ka'ne) who is in line to be King of the local tribe. When he tosses aside the bride who had been arranged for him in order to canoodle with Farrow, both his people and Robards (who nurses a barely concealed incestuous bent for his daughter) are up in arms. Meanwhile, young naval officer Timothy Bottoms, who has feelings for Farrow himself, and sneering Sergeant James Keach, who delights in looking down on the locals, set their own sites on Ka'ne as well.
As the passions and tensions reach a high point, the title event descends on the area with little warning (or even surprise, it seems!) and decimates virtually everything and everyone. Farrow, though only 34, is far too old for her role. She tries to inject some degree of feeling into her part and is sometimes ably photographed by cinematographer Sven Nykvist (with whom she was having an affair during filming), but it's pretty hopeless. A lot of actresses look great wet, but scrawny, fine-haired Farrow is not one of them. Also, her ill-fitting, unflattering costumes succeed in making her look even more bird-like and gangly than she already is. This is strange since Theoni V. Aldredge succeeded in making her look stunning only a few years earlier in the same basic time period of The Great Gatsby. Part of the problem must be attributed to her really bad hairstyling on his film.
Her emaciated (fans would say elfin or waif-like) figure is “shown off” in water logged skin-diving scenes while her porcelain skin is singed to a pink glow by the tropical sun. She and her lover, with their matching (but differently colored) fluffy hairdos ludicrously look at times like negatives of the same person! (See also Moment By Moment for lovers who are damn close to carbon copies of one another - Lily Tomlin and John Travolta!)
Robards is mostly one note and has a fairly ludicrous role to play in the first place. His final scene is particularly stupid. Hawaiian Ka'ne is actually not as bad as one might expect, though he needed a more intuitive director in order to give the role and the film its due. He was simply too green. At least he is very easy on the eyes at all times and seems to be giving his all to the part. He would partake in only one more role before disappearing from the cinematic landscape forever, one of many, many performers who were given the billing “Introducing ________ as ________” only to evaporate soon after.
Bottoms (who reportedly tangled with Farrow during filming) does all right and Keach, like Robards, is very one note, though not ineffective. Other notable names among the cast include Trevor Howard as an alcoholic priest and Max Von Sydow (there no doubt at the request of his frequent director Troell) as a doctor.
Every single other cast member performs as if it is his or her first-and-only time in front of a camera and, for most of them, it was. Also, none of the below the title actors seem to have any concept of how to move, look or speak like someone from 1922, a chief culprit being Nancy Hall Rutgers as a local society matron.
The scenery is lovely, the Nino Rota score is strong, but the story is hackneyed, the screenplay is disjointed, the editing is choppy and the direction is weak. In striving for convincing winds and waves, the makers forgot to a) allow the viewer to clearly see what is happening and b) make the viewer care about the people being tossed about and drowned. The movie is like a lumbering, deadened sea mammal that has been harpooned, but refuses to expire. The finale is unrealistic to say the least with NOTHING in sight except a few bits of debris and the besieged lovers. Where did the massive ship drift off to? Where are the bodies of the many, many natives and others? This is the least of the film's problems, though. It's just a big, expensive misfire that served as a way to wash $22 million out of its investors’ pockets.