It’s a relief getting back to something with a plot, I’ll tell you that.
Set in the South Pacific – and cast entirely by Pacific Island people – Tabu is the tale of a pair of sweethearts, Matahi and Reri, who at the start of the film are living an idyllic life on Bora Bora – Matahi is one of the best fishermen in the village, Reri is the chief’s daughter, and they have loads of friends with whom they can cavort in the lagoons and play among the waterfalls.
Their bliss is disrupted one day when a schooner arrives bearing Hitu, an emissary from the nearby island of Fanuma. Hitu is there on a serious mission – Fanuma’s sacred virgin has died, and they need another maiden to take her place. The chief of Fanuma has chosen Reri for the job, and Hitu is there to collect her. He also declares her tabu – “Man must not touch her or cast upon her the eye of desire.”
Matahi and Reri are understandably devastated at the news. So that night – after the big feast Reri’s family throws for Hitu, and before the schooner sets back out – Matahi sneaks out to the schooner and gets Reri to escape with him, on board his canoe.
Eventually they make their way to one of the more Westernized French Polynesian islands, where Matahi gets work as a pearl diver. He’s great at the work, but a little fuzzy on the concept of money – one night after a great catch, Matahi is in a celebratory mood, and the Chinese merchants who run the company store take advantage of him by hauling out tons of food and tricking Matahi into signing I.O.U.’s for it all.
The past looms over them both, however. Soon after they arrive, the local police chief receives a telegram about the fugitives, but Matahi bribes him with a pearl he’s saved from one of his dives. Still, they’re spooked enough that Matahi looks into the possibility of buying passage on the next ship to Tahiti so the pair can go on the run again. But when he ponies up the fare, the merchants instead choose to collect on their I.O.U.s, leaving Matahi broke and with no ticket. Matahi has only one option – to try pearl diving in a part of the lagoon that’s supposed to be unusually rich, but is guarded by a Great White Shark. Not wanting to worry Reri, he doesn’t tell her of the plan.
Meanwhile Reri gets a surprise visit from Hitu, who has somehow tracked them down. He warns her that she has three days to turn herself in to him and come along willingly, or else he will kill Matahi and take her by force. And – you guessed it – she doesn’t tell Matahi because she doesn’t want to worry him….
It’s a pretty simple and straightforward story, and almost feels old-fashioned. Technically, it was a bit old-fashioned for its time – it’s still largely a silent film in an age where many people were turning to sound.
The production backstory is a hell of a thing too. This was actually F. W. Murnau’s last picture – the same Murnau who did Nosferatu, The Last Laugh and Sunrise, incidentally. Murnau had recently befriended Robert J. Flaherty – the same Robert J. Flaherty behind Nanook of the North – and they hatched the plan to do a similar docu-drama in the South Pacific. They came up with a script treatment – which was initially very different from the story that now stands – and head to Tahiti and started location hunting.
But the pair ran into trouble almost immediately; Flaherty’s camera kept breaking down and ripping the film, and Murnau learned that some of the funding fell through. To save money, Murnau gave a bunch of Tahitians a crash course in camera operation and made them the crew. This tied Flaherty up in the lab developing the film each day – he wanted some professional hand involved in that step, at least – so he didn’t know until it was too late that Murnau was changing the script. When they were done shooting, Flaherty sold his share of the film to Murnau for $25,000 just so he could wash his hands of the whole thing as soon as possible. This left Murnau to edit everything; he went nearly broke paying off all the creditors. Then a week before the film’s release, Murnau was killed in a car crash.
Despite the drama, the film looks gorgeous; the film’s cinematographer Floyd Crosby won an Oscar that year, and it seems well deserved. Not that it’s hard to take good-looking footage of the South Pacific. But Crosby used a number of other eye-catching details; one that especially caught my eye was a sequence from a party at the pearl colony, where all you see is everyone’s feet as they dance. The camera held down there long enough for me to reflect on the variety of feet – some dark, some fair, some with shoes and some without, all these pairs of mismatched feet coupled up in a foxtrot. It really drove home what a chaotic Babel of a place Matahi and Reri had found themselves in.