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South Sea Woman (1953)

Passed | | Action, Adventure, Comedy | 27 June 1953 (USA)
AWOL marine Sgt. Jim O'Hearn is court-martialed for a variety of offenses that carry 143 years in the stockade or the death penalty but refuses to aid in his own defense.


Arthur Lubin


Edwin Blum (screenplay), Earl Baldwin (adaptation) | 2 more credits »



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Cast overview, first billed only:
Burt Lancaster ... Master Gunnery Sgt. James O'Hearn
Virginia Mayo ... Ginger Martin
Chuck Connors ... Pvt. Davey White
Arthur Shields ... 'Jimmy-legs' Donovan
Barry Kelley ... Col. Hickman
Leon Askin ... Pierre Marchand
Veola Vonn Veola Vonn ... Lillie Duval
Bob Sweeney ... Defense Lt. Miller
Hayden Rorke ... Prosecution Lt. Fears
Raymond Greenleaf ... Captain at Court-Martial
Paul Burke ... Ensign at Court-Martial
Henri Letondal Henri Letondal ... Alphonse
William O'Leary William O'Leary ... Smith - Embezzler
John Alderson John Alderson ... Fitzroy - Baritone
George Saurel George Saurel ... Jacques (as Georges Saurel)


Marine Sergeant James O'Hearn is being tried at the San Diego Marine base for desertion, theft, scandalous conduct and destruction of property in time of war. He refuses to testify or plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. Showgirl Ginger Martin takes the stand against his protest. She testifies O'Hearn won't talk because he is protecting the name of his pal, Marine Private Davey White. Ginger tells how she, broke and stranded, met the two marines in Shanghai two weeks before Pearl Harbor. White proposes marriage so that Ginger can be evacuated from China as his wife. Before the ceremony, the two Marines get into a fight with the natives and escape with Ginger aboard a small motor boat. They wind up in Namou, a Vichy French island, and are quartered in a run-down hotel. O'Hearn discovers a Nazi yacht delivering radar supplies to the island, and plans to seize it with the help of the Free French. White refuses to join and says he is deserting and intends to remain on the island ... Written by Les Adams <longhorn1939@suddenlink.net>

Plot Summary | Add Synopsis


The toughest Marine that ever sank a saloon in the China Seas of left a trail of broken knuckles from San Diego to Shanghai! (original poster) See more »


Passed | See all certifications »





English | French | Japanese | Mandarin

Release Date:

27 June 1953 (USA) See more »

Also Known As:

Sulu Sea See more »


Box Office

Gross USA:

See more on IMDbPro »

Company Credits

Production Co:

Warner Bros. See more »
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Technical Specs


Sound Mix:

Mono (RCA Sound System)

Aspect Ratio:

1.37 : 1
See full technical specs »

Did You Know?


Burt Lancaster takes his shirt off in this movie; Chuck Connors does not. See more »


The yacht is flying a Dutch flag, implying that it was a neutral. The Dutch were at war with Japan. A Dutch flagged vessel would never be allowed passage through Japanese controlled waters. See more »


Master Gunnery Sgt. James O'Hearn: You two are not married. The ceremony Woo Ching read for you was the burial ceremony.
Ginger Martin: What?
Master Gunnery Sgt. James O'Hearn: That's Chinese burial service, that's why you are wearing white clothes.
See more »


Referenced in Queer as Folk: Stand Up for Ourselves (2004) See more »


The Japanese Sandman
Music by Richard A. Whiting
Played at the Shanghai saloon
See more »

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User Reviews

Neither fish nor flesh nor fowl nor good red herring
8 August 2014 | by JamesHitchcockSee all my reviews

In 1944 U.S. Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant James O'Hearn is facing a court martial for desertion, theft, scandalous conduct and destruction of property, charges which in time of war carry the death penalty. ("Scandalous conduct" in this context means sex outside marriage; if that were to be regarded as a capital offence under military law I suspect that the fighting strength of most of the world's armies would be drastically reduced overnight).

The above might suggest that this is a serious courtroom drama along the lines of "The Caine Mutiny". Admittedly, the film starts off in serious vein, but as soon as Ginger Martin (she with whom O'Hearn allegedly conducted himself scandalously) takes the stand seriousness goes out of the window and it descends into ridiculous comedy.

Ginger is presumably the "South Sea Woman" of the title, but she is actually a white American rather than a Polynesian and only finds herself in the South Seas by chance. When O'Hearn first meets her she is working as a showgirl at a nightclub in Shanghai, where his regiment is stationed, and is the girlfriend of his friend Private Davy White. An attempt by White to slip away to marry Ginger leads to the three finding themselves adrift at sea on a small motor boat. In a series of increasingly farcical misadventures, in the course of which they inadvertently commit the acts which will form the basis of the charges against O'Hearn, they are rescued by a Chinese junk and eventually cast away on the French-ruled island of Namou. As the Governor of Namou is pro-Vichy, and as the attack on Pearl Harbor has now brought America into the war, the two Marines have to pretend to be deserters in order to avoid being interned. White and Ginger attempt to marry several times, but are always frustrated.

It is at this point that the film changes direction again, largely abandoning comedy and turning into a patriotic wartime adventure as O'Hearn and White discover a fiendish Nazi plot and decide to take action to thwart it, to seize a boat and to rejoin the Marines who are fighting the Japanese at Guadalcanal.

Mixing genres in this way is often a risky business, the risk being that the resulting film can end up as neither fish nor flesh nor fowl nor good red herring, or in this case neither drama nor comedy nor action. I don't think there was ever any possibility of this film being a sort of "Caine Mutiny Court Martial", but it could certainly have been made either as a comedy about the adventures of a pair of bungling Marines and a girl or as a standard gung-ho action war film about two heroic Marines with a sub-plot about their love-interest.

The attempt to make the film as a combination of these two approaches simply results in a misbegotten dog's breakfast, a film which is not very amusing when it tries to be a comedy and not very exciting when it tries to be a wartime adventure. About all one can say for it is that Virginia Mayo looks lovely, as she normally did.

This is not quite Burt Lancaster's worst movie; he normally saved his worst for those occasions, mostly in the sixties and seventies, when he allowed his political judgement to overcome his artistic judgement and ended up playing a villainous right-wing fanatic in turgid, paranoid left-wing thrillers like "Executive Action" or "The Cassandra Crossing". It is not, however, one of his better ones, and is one that is probably best forgotten by all but the most obsessive Lancaster fans. 4/10

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