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Return to Paradise's main problem is that Gary Cooper at 52 is way too
old for the part of the hedonistic Mr. Morgan. The part should have
been played by someone like Kirk Douglas, William Holden, or Burt
Having said that Coop does all right in the role of the man whose
arrival on one of the islands of the Samoan archipelago changes all
The story begins in the late twenties when Cooper is put ashore on an
island that is ruled by a tyrannical missionary preacher, Barry Jones,
who's got 'wardens' to make sure that his decrees about the island's
morality is enforced. Instinctively he knows that Cooper's arrival
means trouble for his social order and tries to order him off the
island. He even has Cooper's fledgling grass hut torn down because he's
working on the sabbath.
But Coop's independent ways spark the latent resistance growing in the
population. His taking on the 'wardens' is all that's needed.
Cooper has also fallen in love with a young Samoan girl, the beautiful
Roberta Haynes. When she dies in childbirth, he leaves and becomes a
charter schooner captain. Years later he returns and has to face up to
his responsibility as a father.
A lot of Return to Paradise is a test of wills between Cooper and Barry
Jones and at first glance Jones's character almost seems a caricature
of a fire and brimstone preacher. It's not by any means on several
levels. In his later work Hawaii, author James Michener explores that
whole angle of the American missionaries in the 19th century and their
impact on that Polynesian culture.
As he says in the film, Jones's father was killed in a native uprising
and his wife died in childbirth. It made him bitter at the world and
resulted in his creating a Christian Taliban like state on the island.
But there's a lot more to Jones than that. It turns out that the
natives really did want to hear the good parts of his gospel and did
not slacken in church attendance. There's a scene in the film when he
sees the natives coming into his church where instead of going to the
pulpit, he sits in the congregation among the natives. It's more
eloquent than ten pages of dialog.
Jones becomes a better man and a wiser preacher as a result of Cooper's
rebellion. He turns out to be a wise counselor indeed, especially when
Cooper returns to the island and faces a crisis about his now teenage
daughter, Moira McDonald. Essentially Cooper and Jones heal each other
of the flaws in their respective characters.
Return to Paradise boasted a nice title song that is heard throughout
the film. Later on Bing Crosby also used it as the title track of an
album he did of south sea music for Frank Sinatra's Reprise label. It
was composed by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington who last year gave
Cooper that unforgettable theme from High Noon.
Filmed entirely on location on Samoa, it's a stunningly beautiful film
to watch. You can't make a bad film from with that location.
It's one of Gary Cooper's lesser known works, but it's not a bad film
and holds up well after over 50 years.
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