During a family reunion in Samoa ages and ages ago, a whole bunch of us piled onto a couple of those yellow wooden box buses (you know the kind) and took a tour around Samoa.

It’s one of my most favorite childhood memories. We had grandparents, great grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins and bratty babies all bumping around together on those rickety buses, laughing and gossiping and enjoying the sunshine as we made our way towards the beach at Lefaga…

Which was gorgeous! A line of emerald coconut tree tops dipping towards the pure white sand, which slid beneath a wide expanse of blue ocean that seemed to melt at the horizon into the azure sky.

We chilled there for an endless afternoon. Swimming was, of course, the foremost task of the day, but we also did a lot of lounging, and barbecuing, and napping, and strumming of guitars, and swapping stories, and lots of tour-guiding, even.

Turns out this beach was magical, not just because of its breathtaking and secluded beauty, but because it was once captured in a Hollywood film… and this tree right here? enthused my old uncle. See how it bends right down? You can see that tree in the movie, too!

Ahh yes, my aunties chimed in dreamily. Return to Paradise. And then they collectively sighed. (Seriously). And then they got lost in smiley chatter about a tall, handsome Palagi man and his gorgeous woman and on and on and by then I was back in the ocean tending to a much more important endeavor (perfecting my underwater hand-stand).

And that’s pretty much all I knew about this Samoa-set Hollywood film for the next 100 years until a few months ago when Raw Heat posted the entire movie in the Ville.

Here was my chance to finally see what my aunties were gushing about. I just happened to have a couple of hours to spare and figured it would be fun(ny) to watch what I thought would be a fantastical Hollywood romance that just happened to be set against the backdrop of paradisaical Samoa.

What I actually saw was not at all what I expected.

The storyline of Return to Paradise is surprisingly honest. It’s obviously based on real life events from the Pacific back in those days, and the characters (for the most part) are quite believable.

Another thing I did not expect from this film was an education – about people in general, about how war-time affected parts of the Pacific, about what happens when a number of cultures are required to share the same space, about my own ancestors.

Although it’s never explicitly revealed in the movie that the island’s natives are Samoan, this film is a ‘Must-See’ for all Samoans (and lovers of Samoa). Let me give you:

7 reasons to watch Return to Paradise

  1. Gary Cooper. This two-time Oscar winner for Best Actor is not bad to look at, for one thing. Then, he played the role so well that his character felt very familiar to me – as if I knew this guy and was thoroughly concerned about how he was adapting to life amongst Samoans.
  2. It’s a reminder of how little changes over the years – especially in Samoan fashion! It was amusing to see people in the film dressed almost exactly the way I see some of our good folks dress today.
  3. The idea of living on a beach. I know a lot of locals in Samoa will take this for granted, and living by the sea is not without its own share of challenges, but how romantic is the thought of waking up every morning to the sound of the ocean? Or spending your days gathering food from fishing nets? Or cooling off in the water as the sun is setting? That’s the definition of “Paradise” to me.
  4. The themes in this film are pretty… grown up. And very real for Samoans, even today. The most dominant theme is the influence of foreign civilizations on our people. When Mr. Morgan (Gary Cooper) first arrives on Matareva, the natives are already under the thumb of another Palagi, Pastor Corbett (Barry Jones). He’s got them on a strict timetable, carrying lanterns around at night (to prevent promiscuity, apparently) and in fear of the henchmen he calls wardens – all in the name of Christianity. Mr. Morgan thunders into town in defiance against Pastor Corbett, and his rebellious nature wins over a good number of locals, which changes the entire political structure of the island. But whose way is the right way? Both Pastor Corbett and Mr. Morgan’s positions come with advantages and disadvantages, so it’s up to the natives to decide how they want to be influenced. Either way, life on this island has changed permanently.
  5. The film features an Ava Ceremony! And even with Mr. Morgan participating in it, the mechanics of the ceremony look pretty accurate to me. Gives me goosebumps, even. It starts at 31 minutes into the film.
  6. We get to hear the Samoan language on film – and it sounds beautiful! Aside from the lead actress, Roberta Haynes, who is gorgeous, but obviously not Samoan, just about every other islander in this film spoke our language perfectly. (And Mz Haynes did a lovely job, still, even with a very strong American accent.) It’s really nice to hear, especially in a movie from an era in Hollywood that’s not known for its authenticity.
  7. The footage of beautiful Upolu 60 years ago is breathtaking. Samoa is still stunning today, of course, but it’s so nice to see images of our beaches and towns and landmarks back in a less developed time. The sand looks so soft and pure… the ocean so big and pristine. Makes me want to hop in a time machine and spend a day or so in Old Samoa.

See if you agree with my list.