On a South Pacific island during World War II, two little children are playing on the terrace of the home of a rich planter (DITES-MOI). The planter, Emile de Becque, has fallen in love with Nellie Forbush, a young Navy Nurse from Little Rock, Arkansas. Nellie, a self-described country hick with an unremittingly sunny outlook (A COCKEYED OPTIMIST) finds herself drawn to this dark and brooding Frenchman (TWIN SOLILOQUIES), whose romantic and passionate emotions win her over (SOME ENCHANTED EVENING).
Also stationed on the island are a group of restless sailors, seabees and marines who are obviously bored and sorely in need of female companionship (THERE IS NOTHIN' LIKE A DAME). Souvenir collecting is about the only active pastime and has developed into a marketing war between Seabee Luther Billis, who has cornered the market in everything from grass skirts to shrunken heads, and Bloody Mary, the local Tokinese dealer in such trophies.
Lt. Joseph Cable, a handsome young Marine, arrives with an assignment to persuade de Becque, who is familiar with the nearby islands, to accompany him on a dangerous secret mission. They are to hide out on a Japanese-held island, watch for enemy ships and convey this information to their own pilots, to help them attack the Japanese convoys. Nellie's friendship with Emile is known to the Island Commander and she is asked to obtain all the information she can about him.
Meanwhile, Luther Billis' present mission is to get over to the mysterious and forbidden island of Bali Hal - and he convinces LA. Cable to lead a pleasure-seeking expedition there (BALI HA'I). On the island, Bloody Mary introduces Cable to her beautiful daughter, Liat, and the Lieutenant falls in love with her (YOUNGER THAN SPRINGTIME).
Confused about her feelings for Emile, Nellie decides to play it safe by simply deciding I'M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUT-A MY HAIR. But Emile convinces her of his love, (I'M IN LOVE WITH A WONDERFUL GUY); Nellie is in love, and now believes that she and Emile could spend a wonderful lifetime together. Emile introduces her to two sweet native children, the off-spring of a Polynesian woman and a European. Nellie is charmed by the children but then, when Emile says they are his, the prejudices and fear inherent in her small town upbringing rise to the surface and, panicked, she runs from Emile and from their future.
Nellie throws herself into her work - as voluntary director and star of the home-grown "Thanksgiving Follies" show. Backstage, Bloody Mary and Liat have come to Cable, to convince him to take this chance for love (HAPPY TALK) but Joe, despite his deep love for Liat, is caught in a similar trap of his own prejudices and, though he loves her, decides he cannot marry her. Emile, who has fought so hard all his life for freedom and fairness, cannot understand how two people such as Nellie and Cable can walk away from a chance for love, prevented by an incomprehensible logic. This logic isn't born in you, Cable explains bitterly; YOU'VE GOT TO BE CAREFULLY TAUGHT.
Emile sees his dream of paradise fading away (THIS NEARLY WAS MINE). With nothing to lose, both Cable and Emile are feeling the recklessness of lost love, and with that recklessness comes the willingness to take greater risks. They embark on their spy mission to a neighbouring island where, for a few days, the plan works and they are able to transmit messages of Japanese naval manoeuvrings. Eventually they are discovered, however; Cable is killed, and radio contact with Emile is cut off.
Faced with the sudden realisation that she may have lost Emile, Nellie is able to put her fears and meaningless prejudices into perspective and realises that her love for him and the things he stands for is paramount. She makes her way to his home and is giving lunch to his two children, whom she loves as her own when Emile returns. He is weary, he is battle-worn, but he is alive, reunited with his children, and with Nellie.
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