Between 1926 and
1958, the island of Bali was featured in several movies shot by Dutch, German
and American film-makers. From early images of the "Island of the Gods"
through to images of the "Island of Demons", these films document
the changing nature of Bali's image. The 1952 movie The Road to Bali
starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, is the ultimate amalgam of images of Southeast
Asia and the Pacific. Under the guise of humour the movie managed to include
cannibals, wild animals and a giant squid, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Katharine
Hepburn pulling The African Queen. The 'Bali Hai' of South Pacific
(1958) had nothing directly to do with Bali, but everything to do with Bali's
image. The island shown as Bali Hai was not in the right ocean, but the name
and the soothing sea-breeze-like notes of the hit song were thought to be sufficiently
close to something resembling "Bali". Hollywood made Bali the paradise
of paradises by combining all the ideals of the South Seas into one.
In the last ten years this island has been written about, filmed, photographed, and gushed over to an extent which would justify nausea. I went there half-unwillingly, for I expected a complete "bali-hoo", picturesque and faked to a Hollywood standard; I left there wholly unwillingly, convinced that I had seen the nearest approach to Utopia that I am ever to see. (Geoffrey Gorer, Bali and Angkor. Or Looking at Life and Death, 1936: 42-43)
Cremation and Sang Hyang and Kecak Dance (1926)
Geoffrey Gorer may have been recalling some memorable early images of Bali which came from the prose and pictures of a German book first published in 1920, Bali, by Gregor Krause. And in 1926 the first moving pictures of Bali were made available to the world by a Dutch film-maker named W. Mullens. His films were titled Bali - Leichenverbrennung und Einascherung einer Fürstebwitwe (Royal Cremation) and Bali - Sanghijang und Ketjaqtanz (Sang Hyang and Kecak Dance). The royal cremation featured the corpse of a queen of Bangli being carried on to a cremation tower before being taken to the graveyard and burnt in a lion-shaped sarcophagus. The Sanghyang is a trance dance performed by young girls. We can imagine that the sight of little girls swaying in an incense-filled atmosphere, surrounded by seated men with arms akimbo, must have looked particularly weird to Europeans in 1926. Mullens may have worked with Gregor Krause, who was based in Bangli, especially since these images fit into the scheme of Krause's book. They add depth to the idea of Bali's culture, but present some of the most extreme and exotic visual aspects of that culture.
Calon Arang, 1927
1927 the image of the witch was brought to the screen in the first fiction
film set on Bali, Calon Arang. Little is known of this film, and
no copies survive, but the makers probably had links with the Italians who
owned the moving picture theatre in Denpasar, where Charlie Chaplin played
on the screen for enthusiastic Balinese audiences. The film Calon Arang
was described as a tropical romance featuring palm trees, beachcombers,
and 'the inevitable bevy of dusky beauties such as never were seen on land
or seas'. This comment tells little about the film, but it does show how
conscious the image-makers of Bali were of trying to add depth and respectability
to the idea of Bali.
The Rangda (witch-heroine of the Calon Arang story) and the kris dance eventually became the most potent of all the elements of Bali's image, and could be counterpoised to the superficial image of the tropical paradise. The gentle figure of the young female dancer of the Sang Hyang trance dance was balanced by the horrible figure of the witch of Calon Arang. If Dr Krause tried to emphasise harmony and the organic community in his description of Bali, then the Rangda represented the other side of this image, the feeling that lurking under the harmony there were wild forces ready to run amok. The 'Island of the Gods' has also been called 'The Island of the Demons', most notably in a German film shot in 1931, and later in a Dutch novel of 1948.
Little is known of a Dutch film titled Mahasoetji: Van Java's Vulkanengweld en het Wondere Bali made in 1929 by NIFM. However, the next important movie shot in Bali has the most wonderful title of Goona-Goona, An Authentic Melodrama.
(also called The Kris), 1930
The remote little island only became news to the rest of the Western world with the advent, a few years ago, of a series of documentary films of Bali with a strong emphasis on sex appeal. These films were a revelation and now everybody knows that Balinese girls have beautiful bodies and that the islanders lead a musical-comedy sort of life full of weird, picturesque rites. The title of one of these films, Goona-goona, the Balinese term for "magic", became at the time newyorkese for sex allure. The newly discovered "last paradise" became the contemporary substitute for the nineteenth-century romantic conception of primitive Utopia, until then the exclusive monopoly of Tahiti and other South Sea islands. And lately travel agencies have used the alluring name of Bali to attract hordes of tourists for their round-the-world cruises that make a one-day stop on the island."
(Miguel Covarrubias, Island of Bali, 1937)
Actual organised tourism came to Bali in the 1920's. By 1930 up to 100 visitors a month were arriving, mostly by sea. Their ecstatic reports were so positive that by 1940 this figure had increased to about 250 per month, not including the passengers on the various cruise ships that advertised a day or two in Bali as the highlight of their winter schedules.
The Dutch Steamship Line, K.P.M., initiated the first tourist passages to Bali on its cargo ships and several enterprising characters were quick to take advantage of these developments. A Persian-Armenian, M.J. Minas, was the first to realise the tourist potential. He introduced moving pictures to the villages, travelling with a portable projector, and he established the first movie theatre in Buleleng. Minas started picking up passengers off the K.P.M. ships in about 1920. An American adventurer, Andre Roosevelt, arrived in Bali in 1924 and joined Minas, bringing American Express and Thomas Cook patronage with him. Andre Roosevelt undertook in the 1920s to develop the tourist market, although this did not deter him from suggesting measures to preserve the integrity of Balinese society and its culture:
Having leisure, my friend Spies and I started a scheme which would tend to slow down the invading forces from the West and keep the Balinese in their happy, contented ways for a few decades longer .. We want to make of Bali a national or international park, with special laws to maintain it as such.
(in Hickman Powell, The Last Paradise, 1930: xiv-xvi)
black-and-white film Goona-Goona, An Authentic Melodrama, also called
Der Kris and The Kris, was originally shot in 1928 and 1929
by Andre Roosevelt and Armand Denis with assistance at the outset from Spies.
Walter Spies wrote about his collaboration with Roosevelt: "I'm doing
the directing and most of the work; a certain Mr Roosevelt turns the handle.
I've got a marvellous, very simple story for it and have found some very
Much of it was re-filmed in 1929 after a processing accident in Surabaya in November 1928. Walter Spies was not involved in the re-shooting. The film was first released in America in 1930.
Goona-Goona was most likely the movie which inspired K'tut Tantri, author of Revolt in Paradise, and later famous as Surabaya Sue, to travel to Bali in 1932:
It was a rainy afternoon and, walking down Hollywood Boulevard, I stopped before a small theatre showing a foreign film and on the spur of the moment, decided to go in. The film was entitled Bali, the Last Paradise.
I became entranced. The picture was aglow with an agrarian pattern of peace, contentment, beauty and love. Yes, I had found my life. I recognised the place where I wished to be.
(K'tut Tantri, Revolt in Paradise, 1960)
Although K'tut Tantri mentions that her decision to travel to Bali in 1932 was inspired by a film entitled Bali, the Last Paradise, this must be incorrect. Hickman Powell published a book about Bali with a similar title in 1930, but there was never any film of that name. There was a film entitled Bali, the Lost Paradise, a 12-mm black-and-white film made by Michael Lerner but this was American, not foreign, and was not made until 1939, seven years after K'tut Tantri's arrival in Bali. Der Insel der Dämonen was not released until 1933 and so Goona-Goona was probably the only film of Bali that could have been viewed in America in 1932.
The film was very
successful and actually started an American craze for all things Balinese. In
New York high society goona-goona, a Malay and Javanese term for love
magic, was turned into a popular phrase. Goona-Goona can be credited
with linking sex and magic in the popular image of Bali.
Insel der Dämonen / The Island of the Demons (1933)
not released until 1933, Der Insel der Dämonen was also known
as The Island of Demons and confusingly, also as Black Magic.
Credits for the film include Producer-Director, Baron Viktor von Plessen;
Camera, Dr Dalsheim; Scenario, casting and choreography, Walter Spies.
During 1931, Walter Spies' house in Campuhan, Ubud was packed with a crowd of film people. Viktor Baron von Plessen was making the classic Bali-film, Insel der Dämonen with a collaborator, Dr. Dalsheim. Spies's name was the guarantee for a scenario faultlessly faithful to Bali with the right actors and effective choreography. This was the occasion for which Spies remodelled the kecak , the so-called monkey-dance. He increased the number of participants to more than a hundred young men sitting in a circle, and also introduced the figure of the dancer-narrator who recites, in the light of a central standing lamp, tales from the Ramayana involving the exploits of Hanoman, the monkey-general.
The film was a love story about two peasants. Their harmonious village life was destroyed by a Rangda-like witch who created an epidemic which devastated the happy village community. Only exorcistic rituals could stop her and return the village to its normal state. The film runs the full gamut of the images that interested Spies. It starts with beautifully-filmed landscapes featuring water-filled rice terraces reflecting the sky, and scenes of hard-working (but happy) farmers in the fields. Then came the ideal community, disrupted by a bitter woman whose shifty looks betrayed her evil nature, who was eventually revealed in the form of Rangda. Throughout the scenes of witchcraft and exorcism Spies wove documentation of Balinese dances and rituals. This documentation guaranteed the authenticity of the scenes, showing that they were giving an insight into the 'real' Bali behind the superficial tourist images.
IN THE 1950S
The Bali scene of the 1920s and 1930s was an escape from Europe and America, from the values of the West to a spiritually deeper and richer world. In the post-war era Bali was one of the balms to soothe a traumatised world. In this era of renewed interest in both the East and the Pacific, Broadway hits like The King and I and South Pacific gained enormous popularity first on stage and subsequently on screen. The 1950s version of these ideal places was even further removed from reality than the 1930s images. Broadway and Hollywood produced images that would try to recapture the lost world of the pre-war era. In doing this, they actually created something that never was.
In the Hollywood of the pre-war era the Indies were regarded as one part of the South Seas islands, and were most memorably featured as the place where the gigantic gorilla King Kong was found in the film of the same name. In the 1930s Primitive art and culture were at the heart of both intellectual and popular interest, featuring in the art of Picasso and the Surrealists as well as the dances of Josephine Baker. One aspect of this interest in Primitivism was the emphasis on the sexual and magical aspects of Bali. By the 1950s Hollywood was replacing them with more idyllic ideas.
The Road to Bali (Paramount Pictures, 1952)
by Harry Tugend, and starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, The Road to Bali
is the ultimate amalgam of images of Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Under
the guise of humour the movie managed to include cannibals, wild animals
and a giant squid, as well as Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn pulling
The African Queen. The plot, had Hope and Crosby fleeing from a pair of
'matrimony-minded girls' in Australia to 'a South Sea island' (Bali), where
they met Dorothy Lamour playing a beautiful princess and island adventurer
who was seeking sunken treasure. Lamour's famous sarongs were combined with
various bits of apparel from Thailand, India and other parts of Asia.
John Coast (author of Dancing out of Bali) managed to persuade the producers to put in a few token scenes of Balinese dance, featuring three young Balinese legong dancers of the Peliatan troupe which was in the middle of its amazingly successful world tour. The troupe was in the USA in 1952 at the time that The Road to Bali was being made in Hollywood. The young dancers were immortalised in the movie, the latter-day version of one of the symbols of Bali, dancing so beautifully in front of cardboard cut-outs of what Americans thought a Balinese temple might look like, in this ultimate version of the fantasy of Bali.
(directed by Joshua Logan, Twentieth Century Fox, 1958)
Directed by Joshua Logan for Twentieth Century Fox in 1958, the 'Bali Hai' of South Pacific had nothing directly to do with the people who lived in Bali in the 1930s, but everything to do with Bali's image. When searching for an island which would be the ultimate encapsulation of all the ideals of the era, the name Bali came readily to mind. Little matter that the island shown as Bali Hai was not in the right ocean, the name and the soothing sea-breeze-like notes of the hit song were enough. Hollywood, never worried about geographical niceties, made Bali the paradise of paradises by combining all the ideals of the South Seas into one.
Michelle Chin is a writer and arts management consultant based in Ubud. She has been living in Bali for most of the past twenty years.
[Published in Bali Echo, August/September 2001]