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His Majesty O'Keefe (1954) was the last of a six-picture contract which Burt Lancaster and his business partner, the producer Harold Hecht, had signed with Warner Brothers to distribute their films. Hecht and Lancaster's first production company, Norma Productions, started up while Lancaster was still associated with Universal-International, where he had been signed on by the innovative producer Mark Hellinger. After His Majesty O'Keefe, Hecht and Lancaster brought in that film's screenwriter James Hill as a third partner for their reconfigured company Hecht-Lancaster Productions, which later became Hecht-Lancaster-Hill Productions.
The 1950 novel His Majesty O'Keefe by Lawrence Klingman and Gerald Green in fact depicts a historical figure, Captain David Dean O'Keefe (ca. 1824-1921). Born in Ireland, O'Keefe immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Savannah, Georgia. In the 1870s he traveled to the South Pacific, where he became shipwrecked on the island of Yap. (The film fancifully depicts his crew throwing him off his own ship during a mutiny.) Eventually O'Keefe established a lucrative trade in copra, or dried coconut flesh, on the same island. During that period Yap was occupied by both Germany and Spain; characters depicted in the novel (and film) such as Alfred Tetins, Bully Hayes, Fatumak and Boogulroo all existed in real life.
The monetary system of circular stones depicted in His Majesty O'Keefe is known as rai; one variety of these stones is fei, though the film's script uses fei as a generic term. These discs were mostly quarried on the distant island of Palau and brought back to Yap on large outrigger canoes; the tremendous effort and risk required only added to the discs' value. The largest discs weighed many tons and were not moved from their original spot even after ownership changed. When O'Keefe introduced new tools and quarry methods to the Yap islanders, the greater ease of producing the stones eventually resulted in their decline in value, a problem which the film portrays. Although rai are no longer manufactured and the Yap islanders mostly have switched over to a standard currency system, the tradition of symbolic trading still continues to a certain extent.
According to Lancaster biographer Ed Andreychuk, initially Fred Zinnemann was slated to direct the film adaptation of His Majesty O'Keefe, with Frank Nugent and Laurence Stallings assigned to the script. Byron Haskin, the film's eventual director, recalls that the production encountered troubles early on. Warner cancelled the project at the last minute, after the crew had already arrived at the Fiji Islands, but Hecht somehow managed to rescue the situation.
In order to take advantage of frozen film funds in Britain, Hecht brought in some British crew and cast members. Warner Brothers built a virtually self-contained studio on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji, complete with a soundstage, sound recording studio (postsynchronization was done onsite), administrative offices, and a Technicolor lab. Since there were limited accommodations on the island, Warner took over the entire Beachcomber Hotel at Deuba and constructed additional rooms to house the cast and crew. They also rented the entire village of Goloa and constructed new buildings, which they turned over to the villagers once shooting was finished.
Shortly before shooting began, Hecht brought in Borden Chase and James Hill to rewrite it at the last minute. Chase - a talented screenwriter who had worked on the script for Hawks' Red River (1948) - expressed frustration at the lack of organization and constant distractions, including story conferences during which Lancaster would wildly act out the scenes. Eventually Hill and Chase separated themselves from the rest of the crew and sent the finished script pages each day by messenger, after which Hecht would rewrite them. Shooting was interrupted almost daily by rain showers, and the crew encountered all sorts of problems from finding their clothing covered in mildew to fending off dengue fever. According to biographer Kate Burton, Lancaster later remarked: "There were times when the only thing idyllic about it was the Nadi airport where fast and comfortable planes took off constantly in a northeasterly direction for Hollywood."
Ultimately the film's production costs totaled $1.55 million, well over the $1.1 million per film stipulated by the contract with Warner Brothers. (Similarly, The Crimson Pirate  had cost $1.85 million). As a result Warner offered to renew the contract only for lower budget films, so Hecht and Lancaster decided to sign up with United Artists instead. Still, according to director Haskin, His Majesty O'Keefe turned out to be one of the most profitable films of his career, thanks to TV sales. Hecht-Hill-Lancaster Productions even proposed at one point to spin it off into a television series, together with some of their other properties.
Producer: Harold Hecht
Director: Byron Haskin
Screenplay: Borden Chase, James Hill; Lawrence Klingman, Gerald Green (novel)
Cinematography: Otto Heller
Art Direction: Edward S. Haworth, W. Simpson Robinson
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Film Editing: Manuel Del Campo
Cast: Burt Lancaster (Captain David Dion O'Keefe/Narrator), Joan Rice (Dalabo aki Dali), Andre Morell (Alfred Tetins), Abraham Sofaer (Fatumak, Medicine Man), Archie Savage (Boogulroo), Benson Fong (Mr. Chou), Tessa Prendergast (Kakofel), Lloyd Berrell (Inifel), Charles Horvath (Captain Bully Hayes), Philip Ahn (Sien Tang, Dentist).
by James Steffen
SourcesAndreychuk, Ed. Burt Lancaster: a Filmography and Biography. Jefferson, North Carolina and London: McFarland, 2000.
Byron Haskin. Interviewed by Joe Adamason. Metuchen, NJ: Directors Guild of America and Scarecrow Press, 1984.
Klingman, Lawrence and Gerald Green. His Majesty O'Keefe. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.
Buford, Kate. Burt Lancaster: An American Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000.
Scott, John L. "Witness of cannibal feast helps in production of Fiji Island film." New York Times, November 23, 1952, p.D1.