Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931)




Critic Consensus: No consensus yet.

Movie Info

This is a sensual tale of doomed love, filmed on location in Tahiti.
Action & Adventure , Classics , Documentary , Drama , Special Interest , Romance
Directed By:
Written By:
In Theaters:
Milestone Film & Video


as The Boy
Matahi Hitu
as Chief
as The Girl
as The Old Warrior
Kong Ah
as Chinese Tradesman
as The Policeman
as The Captain
Anna Chevalier
as Reri the Young Girl
Jean Jules
as Police Agent
Show More Cast

Critic Reviews for Tabu: A Story of the South Seas

All Critics (11) | Top Critics (2)

It is like a picture poem, with its sunshine and happiness in the beginning and its stormy drama in the end.

Full Review… | January 27, 2006
New York Times
Top Critic

The exquisite tragic ending -- conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo -- is one of the pinnacles of silent cinema.

Full Review… | December 31, 1999
Chicago Reader
Top Critic

Brilliantly simple lyrical film was shot on location in Tahiti.

Full Review… | March 18, 2013
Ozus' World Movie Reviews

Tabu is deliberate and forced in its playfulness, cheaply melodramatic in its tragedy, and unconscionably long-winded.

Full Review… | January 18, 2013
The Nation

A brilliant film that deservedly won the Best Cinematography Oscar.

Full Review… | August 20, 2012

Magnificent, filled with shimmering, luminescent images that evoke both paradise and paradise lost.

Full Review… | August 29, 2006
TV Guide

Audience Reviews for Tabu: A Story of the South Seas


After the Great Depression, audiences needed a happy, upbeat tale of love on the south seas. Aw yeah.

Andy Cramer
Andy Cramer

The backstory of "Tabu" is more impressive than what appears on screen. Shot in Bora Bora with a cast of "South Sea Islanders and a few half-castes and Chinese," this 1931 silent does a remarkable job of choreographing untrained natives (grass skirts and all) into a cohesive story. There are no dialogue cards and, instead, crucial plot information is craftily delivered through shots of diary entries, ship logs and scrolls (luckily for us, the natives print in perfect block letters). The plot is essentially an exotic version of "Romeo and Juliet." Seemingly in their late teens, Reri and Matahi are innocent lovers amid their idyllic community, spending their days dancing, swimming and fishing. But trouble comes when a ship docks offshore, carrying white men and representatives from a distant tribe. This tribe's religion apparently requires a sacred maiden to symbolize all that's good and righteous. She is "tabu" (we would say "taboo") and must remain absolutely pure and untouched -- not even the subject of desirous looks. The visiting chief, Hitu, announces that they need a new girl for this role, and their choice is Reri. This is a great honor. Reri is obligated to sail away with the ship, which naturally devastates her and Matahi. Matahi and Reri sneak away in the night and sail to a more civilized, white-dominated island. There, they are welcomed into a fishing village where Matahi becomes renowned as a pearl diver. But the "tabu" curse follows them, and it's only a matter of time before the betrayed tribesmen track them down. "Tabu" is only 85 minutes but still feels overlong. Its simple plot could have fit into an hour. The film was an unusual collaboration between F.W. Murnau (who tragically died a week before its premiere) and Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North"), and its picturesque choreography won Floyd Crosby (father of singer David Crosby) an Oscar. That trio's work is impeccable, but Hugo Riesenfeld's syrupy score is a bit alienating -- it gives the film the ambience of a dated Disney travelogue for kids. I kept expecting an avuncular narrator to enter, winking about how much fun the waterfall lagoon looks.

Eric Broome
Eric Broome

Super Reviewer


Has a very fresh feel to it. Saw this at #271 on a "Top 1000 Movies Ever" list and thought it'd be worth a look. It's essentially a poetic/naturalist/neorealistic retelling of Sunrise, if that makes any sense. In everyman terms- its simple, the performances are splendid, and F. W. Murnau delivers elegantly shot exotic local cinematography of waterfalls and jungles and native festivals, and the beauty comes from this simplicity. The ending made the movie for me. Not in the same league as Murnau's Faust or Nosferatu or Sunrise, since those are all haunting and strewn with shadows. More like a National Geographic program with a "star crossed lovers" storyline. Since it's a silent film, expect your interest to be eroded by slowness, but nevertheless it's worth seeing. 89/100

Simeon Deutsch
Simeon Deutsch

Super Reviewer

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