What flop 1990s period epic has enjoyed a continuous seven-year run in the distant land where it was set and shot? A miniature moai stone carving to anyone who knows the answer is “Rapa Nui,” Kevin Reynolds’ little-seen-or-loved feature which, in its quasi-historical, dramatically overcooked manner, suggests how the giant statues of Easter Island were made and why the ancient society collapsed.
Now, tiny Rapa Nui, as the world’s most remote inhabited spot is increasingly being called, is home to only 4,400 people (up from scarcely 1,000 before WWII) and one ATM, which works when it feels like it. Unsurprisingly, there is nothing resembling a proper cinema anywhere nearer than Santiago, Chile, 2,350 miles away.
But every Monday, Tuesday and Friday, “Rapa Nui” is screened in the comfortable salon of the Hotel Manavai in the island’s only town, Hanga Roa, mostly to tourists who probably wouldn’t have bothered to catch the film on TV back home. On a recent visit to one of the most compelling destinations to which I’ve ever traveled, I poked my head in one evening to behold eight people watching the widescreen 1994 Warner Bros. actioner being screened in a squeezed projected DVD copy with French subtitles (probably as many tourists fly here from Tahiti as come from Chile on the twice-weekly flights).
After I scoured the unique island for a couple of days and became familiar with its every corner, it was eerie to suddenly see the extraordinary landscapes in this “Kevin Costner production,” as it is promoted here, used as backdrops for yet another violent product of the Hollywood machine.
In the hotel’s kitchen, I found Maurizio and Carlos, the two young fellows who had the bright idea seven years ago to show this bit of hypothetical history in a land whose past is dominated by mystery and speculation. Although they enjoy showing the film, they disagree on its merits.
The long-haired, garrulous Maurizio doesn’t care for it, insisting it should be titled “Rapa Nui: The Novel” due to all the fictional and chronological liberties he believes it takes. Carlos, a more straitlaced, easy-going fellow (I saw him a couple of nights later working as an airport security man — everyone here seems to have three or four jobs), likes the film for its strong action and entertainment value.
Maurizio estimates that 70% of locals agree that the film is a Hollywood concoction, while the remaining 30% approve of it; among foreigners, he reckons the percentages are reversed. Carlos suspects natives like the film more than Mauirzio lets on, if only because nearly everyone on the island alive at the time was in it or worked on it in some way. In fact, when not nearly enough strapping young men could be found to play the hundreds of warriors and statue luggers, more had to be brought in from as far away as Tonga and New Zealand, and lead actors Jason Scott Lee and Esai Morales are hardly Rapa Nuians.
But the film is significant locally less for artistic or historical reasons than for fiscal ones. Modern Easter Island eras can be distinctly defined as “Before ‘Rapa Nui’ ” and “After ‘Rapa Nui.’ ” Economically, everything changed when the movie people came in 1993; money poured in as never before, attention came to the island, and it was suddenly on the map. Sabrina, a savvy, 30ish tour guide who showed us around the first afternoon, was a teenager when the picture was shot and remembers it as the biggest thing that’s happened here during her lifetime.
Had the picture been an international smash, it’s possible that a tourism boom could have hit, along the lines of what happened after Marlon Brando landed on Tahiti in the early ’60s for “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Folks in Hollywood, accustomed to films set and shot in “exotic” climes, scarcely take into account the impact that multimillion-dollar productions have on the tiny cultures they briefly colonize. But the significance was confirmed to me a few days later in Tahiti by longtime local journalist Alex du Prel. A fabulous character who might have walked out of the pages of Graham Greene, du Prel arrived in Tahiti 35 years ago, after having sailed solo from his native Virgin Islands through the Panama Canal to Hawaii, then on to Tahiti, where he lives high up in the mountains of Moorea.
Du Prel has seen it all. Arriving as the post-“Bounty” enthusiasm for the islands peaked and with experience developing resorts in the Caribbean, he worked for Brando, trying to guide him in properly nurturing his private island before quitting in exasperation.
While running the Bora Bora Lodge, he became very close to, and fond of, David Lean and Robert Bolt during the six months they spent there plotting their unrealized “Bounty” double feature. He then dealt, successively, with Roman Polanski, Dino De Laurentiis and Jan Troell during the shooting of “Hurricane” (he was even given a speaking role as a villainous American naval officer). When Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins came to Moorea to shoot “The Bounty” in the early ’80s, the ceremonial sequences were practically shot in du Prel’s front yard.
In each case, du Prel — while gazing over Cook’s Bay, named after the great English navigator who became the first white man to visit the island 235 years ago — recalled that these productions had a gigantic effect on their locales, at first for the good, long term perhaps not so much.
Brando brought more attention to Tahiti than anyone since Gauguin. Bora Bora was visited by only an elite few (including F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty, who filmed “Tabu” there in 1929-30) prior to Dino and has since become overdeveloped. Moorea, like Tahiti itself, has arguably lost some of its authenticity thanks to its admittedly modest “Hawaiianization” and the lethargizing effects of being on the French government dole (the upside is a standard of living five times higher than on other Pacific islands except Hawaii).
As ever, it’s a matter of being careful what you wish for. Having dreamed of Tahiti all my life, I’m now in love with Easter Island, which I decided to visit based on Edward Albee’s wonderful 2006 travel piece in the New York Times and which feels entirely unspoiled and very much in the ascendant in terms of the populace’s optimism and general good cheer. But if Indiana Jones ever decides to visit, look out.