His Majesty O'Keefe

His Majesty O'Keefe is a 1954 American adventure film directed by Byron Haskin and starring Burt Lancaster. The cast also included Joan Rice, André Morell, Abraham Sofaer, Archie Savage, and Benson Fong. The screenplay by Borden Chase and James Hill was based on the novel of the same name by Laurence Klingman and Gerald Green (1952).[3]

His Majesty O'Keefe
Directed byByron Haskin
Produced byHarold Hecht
Screenplay byBorden Chase
James Hill
Based onnovel by Lawrence Klingman
Gerald Green
StarringBurt Lancaster
Joan Rice
André Morell
Abraham Sofaer
Music byDimitri Tiomkin (original score)
Robert Farnon (alternate score: UK release)
CinematographyOtto Heller
Edited byManuel del Campo
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • January 16, 1954 (1954-01-16) (United States)
Running time
91 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$1.5 million[1]
Box office$2.5 million (US & Canada rentals)[2]

Plot summary

Captain David O'Keefe (Burt Lancaster), seeking his fortune in the 19th century South Pacific, decides to enlist island natives to harvest copra, but runs into a wall of cultural problems. Backed by a Chinese dentist, he obtains a ship and sets about harvesting copra while fending off cantankerous native chieftains and ambitious German empire-builders. The natives, happy with their existence, see no reason to work hard to obtain copra, either for a German trading company or for O'Keefe. He finally motivates them by showing them how to produce large quantities of Rai stones, the stone money of Yap, their valued coinage.


Historical basis

The story is based on the life of a sailor named David O'Keefe[3] who in 1871 was shipwrecked on Yap in the Caroline Islands, where he found the natives highly prized Rai stones quarried at great effort and danger on the island of Palau. He organized the natives to produce the large stone disks by employing modern methods and then used them to buy copra for coconut oil. The stones he produced were not valued as highly as those obtained by traditional methods due to the lack of personal sacrifice in their production, and the effect of an inflationary over-production.[4]


Original book

O'Keefe's life was turned into a 1950 book by Lawrence Klingman and Gerard Green.[5] The Los Angeles Times said the writers did "a magnificent job".[6] The Chicago Tribune called it a "well told story".[7] The new York Times called it "interesting" and "curious".[8]


Film rights were optioned in December 1950 by Norma Productions, the company of Harold Hecht and Burt Lancaster.[9]

In April 1951 Lancater announced Fred Zinnemann would direct.[10] Lancaster was very busy at this time in his career and the film was not made immediately. In January 1952 Frank Nugent was reported as working on the script.[11] In May 1952 Byron Haskin signed to direct.[12]

The film would be the last in a six-picture deal between Hecht, Lancaster and Warner Bros. The others had been Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, The First Time, Ten Tall Men, The Flame and the Arrow, and The Crimson Pirate.[13]


Haskin arrived in Sydney, Australia in June 1952 and a number of Australian actors had roles in the supporting cast, including Lloyd Berrell, Guy Doleman and Harvey Adams. Max Osbiston was offered a role but turned it down due to his film commitments.[14][15]

Later in June Haskin moved to Fiji where the bulk of the movie was shot.[16][17]

The film was made with "frozen" English funds, so many English technicians and cast were used and it was decided to shoot on location in Fiji, a British colony at the time.[16][18]

Joan Rice was cast in July 1952.[19]


Fiming took four months, mostly on location in the South Pacific in Fiji - not Yap. Also, indigenous people and customs/dances portrayed in the movie were Fijian. [20]

The choreographer was Daniel Nagrin.[21]

The unit was based at the Beachcomber Hotel at Deuba Beach in Viti Levu. The entire village of Goloa five miles west of the hotel was rented. Two miles east of Deuba the unit built a temporary sound stage as well as a darkroom and lab. The village was handed over to the locals after the unit left[16][18]

"I can't say that we'd ever want to remake O'Keefe," said Lancaster later. "It was so tough working in the humidity that one day I actually watched fungus grow on my clothes. Every day blazing sun or tropical rain beat down upon us and at night there were always mosquitos."[18]

Filming finished in November 1952.[22][23][24]


The film was popular. However Warner Bros were unhappy by the fact it went over budget. Hecht and Lancaster brought in screenwriter James Hill to form Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and they signed with United Artists.


The film prompted Guy Doleman to go to Hollywood.[25]

Director Byron Haskin later returned to Australia to make Long John Silver (1954).


  1. Kate Buford, Burt Lancaster: An American Life, Da Capo 2000 p 124
  2. 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  3. Klingman, Lawrence; Green, Gerald (1950). His Majesty O'Keefe. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  4. "Book Review. FANTASTIC STORY OF RED BEARDED KING OF IRELAND". The Northern Star. New South Wales, Australia. 9 June 1952. p. 8. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  5. "THE MAN WHO RULED OVER YAP". Truth (3248). New South Wales, Australia. 27 April 1952. p. 31. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  6. 'King of Yap' Again Lives Lusty Life of South Seas Guzman, Don. Los Angeles Times 8 Oct 1950: D8.
  7. Shrewd Yankee Trader Who Became King of Yap Krogman, Wilton M. Chicago Daily Tribune 22 Oct 1950: i5.
  8. On Yap He Was King: Author's Query New York Times 22 Oct 1950: BR14.
  9. LANCASTER TO STAR IN SHIPWRECK TALE: Norma Productions Buys 'His Majesty O'Keefe' for the Actor's First '52 Role By THOMAS F. BRADY New York Times 1 Jan 1951: 14.
  10. Drama: Zinnemann to Direct 'O'Keefe' With Lancaster; 'Blue Veil' Expanded Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 14 Apr 1951: 9.
  11. STUDIO BRIEFS Los Angeles Times 7 Feb 1952: B8.
  12. JERRY WALD IS SET TO BUY OUT KRASNA: Completes Deal for Interest in Film Firm They Share -Company Stays at R.K.O. By THOMAS M. PRYORSpecial to THE NEW YORK TIMES 3 May 1952: 18.
  13. Burt Breaks Mold When Typed: Burt Balks at Typed Film Roles Scheuer, Philip K. Los Angeles Times 14 Dec 1952: D1.
  14. "A different variety show". The Sun (13287). New South Wales, Australia. 9 September 1952. p. 23 (LATE FINAL EXTRA). Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  15. Vagg, Stephen (29 July 2019). "Unsung Aussie Filmmakers – Grant Taylor: A Top Ten". Filmink.
  16. Witness of Cannibal Feast Helps in Production of Fiji Island Film: Natives Aid Stars Doing Film in Fijis Scott, John L. Los Angeles Times 23 Nov 1952: D1.
  17. "Film Director Seeks Talent Here". The Sydney Morning Herald (35, 714). New South Wales, Australia. 9 June 1952. p. 1. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  19. GARSON, ALLYSON NAMED FOR ROLES: Former Will Play Marjorie Lawrence, 'Met' Opera Star -- Latter in Comedy Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES 11 July 1952: 13.
  20. "Island film costumes designed by Fijian". The Australian Women's Weekly. 20, (11). Australia, Australia. 13 August 1952. p. 39. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  22. "Work ending on Fiji film". The News. 59, (9, 125). South Australia. 6 November 1952. p. 5. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  23. ""WE ARE ALL CRAZY OVER THESE SOUTH SEAS PRINTS"". The Sunday Herald (Sydney) (199). New South Wales, Australia. 16 November 1952. p. 22. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  24. "From ... The Bookshelf". Narrogin Observer. 49, (2495). Western Australia. 12 June 1953. p. 16. Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.CS1 maint: extra punctuation (link)
  25. "Australian actor gets Lucky break". Brisbane Telegraph. Queensland, Australia. 24 September 1953. p. 24 (LAST RACE). Retrieved 13 February 2019 via National Library of Australia.
  • Chujoy, Anatole. The Dance Encyclopedia. (Simon and Schuster, 1967)
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