U.S. Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant James O'Hearn (Burt Lancaster) is being tried at the San Diego Marine base for desertion, theft, scandalous conduct and destruction of property in time of war. He refuses to testify or plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. The film alternates between flashbacks and the courtroom, as witnesses give their testimony.
Showgirl Ginger Martin (Virginia Mayo) takes the stand against his protest. Ginger tells how she, broke and stranded, met O'Hearn and his friend, Marine Private First Class Davy White (Chuck Connors), of the 4th Marines in Shanghai two weeks before the attack on Pearl Harbor. With war looming, the 4th Marines are ordered out of China. White slips away to propose marriage so that Ginger can be evacuated from China (at government expense) as his wife. O'Hearn tracks him down at the nightclub where Ginger works. When the club's manager objects to Ginger quitting, a brawl breaks out. The trio escape aboard a small motor boat.
When the two men start fighting, Ginger tries to help White and accidentally disables the boat. They drift out to sea and are picked up by a passing junk. Once again, the Marines quarrel over White's future. This time, they accidentally set the sail on fire. They have to chop down the mast in order to save the ship. As a result, they are put ashore on the Vichy French island of Namou.
To avoid being jailed, the Marines persuade pro-Axis Governor Pierre Marchand (Leon Askin) that they are deserters. They are quartered in a hotel/brothel run by Lillie Duval and her three "nieces". O'Hearn is delighted to make their acquaintance, to Ginger's annoyance.
When a supposedly Dutch yacht calls at the island, O'Hearn tries to book passage, but the captain, Van Dorck (Rudolph Anders), refuses to take the risk. O'Hearn discovers that Van Dorck is actually a Nazi setting up radar stations on the islands around Guadalcanal, and plots to seize the ship with the help of expatriates like ex-U.S. Navy sailor "Jimmylegs" Donovan (Arthur Shields) and fugitive bank embezzler Smith, and Free French liberated from the prison. White refuses to join and says he is deserting and intends to remain on the island with Ginger. This causes Ginger to have second thoughts about their relationship. O'Hearn forces White on board the yacht at gunpoint. Back in the courtroom, O'Hearn breaks his silence in order to exonerate White.
When Van Dorck and a search party find him, O'Hearn manages to kill them all. He and his men then overthrow the governor and load the island's armory on the ship, intending to join the fighting at Guadalcanal. Ginger slips aboard as a patriotic stowaway.
They stumble upon a group of Japanese landing craft escorted by a destroyer. O'Hearn engages the Japanese in a fierce battle. When the destroyer tries to ram the yacht, White jumps aboard and climbs its smokestack. He throws in explosives, blowing up the destroyer at the cost of his own life. Only O'Hearn and Ginger survive; the rest of the crew die heroically.
The court martial exonerates O'Hearn and recommends White for a posthumous Medal of Honor. O'Hearn and Ginger then admit they love each other.The film included choreography by Lester Horton.
The film was announced by Jack Warner in 1952. He wanted to make an action comedy in the vein of Two Arabian Knights. Frank Lovejoy was mentioned as a possible star and the film originally started in Hong Kong as opposed to Shanghai. Arthur Lubin was given the job of directing.
Burt Lancaster was then signed has star. He had a deal with Warner Bros for them to finance and distribute three movies of his Norma Productions. In return, Lancaster had to appear in some Warner Bros films of which this was one. Filming of Lancaster's next film, From Here to Eternity, had to be pushed back until Lancaster finished South Sea Woman.
Chuck Connors was cast as Lancaster's friend. This led to Connors retiring from basebell.
The movie was shot on the Warner Bros backlot with some location work done on Catalina Island.
The movie was also known as Sulu Sea, South Sea Paradise and The Marines Have a Word for It before Warners decided on South Sea Woman.
The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther called the film "a rip-snorting glorification of two United States Marines", with Lancaster doing his best "with all the muscle and charm at his command", but in the end, dismissed the effort as "a terrible lot of nonsense and, eventually, a fizzle as a show."