Hell in the Pacific (1968)
Directed by John Boorman
Produced by Reuben Bercovitch
Written by Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, Eric Bercovici
Music by Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography by Conrad Hall
Cinerama Releasing Corporation
Kino Lorber Blu-ray (1:43)
For good or bad, director John Boorman’s name is usually connected with films such as the lauded Deliverance (1972), the mostly despised Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977), the cult favorite Zardoz (1974), and the noirish Point Blank (1967), among others. Like them or not, once you’ve seen those films, you don’t forget them. Yet one of his most intriguing efforts, Hell in the Pacific, is largely forgotten. Is it forgotten for a reason? (Mild spoilers follow)
Lee Marvin and Tashiro Mifune should be enough to grab anyone’s attention. If those names mean nothing to modern audiences, they should. Both are highly-respected names in the history of cinema, pivotal figures who worked for important directors in important films. Marvin famously won an Oscar for his performance in Cat Ballou (1965), which kicked his already impressive career into overdrive. Mifune made over 150 films, 16 of them for Akira Kurosawa, many of those undisputed masterpieces. Bringing these guys together had to be a good idea, right?
The film immediately earns the viewer’s respect for not spelling things out. We don’t know exactly when the story takes place, but it’s obviously during World War II on a remote island in the Pacific. Thankfully we’re spared a voiceover narration, left on our own to figure out that Marvin is a downed American pilot and Mifune is a marooned Japanese naval officer. (These roles are significant later.) Although Mifune is listed as Captain Tsuruhiko Kuroda, Marvin is simply listed as “American Pilot.” For the remainder of this review, I will simply refer to them as Mifune and Marvin.
Our introduction to Mifune finds him scanning the horizon of the shore, looking for either rescue ships or signs of an enemy vessel. Although Mifune spies a smashed raft against the rocks, he realizes he’s not alone when Marvin screams in his sleep from the island’s thick brush. Thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse until the two combatants are brought out into the open.
The timing here is tricky. Just from the poster (or DVD/Blu-ray cover), we know we’re in the midst of a man-to-man battle, perhaps a winner-take-all conflict. Had this film been shot shortly after WWII, audiences may have expected a certain type of ending. Since it was produced in 1968, all bets are off. Times had changed, and the ending could certainly be reflected by those changes. Understanding the times, you begin to think you know where the film is going. More on that in a moment.
The first meeting of the two men results in a brief fantasy sequence in which each combatant imagines killing the other. This is clearly a fantasy and the only time we see any scene from the point of view of each man’s imagination. Boorman wisely chose to give us this moment early in the film, then abandon the technique. Although the film contains several moments of humor, Boorman comes dangerously close to farce in having Mifune capture and subdue Marvin, then a few moments later, having Marvin capture and subdue Mifune in the exactly the same way.
The main prejudices in the film are those we bring to the picture ourselves, and again, audiences from different generations may react differently. Thankfully Marvin and Mifune’s characters aren’t stereotyped. When Mifune ties up Marvin, placing him in a sort of cross-like beam of wood, we instantly think of a crucifix, but when Marvin turns the tables on Mifune, we’re not exactly sure how to feel. Their initial hatred of each other is so strong we suspect they might just torch or blow up the whole island in victory over the other, the fact be damned that they’d both be killed.
Again, Boorman’s refusal to spell things out strengthens an already compelling film. When the opportunity presents itself for one of the men to easily kill the other, he doesn’t. Perhaps he realizes the futility of such an act, recognizing that in order to survive and escape, they’re going to have to work together. Some may interpret this lack of an explanation as a weakness of the script, but it is in fact the opposite. We see subtle shadings of the characters and are just possibly surprised at which character shows compassion first. Later one of the characters submits to the assumed expertise of the other.
If you watch the film without subtitles, you’ll get none of Mifune’s lines in translation (unless, of course, you understand Japanese). With the subtitles selected on your player, you’ll get the English translation of all of Mifune’s words, which allows you a bit more of the character’s motivations behind the actions he takes. Of course, the two characters onscreen can’t understand each other except through gestures and an occasional common word. The characters’ inability to communicate forces us to consider the question: Does inability to communicate in war cause fear, confusion, hatred, or all three? And what, besides killing each other, can you do about it?
The film’s major weakness is its ending and it is a major weakness. Do yourself a favor and watch the alternate ending first, then go back and watch the theatrical ending, which was made without Boorman’s consent. The film was a box office failure and although you can't blame all of that on the weak ending, it certainly didn't help.
One element that isn’t weak at all is the marvelous Lalo Schifrin score (for my money, one of his best). When you combine the superb Conrad Hall cinematography with outstanding performances from Marvin and Mifune, you’ve got an overlooked treasure. Hell in the Pacific may not be a great film, but it’s definitely one worth viewing at least once. I’d recommend it as a blind buy with no reservations whatsoever.
The Kino Blu-ray contains an audio commentary with film historians Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman (which I have not yet listened to) and may explain some of the difficulties of the shoot (many of which were caused by Mifune), a topic Boorman himself discusses in a 33-minute interview. The disc also includes an 11-minute interview with art director Anthony Pratt.
Photos: blu-ray.com, Zeke Film, Cinapse