No man is an island, yet it takes just two to start a hostilities. Hell in Pacific is one of the most under-rated war films ever made. Directed by prolific John Boorman, known for Point Blank, Deliverance & Hope and Glory to name some of his best, with 22 films in his career extending 50 years. This remarkable film brings two best actors of 60’s starring the American Lee Marvin and Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. The movie represents the post Pearl Harbour attack, followed by American declaration of war against Japan and Kamikaze attacks and conquering of Okinawa in mid-June 1945.
The film was entirely shot in the Rock Islands of Palau in the North Pacific Ocean, near the Philippines in the Philippine Sea. This intoxicating, mind-altering film Hell in the Pacific, certainly is no art-house or the war gambit, but converges into a classic film, contains very little dialogue.
Just to remind for those who are not familiar with the movie- Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin played a Japanese navy captain and a US air force pilot, respectively, who are forsaken on a remote, abandoned Pacific island, endure to engage in threatening of the bigger war raging around them. The film mirrored the real lives of both men in some respect. Lee Marvin had served in the war and been wounded in action during the battle for Saipan, while Mifune had served in the Japanese imperial army.
The intrigue of the story is forthright. Somewhere in the Pacific during World War II, an American soldier and Japanese soldier get stranded on an uninhabited island. At first, they continue the war on a man-to-man scale, but, as the harsh reality of their isolation sets in, they join forces in the fight for survival. As an audience, we are drawn to their story through an enchanting series of impressions, emphasized further by long stretches of survival instincts and their inability to communicate in an Island in its depth of each ones alienation is felt through the striking visuals, pacing, and sparseness marked by naturalistic sound gives trivialities and then the whir of day’s survival in hushing the long pause
Then the thwarting of constrained communiqué between the Japanese- and English-speaking gets into the palpable allegory. Their roaring vexation and prejudice intensifies the dense visual sense dizzies on its own. In one of the scene, Marvin is startled with the Japanese saying “Oh, it’s you! I thought you were a Jap.” without realizing as an enemy. It’s no less vibrant is the interplay of Marvin and Mifune, both shrewd in their physical jesters, faultless in harmony to the absurd farce of castaways taking turns making prisoners of one another. This interpretation is appealing and powerful in course of creating faith between the two soldiers on different sides of the war. The most poignant moments are when the companionship between the two men seems genuine and no longer only a need for survival.
The enormity of the jungle overwhelming Mifune is a frame for the ages. Hell in Pacific has a certain deep rooted difference in the core of each of these characters. It’s slightly difficult in explaining the complexities, but there’s something about Toshiro san that we think is amazing and unique. At least, he has an uncanny ability to project different emotions at the same time. For sure only Toshiro can look both terrified and terrifying synchronic. The inhibitions of the Japanese man never felt the same with his American counterpart.
Lee Marvin, on other hand looked nails intense and a two-fisted truth which raised his performance to the hilt. The introspective shots of a lonely island are gorgeous. Equally, the cinematography of the action is handled well, building up and releasing tension as the two characters alternatively are almost killed by each other and by the elements.
The film also amalgams the human emotions so seriously, respite their differences, and the time that each gets their chance to capture and kill the other, but neither pushes this to the end and unblemished that fertile middle ground survives in both the men of how they blatantly and barely without speaking to each other is delightfully captured in an uninterrupted sunset and the melancholy of the man thinking on the edge of an island is clearly a cinematic marvel
The movie was initially released with a rather unforeseen ending, one that left many disappointed with the outcome of the struggle these men endured. The consequent DVD release has an alternative ending, which while leaving the eventual destiny of the two ambiguous, was much more in line with the overall direction of the movie. The alternate end captures aboard a sun-baked raft, the peace withstands between the two at a bombed-out compound, between cups of sake and pages of Life magazine. There also an abstract essential conflicts that quintessence the Boorman’s signature of movie making, practically you can see the ditto of a rough draft in his succeeding movie Deliverance.
In one of the interview, Boorman stated that the Hell in the Pacific was one of the toughest scripts he ever worked on, due to the language barriers and the making of the film was even tougher. Mifune spoke very little English and he spoke no Japanese. Mifune had this interpreter working for him. This was a largely Japanese crew, except for Conrad Hall, the cameraman. So he would say something to the interpreter, if he didn’t like what Mifune had done, which was a loss of face for him in front of the crew. The interpreter would say “Please don’t ask me to say that to him.” “Just translate it!” So he’d translate it, and Mifune would scream at him, then turn around and smile at me, as though Boorman had nothing to do with it. Toshiro Mifune took many international assignments, but few did him justice. It was only with Hell in the Pacific that captured something of his stature and humor
Certainly a must watch, the film will leave you with more questions than answers about war and its catastrophe in a very strange and vivid portrait of how the mankind could befell millions of men and women in a conflict that would change everything. An unambiguous reality and the war’s most profound conundrums continue to evade solution.