|Hell in the Pacific|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 16 November 1999|
This is one of the great testosterone-drenched movies of all time. It's not so much that it's a genuine classic as that it's an ultimate guy movie -- there are only two actors, and they're two of the most macho actors in cinema history: Toshiro Mifune and Lee Marvin. John Boorman directed from a screenplay by Alexander Jacobs and Eric Bercovici.
Without any preambles, the movie begins on a small tropical island somewhere in the Pacific; we quickly realize that it's set some time during World War II. Marvin is an American pilot whose plane has just recently gone down near the island; Mifune is a Japanese military officer who has been on the island longer.
Mifune has staked out a small spring, evidently the only one on the island, and Marvin needs water. But more than that, of course, their conflict is spurred on by their being from opposite sides in the war that's still going on out there in the distance. Early on, the face each other across the wide screen (excellent cinematography by Conrad Hall), and instead of imagining how he'd kill the other man, each has a momentary fantasy of being killed by the other one. Marvin has only a hunting knife, while Mifune has held onto his samurai sword. (Implausible, but there you are.)
Mifune sets the island shrubbery afire, hoping to smoke Marvin out, but this doesn't work. Marvin is still desperate for water, but can't get to it, so he angrily destroys the fish trap Mifune has painstakingly constructed. Mifune is more ingenious than Marvin, but not as determined; Mifune erects a barricade of sharpened bamboo and dangles shells from vines as a warning device. In retaliation, Marvin bangs incessantly on his canteen, and sings lousy songs. Unseen, he drops bullets into Mifune's fire; when they explode, he pisses on the Japanese from a tree overhead.
Finally, Mifune captures Marvin and lashes him, ox-yoke style, to a heavy branch. But Marvin manages to escape -- we don't see how -- and in turn takes Mifune captive, until he realizes that this kind of battle simply can't go on. He sets the other man free, and they maintain an uneasy truce until they decide to build a boat and get off the island. Yelling and gesticulating, they manage to somehow communicate and cooperate, and finally set sail. What happens after that is the climax of the film.
And it was the climax that caused the original distributor, Cinerama Corporation, some kind of bizarre problem. Boorman's original ending -- included on the DVD, but not as part of the film -- was ambiguous but entirely appropriate to the story; it has the same strange but satisfying mood, and doesn't pretend to answer any questions because, obviously, there are no solutions to war. Some yahoo decided a definitive ending was needed; the original ending was cut off, and the movie ended with an explosion that apparently killed both men.
HELL IN THE PACIFIC tends to wear its heart on its sleeve at times; while they're investigating a bombed-out building, Mifune surprises Marvin, who says, "For a second, I thought you were a Jap." But mostly, the film is not as didactic as its critics have sometimes claimed; it can be treated as an adventure movie pitting two charismatic and dynamic actors against one another in an isolated setting. It's even brusquely funny at times; after they've reached an impasse, Marvin possessively yells "that's MY log!" -- on a beach littered with logs. (This turns out to be the only English phrase Mifune learns.)
Mifune was really the only possible choice for the role of the Japanese officer; one suspects, in fact, that if he hadn't been available, the movie simply would not have been made. His intense masculinity and panther-like grace made him a star in Japan, and finally around the world, though he made few films outside Japan that used him to best advantage. HELL IN THE PACIFIC, being tailor-made for him, is one of the few exceptions.
Lee Marvin was equally masculine, but somewhat awkward and loose-limbed (imagine Marvin trying to dance). He was as intensely American as Mifune was Japanese, and even more expressive. He wasn't a handsome man, but it hardly mattered; he was a powerful, aggressive actor, and at his best -- and he's excellent here -- you couldn't take your eyes off him.
The photography is cool, clean and gray much of the time, as if it's always about to rain (and it sometimes does). Hall makes great use of the widescreen lens; he's helped by the locations, which are scenic but not luxuriant. It's the tropics, yes, but this is a long way from paradise, as the title insists. Lalo Schifrin's music is highly variable, ranging from the timelessly appropriate to the harsh, jangling and extremely dated noises he uses during the first third.
Aside from the welcome inclusion of the original ending, the DVD has no real extras. Alternate dialog tracks would be pointless, since Mifune's dialog is not translated, and Marvin's might as well not be. However, this unusual and seldom-seen movie is worthy of the release, and Anchor Bay is once again to be congratulated for digging out nearly-lost movies such as this.