The ageless tale of survival in an unfit environment meets up with classic World War II drama in John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific (1968), starring legendary international cinema tough guys, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. This film stands out because there is a slight twist to the standard war movie plot. There are only two actors for the entire film and it all takes place miles away from battle.
The backdrop to this cool concept and character study is an uninhabited tropical island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Gruff screen mug, Lee Marvin (The Caine Mutiny, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Dirty Dozen-1967, and many more man-movies), plays a nameless American pilot who has crash landed on the island, and the man from Japan, the explosive powerhouse that is Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Duel at Keymaker’s Corner, Seven Samurai, The Samurai trilogy, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, and the sword-swinging list goes on), plays the marooned Japanese navy captain.
Alone and desperate, the two testosterone-fueled brutes wage their own personal WWII on the island. Control of the beach, drinkable water, food, and supplies are the objects of their game. The winner gets to survive a little while longer. Another odd thing about this movie is that since neither character speaks the other’s language the dialogue is very minimal and unnecessary for the telling of the story. The viewer doesn’t need to know English or Japanese in order to comprehend exactly what is going on or what each character is thinking.
John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Zardoz, and Excalibur) directs this suspenseful and intriguing journey into the minds of these two stubborn and starving characters with much complexity and humanity. Hell in the Pacific is much more than a war movie. It’s anthropology. It’s a study of clashing cultures and a fascinating survivalist story. The American pilot (Marvin) and the Japanese naval officer (Mifune) represent a sort of microcosm for the thoughts of America and Japan during this time in history. Distrust, ethnocentrism, anger, and fear are all featured prominently in this film and capture the mindset of the time, but Boorman puts it all down to two men who are miles away from civilization. Despite their removal from all of their cultural mandates that demand they behave certain ways toward their so-called enemies, the American pilot and Japanese naval officer maintain their preconceptions and paranoia. The added complexity of their impassable language barrier makes things even more difficult to overcome. The film does not remain in this limbo of hate and fear for its entirety however.
After smoke, fire, sticks, bullets, urine, and other means of sabotage and psychological torment to undo their opponents, Lee Marvin’s character is captured by Toshiro Mifune’s character, but Marvin escapes and batters up Mifune pretty good and makes him his prisoner. The whole scenario is odd because both characters know full well that it is not accepted to take prisoners in a survival situation like this and that they are supposed to kill all enemies, but something seems to stay their hands. Could it be the fear of being truly alone? For whatever reason, they keep each other alive.
Exasperated by the increasing unlikelihood of rescue, Marvin eventually sets Mifune free and shouts “Well, do something!” Mifune is about to run away or attack, but begins to realize that Marvin has given up being a soldier. Their only real enemies right now are the ocean and the jungle. The two develop an uneasy alliance and decide they need to take matters into their own hands and find a way off the island. The only other human for miles may be an enemy—according to their respective governments—but right now they are their only chances at survival. They build a raft (after many inarticulate arguments over how to construct it) and man it together, pass the breakers, and sail on into the ocean. The movie becomes dreamlike as the days dissolve into each other and waves pound against them all night and the sun scorches them all day. Amidst it all, the two battered men begin to show each other bits of human kindness. Marvin tries to flag down a passing US plane, but Mifune stops him for fear of being killed if Americans rescue them. That’s right! —there’s a war still on.
SPOILER ALERT: if you would like the rest of the film to be a surprise and if you haven’t seen it then stop here.
The final act and finale are also peculiar to the war genre. The two men spot another island and make way toward it. When they discover a Japanese base a rush of memory of who they both are and where they come from floods back, but they have still cultivated something of a friendship together and this supersedes their soldier duties…for the moment.
Mifune runs out to announce their presence, telling Marvin to stay hidden, but Marvin spots some US equipment and quickly realizes the Americans have captured the base so he runs out screaming not to shoot and shouting that the Japanese soldier is his friend. The base, however, is completely deserted. They clean up and shave off their unkempt beards and recline by a makeshift fire, drink sake, and glance over months-old magazines. A bit tipsy, they begin laughing like old friends (reminds me of another cultural gap crossed via alcohol—the scene in Fiddler on the Roof where the Russians dance with the Jews in the bar). The happy moment is abruptly terminated, however, when a drunken Lee Marvin starts abrasively inquiring why the Japanese don’t believe in Jesus Christ and Toshiro Mifune discovers photographs of slaughtered Japanese soldiers next to advertisements and pictures of sexy women in an American magazine. Unable to communicate, the two men begin shouting and becoming increasingly angry with one another. The animal within is back! In the distance we hear aircraft cutting through the night sky and bombs being dropped, ever gaining. Each fed up, they stand and start to leave, bitter enemies once again, but a bomb is dropped right on the deserted base by a passing plane and they are killed together. Despite all their progress, they die foolishly like enemies.
A puzzling ending? A maddening ending? A cop-out ending? I’ve heard it called all three and more. Maybe it is a bit of those, but I think what’s more important is what we learned and not what the characters lost. The DVD release actually features an alternate ending where they are not bombed and they just gather their things and walk off in opposite directions. The DVD also features subtitles for those curious as to what Mifune is muttering through the whole movie (most of it being a combination of “shut up” and “white beard”).
After watching Hell in the Pacific several times and watching almost everyone’s disappointment with the ending I wonder why it still doesn’t bother me so much. It may not have been the best ending, but I got so much out of watching these two characters grow, and my heart was genuinely disturbed by how fragile it all was. I knew things could never be lastingly happy between these two erratic men. Hell in the Pacific is a social and cultural character study more than a war movie and when you take it as such I think it is a much more rewarding experience. . . On another interesting note, both Marvin and Mifune served in WWII (adds another fun dimension to it all, I think).
Why did I like it? Well, if it’s not already obvious, I am a fan of both Lee Marvin (ever since I saw The Dirty Dozen as a kid) and Toshiro Mifune (ever since I saw Seven Samurai and started getting into Kurosawa). These are two awesome, salty, manly actors with wonderful screen presence and power. Putting them together to fight and survive on a small island Lord of the Flies-style is great. Having them teach me about another time and different mindset is just the icing on the cake. It’s a pleasure watching these two guys on film and I think the story is more than worth their efforts. It’s smart and different and I love that. I am also a fan of war movies from the 50s and 60s so that adds a lot (some of my favorites being Stalag 17, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Paths of Glory, The Guns of Navarone, and The Devil’s Brigade). Hell in the Pacific easily makes my list of great must-see war movies. If you love classic war movies, Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, or stories of survival than you really shouldn’t miss Hell in the Pacific. I strongly recommend it.
For another movie about WWII soldiers stuck on an island (but with vastly different themes), check out Gabriele Salvatores’ Mediterraneo (1991).
Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” March 16, 2010.