HELL IN THE PACIFIC: Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune, and the Human Condition

Classic John Boorman war film hits Kino Lorber Blu-ray June 27th, 2017

The setup of Hell In The Pacific, a Japanese and an American soldier stuck on an isolated island together in a microcosm of World War II, is well-trodden. Perhaps popularized by this very film, but certainly a bit of a trope since (even being heavily referenced in the recent Kong: Skull Island), the setup is nevertheless potent. The execution of Hell In The Pacific is what takes an unlikely but fascinating scenario and turns it into dramatic, and relevant, filmmaking. Stripped down to almost austere basics, stars Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune are the only human beings seen on screen for the entire runtime, and they speak their own native languages, sans subtitles. Meaning Western audiences experience the movie without a full grasp of what Mifune is saying. Famed composer Lalo Schifrin does provide a characteristically great score for the film, but there’s also a bit of an incidental score with flourishes surrounding the events happening on screen that I found to be charming, especially with such a dearth of dialog. The direction and cinematography, respectively, from John Boorman (Deliverance, Zardoz) and Conrad Hall (Road To Perdition, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) knocks the film out of the park, which was perhaps made easier by the hugely photogenic faces of the two leads combined with the beautiful island setting.

It’s all of those legendary names that made it irresistible to cover the Blu-ray release of this film from Kino Lorber. While familiar with his work, I only recently gained name recognition of Oscar winning cinematographer Conrad Hall (the new Shot By Shot podcast at Film School Rejects recently covered Road To Perdition and Hall in general), and was captivated by his camera work here. On top of Hall, I have long been a fan of Boorman, Schifrin, Marvin, and most of all Mifune. When that many titans collaborate on a project, it’s only a matter of time before it rises to the top of my watch list. And I certainly was not disappointed.

I’m going to dive deep into spoiler territory in order to discuss the painfully relevant thematic content of Hell In The Pacific, but I intentionally laid out a broad understanding of all the talent involved and the contributions they brought to the project above in order to recommend it before diving into spoilers. If you don’t want to read any further, just take my word for it that Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune trapped on an island together is a destination you’re going to want to visit.

Thematically fascinating, Hell In The Pacific keeps you guessing all the way to the end regarding the fate of these characters, and what Boorman and company really had to say about humanity with this story. Initially, Marvin and Mifune’s hatred of one another is a deadly threat and is executed with an almost comical exposure of human hatred. Confronting one another, pondering murder, and then devolving into sheer pettiness over the island’s only obvious source of fresh water, these men expose our rawest nature as their game of one-upmanship proceeds round after round. Some might argue that Marvin comes off as the hero of the film simply because American audiences can understand what he’s saying and get perhaps more deeply into his psyche. I disagree. We can understand Marvin’s language, sure, but that only exposes how deeply unlikeable this man is. At least there’s a sense of naive optimism we can direct towards Mifune when we can’t understand what he’s saying.

But the animal nature of survival that caused pettiness to boil over at first yields a mutual realization that neither man will survive without help from the other. At first, an unspoken agreement arises that they will not kill one another. Toddler-like behavior continues between them, but eventually a bit of a mutual understanding emerges, and finally something akin to friendship.

I’d argue that the big takeaway from Hell In The Pacific is that the bond of local community and the shared human need for interaction can overcome literally any barrier. But the catch is that this is only true of a local community. Beyond the boundaries of their island and their situation, these two men would undoubtedly slit one anothers’ throats. Amidst a shared struggle, striving for common goals, these men become friends. The film makes their ultimate bond explicit. It’s their collaboration and mutual respect that gets them off the island on a raft of their own making. It’s their willingness to sacrifice themselves to save the other as they encounter a military base which is ultimately determined to be abandoned which clenches it for the audience. These men are bonded.

And then a bomb falls on them in the middle of a drunken argument and kills them both. Smash cut to “The End”. Damn.

What do Boorman and writers Eric Bercovici and Alexander Jacobs want us to take away from an ending like that? It left my jaw dropped on the floor, so perhaps they just wanted to leave the audience breathless at the close?

I’d argue that the ending holds up a realist view. On the one hand, the power of shared struggle is shown to overcome any obstacle between our two leads. The film leads towards a narrative of hope. That hope is dashed in a hellish final sequence in which alcohol begins to draw out the worst in our protagonists once again. With Marvin prattling on about why Mifune and his people don’t believe in Jesus, the argument (and the alcohol) distracts the men from the sounds of approaching explosions. But their bond is no less real because of this finale. My reflection is that our powers and principalities, our government overlords, the machines of war, ultimately supercede and control our fates, often dealing powerful blows that we as individuals cannot control. Two men can overcome virtually anything and find common ground. Two countries? That may not always be the case.

Two men found hope in the midst of war through a communal bond. Hell In The Pacific swallowed them whole. And yet, the hope was no less real.

The Package

This release features a full cut of the film that concludes with an alternate ending. This ending features our protagonists simply calling it quits and walking away from one another, letting their differences get the better of them. It’s perhaps less bleak in that our heroes don’t explicitly die. But I think that alternate ending (and apparently both endings were fairly commonly used depending on what country you saw the film in) betrays the undercurrent of hope running through the picture. In the deadly ending, our protagonists share a true bond. In the alternate ending, their tried and tested friendship dissolves over the first bottle of sake it encounters. Both are interesting, abrupt, and impose a fairly harsh judgement on humanity.

There’s also a dense commentary track featuring historian Travis Crawford. I quite enjoyed the hour or so I listened to, just letting this man dive into details on the careers of all the major players with an expansive knowledge. If that kind of commentary is your thing, you’ll find much to enjoy here.

There are some other featurettes but the main features described above, along with the high definition treatment allowing Conrad Hall’s images to pop, is what this release is really all about. Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune’s faces deserve all the high definition treatment technology can throw at them.

Largely ignored in its initial release, Hell In The Pacific is a true underseen classic featuring brave work from all the major craftsmen involved and offering much food for thought even today. This Kino Lorber Blu-ray release is the perfect excuse to unearth this gem.

And I’m Out.

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