Hell In The Pacific (USA 1968)

indexIgnoring the ridiculously abrupt ending, Hell in the Pacific is excellent in its structure. A great concept–two men are lost together on an island in the Pacific. The Second World War is over, but prejudices remain, as one man is Japanese, one American. They don’t share a language, so there is basically no dialogue. There is only survival. How do you make a feature length film about this without stretching the idea thin, without boring the viewer, without resorting to clichés of makeshift boats and coconut to eat? You don’t.

The film is ambitious about very little, and if it seems impressive in some isolated, focused way, it is still slow going. Considering that the target audience is going to be English-speaking (although the experience would not be too diminished for a Japanese audience) the story is told in the beginning from the perspective of the Japanese man. The American character is a mere presence amid the trees, and the fact that we can understand him is of little consequence because he doesn’t say much of relevance. The Toshiro Mifune character is more loquacious, even though most viewers won’t know what he’s saying, and Lee Marvin’s relative quietness emphasizes the wordless savagery of the first half.

It’s only as the picture progresses and the men become more amiable towards each that they become recognizably human characters. But even this is done more through imagery than words, giving us an equally good impression of the two of them despite the language barrier. This telling from the Japanese point-of-view is also reinforced in the methods of director John Boorman, who often makes the camera Mifune’s eyes or keeps him up front while Marvin lurks in the background. Other than that, Boorman’s style as a director is like a love letter to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, the latter especially. He gives us gnarly close-ups, a dynamic rhythmn and eye-catching tableaux.

mingThere is a shot of Marvin and Mifune as they arrive on the second island, looking like statues about to leap into action. It is all very overtly stylized, but it is a pretty neat way of keeping this story of such simple elements constantly interesting and engaging. Toshiro Mifune is well-known to even the most casual of foreign cinema buffs, being the favourite star of the aforementioned Kurosawa. It’s nice to see him used well in this less familiar context. I noticed, seeing him here opposite Lee Marvin, he is not a tall man, but he makes up for this with his strong presence and irascible energy.

But it’s not all about the rage. I like here his passively bemused responses when Marvin is ranting at him. Lee Marvin shows his easy capacity for turning a serious-sounding performance into something surprisingly comical, such as his acting out of throwing the stick and picking it up. Appropriately for a movie of few words, music plays a big part in Hell in the Pacific. The Lalo Schifrin score is by turns haunting, playful, and sometimes teasingly melodramatic. It is an unusually big score for a movie that is otherwise so minimalist, but its constant variation and inventiveness suits the action very well. And, aside from the power of its message, this is part of what makes Hell in the Pacific so appealing. It is all of a piece, a mesmerizing tone poem on a the fate of humanity.



Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: