Catch-Up: Cinema Shame May – John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific

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I have a lot to catch up on. I hate being behind. So let’s dive in and get caught up with July.

My favorite filmmaker of all time is Akira Kurosawa. I discovered Seven Samurai at my local video store when I was in 7th or 8th grade. I was entranced by it from the drop. In this film was a maniacal, jumpy, overacting, hammy nuisance named Kikuchiyo, played by an actor I would come to know as Toshiro Mifune; Mifune being arguably the most recognizable and popular international actor to ever come out of Japan. What I didn’t get then, as an early teen, was Mifune’s brand of acting was broad to the western eye, and especially to someone brought up on more subtle acting of 1970s cinema and Method actors out of New York. When you’re educated that acting equals one thing, it’s difficult to reevaluate and reassess something so deeply ingrained. But Mifune was broad because Kikuchiyo was broad; a lively young man in a constant state of arrested development, at least until the titular other samurai grow him up (and vice versa). Mifune was similar as the bandit in Rashomon, so again I thought “well, this is the dude I’m gonna know…the jumpy, screaming dude who chews scenery.”

My love of Kurosawa continued from there. Everything I could find by the Japanese master, I consumed. Unfortunately, the selection at my local video store left me wanting, even as great and varied as their art house and foreign section was. I hit the library too, where I found some more Kurosawa, but also Dassin, Melville, Hitchcock and Fellini. By the time I entered college, I was a seasoned Kurosawa fan. I read the biographies and his autobiography. And, I sought out anything about his work with Mifune especially; a cinematic relationship that spanned 16 films and is matched by few other Director/Actor teams. By this time, I had seen Mifune had range. Seeing the man in Rashomon and Seven Samurai paints him one way, seeing him in Stray Dog, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Red Beard and especially I Live in Fear paints him 180 degrees in the other direction. Kurosawa has a famous line about how efficient Mifune was as an actor; something like “what takes a regular actor 10 gestures to convey Mifune can convey in 3.” He really is what any movie star should be: charismatic, intelligent, beautiful and infinitely watchable. Any scene in any movie Mifune is in, he is what draws the eye. Even in shit. Even in 1941.

It’s in college during my infatuation that I learned about Hell in the Pacific. Basically, the film is a mix of Castaway and The Bridge on the River Kwai. A Japanese soldier (Mifune) and an American soldier (Lee Marvin) are stranded on an island during the waning days of World War II. They are immediately at each other’s throats; Mifune seems to have the survival skills, ability to make fire, and most of the fresh water, while Marvin has nothing. There’s some cat & mouse, Road Runner and Wile E Coyote antics — all with Mifune only speaking un-subtitled Japanese and Marvin only speaking English — but soon they wear each other down and realize they have to work together to survive. Fishing, building fires and shelter, all begrudgingly still, mind you, but more civil than the start. Then, they join forces to create a raft to get away. They struggle on the open seas, as you’d expect. But they find new land: a blown out, vacated American base. In good spirits from finding cigarettes and sake, and from the high they both must be feeling from sheer adrenaline and possible survival, the two men get along. Mifune finds medical scissors and mirrors, which affords the two men something they haven’t had in ages: clean-shaven faces. Newly classed-up, Marvin and Mifune share sake and a warm fire in one of the base’s offices. TIME magazines are also strewn about the base, and as Mifune sifts through one to find pictures of his fellow Japanese soldiers being captured and killed, his ire rises once again. It just so happens Marvin is on a diatribe at that very moment about how “you people don’t believe in God, in Jesus Christ!”

Then the film ends. Abruptly. Bombs exploding in the distance come home quick and blow up the building Marvin and Mifune are fighting in. This ending has been controversial and detested for longer than I have known about it. AND it’s possibly the reason I never sought out Hell in the Pacific sooner.

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That’s right. The British version was severely changed by the studio. The American version has the two men arguing & fighting in their respective languages, then walking off in separate directions. Their fates are ambiguous. This latter ending happens to be more in line with the mission statement of the movie: how we don’t hear / listen / comprehend each other during war. The two leads never have to speak each other’s language; their friendship is slight, only dependent on survival. They both have their prejudices, and not even a moment’s respite will change their point-of-view. But blow them up suddenly with no rhyme or reason, almost akin to Dr. Strangelove, and against the filmmaker’s intention? What a horrid outcome. This isn’t a satire of war. It’s a deep analysis of it and the character of war.

I say all this because I admire the concept of Hell in the Pacific more than the film actually. It’s an okay movie. Not earth-shattering. It is directed by Boorman, a frequently reliable director when it comes to character-driven 60s/70s cinema. It is shot by Conrad Hall, probably one of the Top 3 cinematographers in Hollywood history and a constant influence on documentary and lowlight filmmakers. Lalo Schifrin does turn in a unique score, even though he becomes more well known for a style he plants in the next decade. And of course, Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. Marvin is gruff and sly, what he does best. Mifune is aptly crazy at one moment and reserved Japanese tradition the next. All these ingredients should make for a grand movie. Honestly, sometimes it hits, other times it’s a slog. It’s got Castaway moments, long stretches where things play out with little dialogue, and I love that stuff usually. But, here, I found it a chore to keep interest going. I do, however, absolutely agree with this, and it was the main draw of the film for me:

 

Toshiro Mifune also took on foreign assignments, but few did him justice. It was only John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific that captured something of his range, humour and power.

 

 

Mifune again proves to be the most watchable person in the room. I just wish the film had been better. It’s an oddity for completists. It’s got fantastic moments of cinematography and chemistry between the leads — it’s obvious Marvin admired Mifune enough as an international star to share the spotlight with him. Marvin was a ballsy actor willing to take risks, just like Burt Lancaster was. And, it shows with his commitment to this project. If it had done better financially, this could have catapulted Mifune to a new sphere of stardom. I guess we’ll just have to live with the work he’s best known for. 😉

1. Some Like It Hot (1959)
2. Howl’s Moving Castle (2004)

3. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
4. Napoleon Dynamite (2004)
5. Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
6. It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
7. Cinema Paradiso (1988)
8. Breathless (1960)
9. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
10. It Happened One Night (1934) / His Girl Friday (1940)
11. Sabrina (1954)
12. Hell in the Pacific (1968)

 

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