Hell in the Pacific (1968)

D: John Boorman
S: Lee Marvin, Toshiro Mifune

Powerful, very cinematic study of two men reduced to basic survival when stranded together on a Pacific Island. The fact that one is American and the other Japanese and the film is set during the second world war complicates the situation, and adds a neat twist to the Robinson Crusoe scenario. A potentially politically charged allegorical parable is subtly subverted by director John Boorman's insistence on elemental imagery and an emphasis on physical detail and turned to a more primal study of masculinity stripped of society but not entirely bereft of convention.

The film is beautifully photographed in panavision by Conrad Hall, and makes splendid use of the frame to emphasise the relation between the characters and the landscape as well as each other. Sound effects and a percussive score by Lalo Shifrin contribute to the film's primitivist tone. The virtual absence of conversation between the leads removes us from mainstream thematic and narrative conceits. Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon) are perfectly cast, two physical actors whose strong presences play off against each other nicely. Both of them can and have played clichéd variants on these stock types before, and both easily and capably reduce characterisation to its most fundamental gestures and movements. The scenes where they continually shout at each other in their own language, neither understanding even faintly what the other is saying, are a wonderful example of non-communication perfectly suited to non-narrative entertainment.

To be fair there is a strong plot thread running through the film charting the predictable development of co-operation (if not quite friendship) between the two men. Their initial violent hostility eventually gives way after a series of confrontations (including mainstream cinema's first scene of one man urinating on another) to an uneasy awareness that any company is better than none. This in turn leads to an uneasy partnership and the two build a raft. The finale has them happen upon a war-ravaged Japanese camp where they must finally face who they really are.

Boorman's concern is not with the mechanics of the plot though. He is visibly more interested rendering scenes of physical and psychological conflict with an eye for their logistical execution and on dynamic comparisons between behaviours (aided by Thomas Stanford's editing). The men match wits and fantasise in fear about what either is capable of doing. A struggle over fresh water leads to unusual scenes of torture and taunting, as Marvin attempts to provoke the more orderly and inventive Mifune, who responds with force. Later scenes depict Marvin playing with sand crabs and Mifune making a sand garden which ritualise other forms of mental entrenchment and tension.

Boorman revels in observing the men in action, literally. There are no ponderous dialogue exchanges to reflect upon, no meaningful soliloquies, no attempts to lionise the political philosophy of either side. Instead it speculates upon the meaning of conflict itself and how men and societies are drawn into it by portraying the raw and often brutal nature of men under duress. Near the climax of the film, they encounter a photo-spread in a copy of Life magazine which reminds them of the larger context of their battle for survival, with unpleasant results for both. To that point it they have been concerned with questions of how, not of why; an ironic reversal of convention in the age of the WHY? peace posters and the philosophy of inaction and nonviolent resistance.

The film is not subtle, but it works splendidly. There are some overextended sea-faring scenes which merely provide Boorman with an opportunity to reiterate the point that physical challenge is the ultimate test of masculine strength, and the predictability of the slim plot is only offset by the emphasis on small detail, which is only interesting if you are predisposed to the directorial slant. It is not necessarily a film which will appeal to casual viewers, and it is probably best understood relative to the type of genre movies which preceded it. It uniquely combines cliché and subversion in a way which only Boorman can do. The result is often spellbinding, certainly cinematic, and well worth a look if you think you can take it.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.