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  • Benjamin May

Hell in the Pacific (1968) Review

During the Second World War, on a small, inhospitable island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, two men are stranded. One is an American Pilot, the other a Japanese Naval Captain. When they become aware of each other's presence, their military training kicks in, and the two begin to battle. However, it soon becomes painfully clear that neither man will survive the island without the other's help. Whether or not they are able to set aside their differences and work together, or destroy one another for the glory of their nation, remains to be seen in John Boorman's powerful anti-war allegory, 'Hell in the Pacific.'


Boorman's third feature film, 'Hell in the Pacific' tells a relatively simple tale- arch-enemies forced to unite under circumstances beyond their control- in an astute and subtle manner. It is a quiet movie featuring characters given to introspection- often there is very little dialogue. A lot is said in that silence however, through the striking visuals, with the thick atmosphere, and by the presence and physicality of stars Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. There are moments of levity, and it's a very suspenseful watch; but at its heart 'Hell in the Pacific' is a barbed treatise.

Through the understated story- written by Reuben Bercovitch, Alexander Jacobs, Eric Bercovici and Shinobu Hashimoto- a clear, humane message about the indignities and pointlessness of war emerges, and no side is given preferential treatment, no bias is injected into the screenplay. 'Hell in the Pacific' is a masterful war film- or anti-war film, one should say. For that is the crux of the narrative and the center of the allegory that 'Hell in the Pacific' is: war is hell, and there's no war when rivals unify; an aphorism bordering on the trite, but one that is apt nevertheless.


A highly visual experience, 'Hell in the Pacific' features fine, striking cinematography from Conrad Hall. Hall's work lends to the film something of a dream-like atmosphere, though is still firmly rooted in the naturalistic tradition. It is dramatic camera-work that lingers in the memory long after the film has ended. Boorman's films are always visually stimulating affairs, and 'Hell in the Pacific' ranks as one of his most rich, stylish and gritty.

Thomas Stanford's editing is sharp, establishing the film's pace, which is steady and smooth; though not overly brisk or without moments of sedation. Many critique the unexpected abruptness of the ending, but it is in keeping with the tone and themes the film tries to explore. Lalo Schifrin's muted, melodic score contributes to this tone, bringing to the film additional beauty, as well as additional devastation and impact.


'Hell in the Pacific'- for all of the merits listed above- could easily have faltered had casting gone in a different direction. Thankfully, Marvin and Mifune were secured, and deliver performances of incredible intensity, humor and depth. Marvin is too often remembered as an action star or a heavy, when in reality his talents extended far beyond that. He brought a charm and sense of purpose to every role he played, as well as an ease of performance that makes him mesmerizing on screen. His performance in 'Hell in the Pacific' is up there with his equally powerful one in 'Monte Walsh'; work of extreme emotional perspicuity that is most underrated.

Any film fan knows of the immeasurable talents of Toshiro Mifune. He could play any kind of character: drunkards, gangsters, fools- all with Shakespearean intensity. He also possessed masterful comedic timing, as well as being one of the most skillful expressionistic figures to ever grace the cinema screen. His performance in 'Hell in the Pacific' is understated, captivating and powerful; probably the best he ever gave in a production outside of Japan. He and Marvin share an electric chemistry that makes watching them on screen a real pleasure.


'Hell in the Pacific' is a masterful movie, a subtle story told with verve and intelligence. Deftly directed by John Boorman, beautiful in terms of visuals and featuring a fine Lalo Schifrin score, the film is utterly unforgettable. Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune deliver two brilliant performances that are highlights in both their careers. Hard-hitting and containing allegorical depth; there are few anti-war films as impactful. In short, 'Hell in the Pacific' is heaven in the cinema.

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