Saturday, 19 February 2011

Review: Hell In The Pacific (Spoilers)

Hell In The Pacific

Released: 1968

Directed by: John Boorman
Written by: Reuben Bercovitch (story by), Alexander Jacobs, Eric Bercovici
Cinematography by: Conrad L. Hall
Original Music by: Lalo Schifrin

Lee Marvin
Toshirô Mifune 

[from the IMDb] A shot-down American pilot finds his way to a small, unpopulated island where he hopes to find provisions. He soon discovers that he is not alone; there is a Japanese officer marooned on the island also. Will they continue to fight each other to the death, or will they reach a modus vivendi?


Only Boorman's third film as a director, this film came hot on the heels of his seminal sophomore film, Point Blank. Snaffling that film's star, Boorman took quite a risk with a script devoid of any meaningful dialogue, relying entirely on the performances of the two actors.

While a little slow to start, the story is not short of exciting and amusing turns, and for the greater part manages to avoid mawkish predictability. There are a few bum notes, most notably the weakly painted finale, which undoes a lot of the good work done in the last act. Up until then, however, the film displays remarkable depth for such a limited narrative. In Mifune and Marvin, Boorman had two of the most magnetic stars cinema has ever known. Boorman extracts from them riveting performances that are almost theatrical in nature (by necessity of the serpentine script), and these elevate the material far above the potential pitfalls of its am-dram premise. Conrad L. Hall's typically brilliant camerawork allows us to forget that most of the movie plays out on a stretch of beach shorter than a post office queue, imbuing the film with a grander scale from the get-go. A restrained (read: non-jazz) but cleverly orchestrated score by Lalo Schifrin also serves to bring this small story into greater relief.

Marvin's portrayal of a nameless American bomber pilot thrives on have-a-go adventurism, undiminished (perhaps even reinforced) by the limited canvas within which his story plays out. Modern day familiarity with Marvin's usual persona renders his enthusiasm a little unbelievable on occasion, but the gruff strength and menace for which Marvin became iconic is carefully woven through the film in metered measure. He takes to engaging his uncomprehending counterpart in one-way conversations. By contrast, Mifune's professional Japanese Captain remains stoic and superficially unresponsive to these attempts, resulting in some in effective grating. Mifune's seeming immutability and occasional paroxysms of choleric illustrate well his quest for empowerment through control of his circumstances, and he too wrings as much as possible from what is essentially a mute performance - for there are no subtitles or voiceover, and when he speaks, which is seldom, it is in Japanese.

The two men's ways of dealing with this impossible situation are both treated with equal respect by director Boorman, and they are never drawn in predictable parallel. Certainly, the characters live and breathe the symbolism of their respective nationalities, Marvin embodying the American dream of risky endeavour, open borders and free enterprise, Mifune the unflinching work ethic, protectionism and sense of duty of the Empire of Japan.

For the most part, this plays well, but the game of "fetch" is a peculiar and somewhat unwelcome beat: The implicit cruelty of the game is completely undone by Mifune's blank refusal to play along, and Marvin seems to be almost more amused playing it himself than he would have been watching the bound Mifune play, as this sadistic streak is not displayed anywhere else in his portrayal. The whole scene sits uncomfortably with the social picture Boorman is attempting to paint, even if as a political statement it might hold a little water. The movie may have been better off without this particular scene.

*Spoilers ahead*

That said, the film manages to avoid any half-baked attempts at a simplistic meeting of the minds, for even on their shared enterprise, the building of the raft, they squabble and argue. It is only after the two set sail that the film finally suggests its broader outlook - that the world is populated by peoples of irreconcilable differences. In the closest proximity the two characters have shared, on the raft the men do not communicate at all, save to offer each other silent assistance. In so doing, the movie deftly illustrates that while it is compassion that makes us human and unites us, such compassion is born of a hardship of our own making. Equally, once they make land and find the abandoned fort, and in perhaps the most satisfying portion of the film, the two men share each others good fortune for a short while. Nevertheless, before long old grievances again rear their heads, and in so doing Boorman finally reminds us again of our irrefutable tribalism.

The war, a purely theoretical backdrop for most of the movie, comes home to roost in the closing beats of the film. In those final frames of the fort being blown apart as the two men's exchanges escalate, Boorman might then have made a timely analogy to the Cold War, perhaps. As the events of the last 40 years have shorn the film of that insulation, however, the ending now appears a rather weak and lazy, or even worse, clumsy piece of writing. Films ending on a simple downer aren't as acceptable as out-and-out tragedies these days, and the looming, pervasive sense of inevitability that would be required by a modern audience just isn't there.

*End Spoilers*

If you can disregard the few issues outlined above, however, you have a film in the greatest storytelling tradition - a tale of two contrasting people, which illuminates who we are and how we relate to each other. Perhaps the final aftertaste is a little sour, though, as Boorman invokes Sartre in the very title:

Hell, in the Pacific or elsewhere, is other people.

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