Hell in the Pacific (1968)

I find myself wanting to like this movie more than I actually enjoyed watching it. I admire its bold and ambitious nature, both Mifune and Marvin give great performances and even the relatively minimalistic and simple story is oddly compelling. It just ends up coming a bit short in the end. The entire movie is about about Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune being stranded on a tropical island during World War Two and the catch of the movie is that they can barely communicate because they don’t share a common language, resulting in very limited use of dialog in the almost two hours long running time. The movie is so adamant about being as realistic as possible in depicting the resulting frustration of not being able to talk to each other that they don’t even supply you with subtitles to translate Mifune’s Japanese lines when he’s cursing and shouting in Japanese. It’s fairly simple device, but works well to throw you into the shoes of Marvin’s character when he fails to make Mifune understand what he’s saying.

It’s a fascinating movie on many levels, and it’s very curious just how well the movie works despite all these self-inflicted limitations. But as I already mention, it isn’t perfect. There’s very little actual plot and the movie drags more than a little around the middle where the story more or less grinds to a halt when they have nothing to do but wait for possible rescue and they’ve grown tired of trying to keep the other tied up as a prisoner war due to their inability to murder the enemy in cold blood. The monotonousness of Marvin laying on the beach and Mifune walking around the shoreline gets tediously repetitive pretty quickly. It feels almost wrong to criticize this because in a way, the movie does capture the frustration that they are feeling during this period very effectively. It just doesn’t make for a very exciting viewing experience. The movie only starts to picks up steam again when we reach the point where they start to form a bond working together to build a raft so they can get away from the island. The combined enthusiasm they put into building the raft re-energizes the movie considerably, and it’s very exciting to watch as they struggle to get their completed raft through the crashing waves and they make it to the open sea.

Unfortunately the ending is so bad that it all but ruins the entire movie, and leaves a really sour taste in your mouth. What basically happens is that Mifune and Marvin are sitting together in an abandoned base they’ve found since reaching to a new island and then they just suddenly get blown up by what is apparently an air raid. It’s entire out of the blue and is so anti-climactic that you can’t help but to be frustrated with the entire movie. There exists an alternative version of the ending where Marvin and Mifune get into an argument while drinking and they end up going their separate ways, and it’s easily the superior one of the two. While it does leave things annoyingly ambiguous and doesn’t give you as concrete closure like you might want, it at least works better than the theatrical cut and manages to stay true to the spirit of the movie.

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