Posted by Greg Ferrara on August 8, 2012
Apparently, there’s a Toshiro Mifune Blogathon going on here at The Morlocks (you may have noticed it’s the only thing anyone is writing about this week). Well, I’m here to run through the penultimate position of this esteemed relay before passing the baton to Kimberly as she crosses the finish line tomorrow. When we Morlocks first discussed this blogathon among ourselves some time back, I did the whole “oh gee, I don’t know what I’ll do” routine and played it off rather well because I knew damn well the whole time what I would do. How did I know? Here’s how: 1) I love old school action/adventure movies, where there’s some action, lots of adventure and a minimum of explosions, 2) I love John Boorman directing Lee Marvin (see Point Blank) 3) I love Toshiro Mifune because he’s one of the coolest action/adventure actors in history and 4) there’s only one movie that has all of that plus cinematography by Conrad Hall: Hell in the Pacific. Damn, what a movie.
Like None but the Brave before it, Hell in the Pacific reduces the war down from massive invasions and attack forces to a handful of combatants, stuck together in an isolated environment. The difference here is that it’s reduced to two and two alone: An American pilot and a Japanese naval officer, played by Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. The director, John Boorman, was just coming off his magnificent Point Blank with the very same Lee Marvin the year before and Alexander Jacobs, one of Point Blank’s writers, helmed the screenplay with Eric Bercovici from a story by Reuben Bercovitch. And the story is as simple and powerful as they come: Two combatants from different sides, stuck on an island with no means of verbal communication and no modern technology. The movie requires, nay, demands that the cast contain two actors absolutely adept at making their intentions known without the use of dialogue. It’s a tall order but Boorman couldn’t have done better than Marvin and Mifune.
When the movie starts, the Japanese officer surveys the island with his binoculars. He’s already constructed a makeshift camp, including a fresh water catch for rainfall. He spots a tattered jacket on a tree branch and jumps into action, grabbing his tree-branch spear and heading over to investigate. The American pilot rouses from his unconsciousness (we can assume he washed up and lodged in the branches on the beach) and soon the two confront each other, seen in the picture at the top of the post. Each imagines slaying the other but the American retreats and eventually the two play a game of tag in which one catches the other, humiliates or tortures him until he escapes and the roles reverse. Neither can quite bring himself to kill the other. Despite their official role as wartime antagonists, deep inside they each know they need the other one alive.
By the middle of the film, a truce in short order is affected and the two, apprehensively, begin to share and work together towards the common goal of getting off the island. How? The only means they have: Take the abundant bamboo on the island and build a raft. Will they succeed? Will they get off the island? Does that even matter? To answer these questions we must now enter into another undiscovered country, The Spoiler Zone (If you haven’t seen Hell in the Pacific and want to keep it as fresh as possible, now’s the time to back out of this post. However, let me assure you, the joy is in watching what the two actors do and how they do it, not seeing the mechanics of the scant plot unfold. Nonetheless, from this point forward, I talk about all of it. So you’ve been warned: SPOILER ALERT).
The two enemies do make that raft and sail off, spending a reel of the movie lost at sea, dealing with storms and keeping the raft from falling apart. I must say, even though they were within distance of the shores of the Rock Islands of Palau (where it was filmed), it was quite stirring knowing that they weren’t in some studio tank during those stormy sea scenes. By gum, they were on a bamboo raft in the ocean and when you consider the two actors were Marvin and Mifune, it seems quite believable that neither would have a problem with that. Once they make it to another island they wander around finding no one until finally they discover the shelled out remains of a Japanese stronghold. The signs are in Japanese so it’s clear it was theirs but the American rations and shell casings and copies of LIFE magazine make it clear that American forces bombarded them out of existence. The two find a bottle of Sake and some straight razors. They shave, clean themselves up and sit down to start drinking the night away. But as they do, the friendship wanes. As the two get drunker, the American starts demanding to know why the Japanese people don’t believe in God, at least according to him, not to any actual information. He just seems to recall he heard someone say that once. Of course, the Japanese officer doesn’t know what he’s saying and doesn’t care. He’s too busy flipping through that LIFE magazine and viewing pictures of his Japanese brothers-in-arms slain across the pages like centerfolds in a girly magazine. The friendship goes sour, fast, and the two men stand apart once again. The Japanese officer, in a nice, clean uniform salvaged from the fort, puts on his tie and jacket to be in the full uniform of his station while the American puts on his backpack and walks away. The Japanese officer looks at him from across the chasm of the shelled out buildings and then, turns away himself and walks away. Cut to black. The end.
Oh no, wait, I forgot, that’s not the end!
The studio saw that ending, that great and beautifully powerful surrender of the two main characters to their worst natures, and thought, “Hey, wait a minute. They’re supposed to be friends now. Or fight or something. Wait, what just happened?” And so, the producers altered the ending to something… um… how do I put this? They made it one of the most awful things anyone has ever done in the history of cinema. Okay, it’s not that bad but let’s be honest, it truly defines the term “tacked on ending” because it truly is tacked on. Here’s what they did, under the authority of executive producer Henry Saperstein. They show Marvin and Mifune getting angry, with Marvin shouting about God, and in the background you start to hear distant shelling coming closer because, for reasons no one on earth can explain, the allies have decided to re-blow up the already blown up and deserted island. Uh-huh. So then, just as Marvin is really yelling, they cut to a tacked on shot of a tower blowing up from The Party (yes, the Peter Sellers movie) and… the end. That’s it. That was their solution.
I brought up Hell in the Pacific on Facebook and friend, blogger and film critic Peter Nellhaus had this to say: “I got to meet John Boorman at a special screening of LEO THE LAST for NYU film students in late 1969. Someone asked him about the ending to HELL IN THE PACIFIC. Boorman’s response was, ‘Henry Saperstein is an evil man.’” I love that Boorman said that but I don’t think Saperstein was evil, of course, just a producer with no feel for the art who should have trusted Boorman and his writers. He should have trusted the actors too. Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune make the movie work on all counts. I’ve always insisted that action defines character in cinema (that is, in a play, a monologue can define character but in a movie, like Casablanca, it’s the actions of Rick and Ilsa that define their characters and develop them for the audience). Marvin and Mifune define their characters through action beautifully and that last moment, as the two separate, is dependent upon the fact that these two actors have been building up to just this conclusion. To rob them of that, with a phony explosion, is a crime.
Not to be outdone by the actors, cinematographer Conrad Hall does an absolutely splendid job of finding the right angle and lighting to make each scene work for the actors while being outstandingly breathtaking at the same time. There isn’t a good transfer of it out there just yet (you can find a 2003 or 4 transfer of it on DVD but it’s not very good and most others are even worse at full frame – ugh) but hopefully, there soon will be. And instead of giving us that awful studio ending on the movie with the Boorman ending as an extra, put the Boorman ending on the main feature and make the studio ending the extra. Please. This is a movie that deserves a great, crisp and clear transfer and big screen showing to celebrate its restoration. I hope that happens soon because seeing two of the greatest “action defines character” actors in history on the big screen would be a trip to the cinema well worth the time.
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