Hell in the Pacific (1968) is the lurid title for a curious, lyrical film made by John Boorman. Less exploitatively dubbed, the film would be called Mutual Assistance on the Palau Islands -- the Palau Islands is so-called Hell where this picture was made. The film is essentially silent -- there are 15 or so transient ejaculations in the movie, (mostly grunts, curses, or threats) but they are not vital to the story and, indeed, contribute nothing to the narrative. The film is shot in very wide-screen aspect and Boorman's staging is extremely eloquent -- he makes profound use of the long, narrow image, emphasizing the remorseless sweep of empty horizon around the desert island where his protagonists are stranded. Since much of the film has a hallucinatory, febrile aspect, Boorman's imagery doesn't necessarily clarify things -- indeed, the film's staging often demonstrates an attempt to create the maximum uncertainty about the image and relationship of the figures within it. There is a very faint suggestion that the two antagonists are among the dead, that this is some kind of filmed Noh play in which two deceased aviators encounter one another in an ambiguous landscape of blinding sun, murky jungle, and jagged spectral reefs that surround the island like rotten teeth.
A Japanese soldier is stranded on an island. We see him at dawn scanning the horizon with his binoculars. There seems to be a corpse or castaway lying on his beach. We're puzzled that he pays no attention to the dead man -- this is the first of Boorman's obfuscations and intentional miscues. The dead man is a just a log of drift wood washed up on the beach. But there is something different on this morning. The Japanese soldier sees a yellow raft and shortly thereafter encounters the occupant of the raft, a grizzled American pilot played by Lee Marvin. The next ninety minutes chronicles the relationship between the two enemy soldiers. Furthermore, the film dramatizes a clash between two radically different, if highly stylized methods of acting. The Japanese soldier is played by Toshiro Mifune and he bellows at the camera (and Lee Marvin) with a booming artificially deep "samurai voice" -- he sounds like professional wrestler threatening his opponent. Mifune is graceful as a cat and embodies disciplined self-restraint -- even sitting casually on his beach, he seems to be meditating. When he runs or takes up a defensive posture, he dances like a samurai warrior in a sword-play film -- his outline is crisp and well-defined. By contrast, Lee Marvin lurches around like an affable orangutang -- he is extroverted, passionate, unsteady and unpredictable -- his figure is lanky and his limbs seem awkwardly disjointed. Furthermore, he seems far too old for the part -- Lee Marvin's age gives the film it's eerie Noh play aspect: he's like the ghost of a World War Two airman recalling something that happened long ago. Marvin is destructive -- we see him crushing Mifune's carefully contrived instruments for conserving rain-water or catching fish in the lagoon. By contrast, Mifune is like Odysseus -- he is a man of many resources, continuously cutting bamboo to make spiked palisades and defending his territory by hanging empty shells, like wind chimes, from braided vine and sea-weed.
The interaction between the two characters begins with baffling hostility. Both of them recognize that mano a mano duel will be mutually deadly -- we see this in an early stage where the two men are at stand-off on the beach. Each imagines himself lunging at his enemy and, then, being killed in that attack. This opening sequence is a classic analysis of the way men preserve their pride by avoiding direct combat -- it's obvious that the result of fighting would be dire to both of them and, so, they content themselves with less certainly lethal forms of combat. Mifune starts a big fire, apparently in the hope of burning up the American. But this merely produces clouds of choking smoke in which Marvin's character can hide. The two men wrestle over Mifune's water reservoir with the predictable result that the carefully collected water is lost to both of them. Marvin pisses from a cliff top on Mifune and they steal one another's food. Ultimately, Mifune captures Marvin, yokes him to a big piece of driftwood and torments him pointlessly until he escapes In the next shot, we see Mifune yoked to the same driftwood, staggering up and down the beach as Marvin teaches him to fetch like a Labrador Retriever. Finally, the two tire of the mutual sadism and begin to cooperate although they remain suspicious of one another and continue to steal one another's food. (Marvin complains that holding Mifune prisoner makes no sense because he still has to cook for him, wash him off, feed him, and "take (him) to the john" -- when he delivers this speech, he sounds comically like an aggrieved housewife. And, in fact, the film is strangely funny -- from the outset, the men have decided that mutual murder is not an option and, so, their combat seems a matter of play, games that they use to pass the time. This is made explicit in one scene in which Mifune rakes an elaborate Zen garden into the sand of the beach. Marvin walks across the garden ruining its perfection. Mifune curses and rakes over Marvin's footsteps -- it's pretty clear that this is a pointless game both men can play all day long. (It's like staging horseshoe crab races, something that Marvin does on his piece of driftwood). In many ways, the odd couple nature of the pairing (Mifune's grace and ingenuity to Marvin's blundering aggression) suggests an Abbot and Costello or Laurel and Hardy comedy crossed with one of Beckett's plays, Waiting for Godot or Happy Days. Lalo Schifrin provides a baffling variety of soundcues for the proceedings -- percussives burps and bubbles, screaming saxophones, discordant atonal music, and, even, vaguely classical-sounding riffs. The island is the third character in this film and it is impressively realized, a shaggy dome-shaped protrusion above the waves with an austere gallery of sea-cave carved into one side of the lagoon, a dismal-looking beach, and strangely vertical interior. Boorman is a master of locating the action within this arena and, indeed, even expands his landscape away from the island to it encircling reef of black, jagged stones and, then, the perilous purple high seas beyond.
About the 80 minute mark, Boorman recognizes that his story has no place to go and that cooperation between former enemies is not intrinsically photogenic. The two men collaborate on building a raft and, ultimately, escape from the island. This sequence is initiated with a lyrical montage of bamboo trees cut from a hilltop dropping like parachutes down into the lagoon -- the trees will be pruned and, then, used a flotation devices. Around this point in the film, Boorman recalls another castaway narrative, Lord of the Flies, and the movie devolves into an unsatisfying allegory -- it was best with Mifune's ingenuity channeling Robinson Crusoe. After some impressive seafaring, the two castaways reach an island where there are buildings, albeit in ruins, a Life magazine showing the war, now possibly ended, and plenty of booze. It appears as if the Japanese and Americans have both occupied the island at some point and both have left cultural traces in the debris. At this point, Boorman has no idea what to do to end the movie and, in fact, the DVD presents the ending as shown and with an alternative ending. In the baldest terms, the men's return to something like civilization -- the island is covered with ruins but empty of people -- reminds the men that they are supposed to be enemies. It's not a satisfactory climax and the film ends with an empty enigma. I can imagine a half-dozen better ways to conclude the movie, but most of them would require Boorman breaking from the parameters established at the outset -- it is a essentially a silent movie and must remain one, and only two characters are allowed.