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July 20, 2007

Hell to Eternity

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Phil Karlson - 1960
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

While I am glad that Warner Brothers finally got around to releasing Hell to Eternity on DVD, I wish someone would have had the foresight to interview Guy Gabaldon or better, had him do a commentary track, before he died last August. While Gabaldon loved the movie about his life enough to name a son after Jeffrey Hunter, even a superficial examination reveals discrepencies between Galbadon's own experience and the version filmed by Phil Karlson. A closer look also reveals that in spite of any good intentions on the part of the filmmakers, Hell to Eternity is as conflicted about whatever it is trying to say about racism as Gabaldon is shown being conflicted about his own sense of identity.

While Hell to Eternity is one of the first of the few films that addressed the treatment of Japanese-Americans in World War II, the film simultaneously ignores that Gabaldon was of Mexican descent. One of the constant themes of the film is the idea of being "all American". As shown in Hell to Eternity, speaking English and adopting the culture was not enough for Japanese immigrants or their children. With the narrative and casting of Jeffrey Hunter, there is no discussion of the discrimination that Gabaldon faced as a Latino in the Marines.

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And yet . . . overlooking that Jeffrey Hunter was the same age as Guy Gabaldon in 1960, and too old to play the eighteen year old war hero, and giving a pass to the fictionalization of Gabaldon's life, Hell to Eternity remains a moving, and sometimes heartbreaking film. Through Hunter, the film addresses the contradiction of the U.S. government specifically interning Japanese-Americans though not those of German or Italian descent, as well as the initial rejection of Japanese-Americans in the military. Gabaldon is presented as a person who, if not in some kind of conflict with others, is conflicted within, an outsider who finds himself identifying not only with the Japanese family that adopted him, but with by extension, the Japanese. On the battlefields of Saipan, Gabaldon identification with his military family is such that he becomes a virtual killing machine after witnessing the murder of a Marine Corps buddy played by David Janssen. In a scene in Hawaii, where there was no internment of the Japanese, Hunter ends up with a caucasian reporter portrayed by Patricia Owens, while Janssen and Vic Damone are with two Japanese women. If Gabaldon is not battling his darker impulses or other men, he is depicted here in a battle of the sexes, conquering the unattainable white woman. Karlson cuts directly from a shot of Hunter and Owens in embrace to footage of naval cannons blasting away, as if to say love, as well as life, is a battlefield.

What the real Guy Gabaldon may have seen in Jeffrey Hunter's performance that struck him as true was the intensity that Hunter projects, the flashes of rage provoked from witnessing discrimination or the death of his best friend in the Corps. Sessue Hayakawa brings his considerable dignity to the role of the Japanese general who commits ritual suicide in front of his troops after ordering them to surrender. Hayakawa's wife, silent star Tsuru Aoki made her last film appearance as the woman Gabaldon called "Mama-san". There is a bit of coincidence that approximately five years after they appeared together in Hell to Eternity, Jeffrey Hunter starred in the pilot episode of "Star Trek", while George Takei, who played his "brother" George, went on to co-star in the series. They is much to admire about Hell to Eternity, but there is still room for the true story of Guy Gabaldon to be told.

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Posted by peter at July 20, 2007 12:22 AM


The scene from the film, Hell to Eternity that has stuck with me from childhood is when the japanese people threw themselves off the clift committing suicide. I don't remember why, but even as a child, I knew that there was hatred and racism going on in the film. It's been a few decades since watching this film and I am going to make it priority to watch it again!

Posted by: Joe LeGrand at February 6, 2008 10:27 PM