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June 20, 2017

Hell in the Pacific


John Boorman - 1968
KL Studio Classics BD Region A

In the Fall of 1969, I was a film student at New York University. Occasionally, film directors would preview a new film, followed by a question and answer session. John Boorman came with his original version of Leo the Last, a bit different from the final release version. What I remember about that evening, verbatim, is when a student had asked Boorman about the ending of Hell in the Pacific. Boorman's response, referring to one of the producers, was, "Henry Saperstein is an evil man."

Hell in the Pacific has received a much needed blu-ray upgrade. The original ending is available not as a supplement but as a seamless conclusion to the film, in addition to the producers' approved theatrical release. What arguably improves the film for viewers who may only know the film theatrically, is that with the subtitle option, Toshiro Mifune's bits of dialogue are translated to English, making the intentions of Mifune as understandable as those of Lee Marvin. Add to that a new interview with John Boorman and Art Director Anthony Pratt, plus a commentary track by film historians Travis Crawford and Bill Ackerman.

For anyone still unfamiliar with the basic story, an American pilot and a Japanese naval officer discover the presence of each other on an otherwise small, deserted island, during World War II. The two, military enemies, first try to outwit and overpower each other before deciding to work together for survival. The film was a commercial failure, possibly too abstract for mainstream audiences use to films with more dialogue and exposition. Over the years, Hell in the Pacific has gained in stature and appreciation.

Certainly the interview with Boorman helps explain why a film with a cast of two turned out to be relatively expensive. Among the elements hampering the production were the extremely remote location of the Palau islands, and Toshiro Mifune's initial refusal to take direction from Boorman and need for an interpreter, causing delays. One of the new bits of information is that frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator, Shinobu Hashimoto had a hand in the screenplay, primarily in helping develop Mifune's character.

What has made the film hold up almost fifty years later is the visual story-telling. An early shot of Marvin and Mifune's initial face to face encounter is iconic, with the two actors standing on opposite sides of the Panavision screen. I had to re-watch those few seconds because both actors are standing still, and I thought the shot was a freeze frame. Seen again, I noticed the movement of the waves on the beach where most of the film takes place. When the film begins, there appears what looks like the body of a man washed ashore, that later is revealed to be a log fought over by the two men. Boorman also makes use of multiple shots with Mifune and Marvin within the same frame, one in the foreground, one in back. A chase through the jungle with the faces of the men partially obscured by branches, leaves or nets suggests that Boorman may have reviewed several films by Kurosawa in deciding how to film action.

The commentary track will probably be of greatest benefit the younger viewers unfamiliar with Marvin, Mifune, Boorman, or cinematographer Conrad Hall. One nice bit of information is that Hall was the son of the coauthor of Mutiny on the Bounty, and worked on the 1962 film version starring Marlon Brando. With that in mind, Hell in the Pacific could well described the difficult production of at least a couple of films.

hell in the pacific jap poster.jpg

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 20, 2017 09:45 AM