What I'm Watching: Hell in the Pacific | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Hell in the Pacific


  • MGM Pictures

More than 20 years ago, I recall my film-nerd friend Bill recommending to me John Boorman’s 1968 film Hell in the Pacific. Bill has good taste in films, so I filed away his suggestion. Perhaps 10 years later, I found a used DVD of the film for a few bucks, so I picked it up. It languished on my shelf for another decade, unwatched until a few nights ago, when my wife went to sleep early. (I suppose I shatter no gender-role stereotypes here: When my wife is asleep or out of town, my cinematic choices tend toward war films and Westerns.)

Not sure if it’s a blessing or a curse that I can recount my personal history with most of the DVDs in my collection.

In any case, it’s a shame that it took me so damned long to get to Hell in the Pacific, as it’s a pretty fascinating film for a number of reasons. For one thing, there are only two people in its cast, and they’re both world-class screen actors: Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. Each man plays a soldier — of the Allies and the Axis, respectively — who, after undisclosed oceanic wartime disasters, happens to wind up on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. (Coincidentally, both men served their respective countries in World War II.)

I can think of only one fiction film with a cast smaller than this one (though I’m sure there are plenty that aren’t coming to mind): Robert Altman’s fascinating and little-seen Secret Honor (1984), in which the great Philip Baker Hall plays a delirious, rambling Richard M. Nixon. 
  • MGM Pictures

Interesting Fact #2 about Hell in the Pacific: Mifune’s dialogue, delivered in his native Japanese, is unsubtitled; English-speaking viewers are thus granted aural access only to Marvin’s character’s thoughts. The lack of subtitles opens up a number of questions about the notion of “point of view,” and I address some of them below.

Another unusual feature of the film is that Boorman shot two endings for it. The original ending (this is a 46-year-old film, folks, so I don’t feel compelled to offer a “spoiler alert”) is ambiguous; the alternate ending is bleak.

In the alternate ending, the two men, having built a raft and found their way to a bombed-out military base on an island from which the battle has moved on, happen upon a bottle of sake and proceed to get drunk together, happily. So drunk, indeed, that they don’t realize a fierce Pacific Theater battle has found its way back to their new island home. An errant mortar shell, launched by who-knows-which side, destroys their shelter and evidently kills them both instantly. The end.

(Though apparently the film was shown in the U.S. with both endings, the alternate ending was, according to the American Film Institute, added at the request of executive producer Henry Saperstein, who, like all movie producers, was surely doing everything he could to hedge his bets. It is not clear to me which ending was shown in which circumstances; my old Anchor Bay DVD of the film proffers both, for the curious viewer.)

The “Hell” in the film’s title is never clarified, though I take it to be more figurative than literal. The island, a tropical paradise (the film was shot in Palau), is not inhospitable to either man; indeed, it is the only reason neither of them dies at sea. Though clearly lacking in clean clothes and other comforts, both of the soldiers (unnamed in the film) manage to make do pretty well on the island.

Rather, this is a metaphorical hell of the kind Sartre wrote about — that is to say: other people. The first two-thirds of the film concerns the two men taking the global war to a personal level, as they fall naturally into enmity despite their shared circumstance. Or perhaps the title refers to war itself in a general sort of way. It’s not clear, and the film seems to revel the ease with which it tends toward allegory, anyway. (Another suggestion that Boorman was aiming for allegory: One of the working titles of the film was The Enemy. But … WHICH MAN IS WHOSE ENEMY? Maybe we’re ALL someone else’s enemy! I think my mind was just blown.)

The strangest part of the experience of viewing Hell in the Pacific is the aforementioned fact that Mifune’s dialogue is unsubtitled. I don’t read this as Boorman trying to “align” viewers with and only with Marvin’s character. The film doesn’t particularly valorize either of its characters, and certainly has some fairly grim things to say about human nature. I don’t think Boorman wanted us to “take sides” here, and I certainly don’t think he intended English-speaking audiences to side with the American soldier and Japanese-speaking audiences to side with the Japanese soldier; indeed, that would only have reinforced on another level the aggression that each side felt toward the other.

I take it that this unusual choice was intended to convey a certain kind of realism. It’s the experience of “not understanding” that Boorman wished to communicate, I believe. After all, neither character can understand the other, save with gestures and drawings in the sand. Neither man has access to anyone’s thoughts but his own, and that isolation seems to have been the point of this unorthodox decision.

Still, it’s easy to see how the choice to leave dialogue untranslated might be read as a gesture on the part of the filmmakers to “let viewers inside the head of” the Lee Marvin character. Such a stance has to do with the notion of getting an audience to “identify with” a given character, an idea I’ve never found particularly convincing, whether applied to film, literature or any other art. 

In film, the putative identification with a character is often linked in scholarly texts to a preponderance of point-of-view shots taken from that character’s optical perspective. In some films — most notably Rear Window — this linking of sight and mental state is plain. But that’s the exception that proves the rule: Nothing about seeing things from a certain optical perspective automatically aligns a viewer with a character’s thoughts and emotions. These are two different things. In the case of Rear Window, our sharing of L.B. Jefferies’ optical perspective is meant to emphasize the difference between what he knows and what he thinks he knows, thereby creating suspense.

In Hell in the Pacific, denying us one character’s dialogue actually helps to bring our experience in line with both of the characters.

To my knowledge, no one has ever spelled out exactly what it means to “identify with” a fictional character. Does it mean that we think their thoughts? (Fictional characters don’t have thoughts.) That we feel what they’re feeling? (Fictional characters do not have feelings, any more than they have bank accounts or DNA.) That we understand why they do what they do? (I would suggest that actions operate on an axis independently from feelings, in both real life and in fiction.) I’ve never found this notion convincing on any level.

  • MGM Pictures

The question is likely moot as regards Hell in the Pacific, in which the experience of incomplete understanding actually links, rather than distinguishes, the two characters; we are not intended to “identify” with either one, regardless of our native tongue.

As is always the case in films that tell stories, narrative context is of the utmost importance in understanding meaning.