Hell in the Pacific is a simple and powerful 1968 film starring Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. They form the entire cast; no other actor appears in even a single scene.

The two play naval officers stranded on the same South Pacific island during World War II (Marvin's character is actually a Marine). Initially they fight, and even torture each other as the opportunity presents itself. However, over time they develop trust and a rough ability to communicate despite each man's inability to speak the other's language.

SPOILERS FOLLOW

Together they build a raft and escape to a larger island, where they are find the remains of American and Japanese emplacements. They shave, replace their tattered uniforms, and acclimatize themselves tentatively to civilization.

The rules of civilization at the time required that these two men hate each other, and their fragile peace decays. Two endings were filmed, and I will not reveal either one. Film buffs argue over which was more appropriate; personally I think the film-makers made the correct choice. Both are included on the film's DVD, so you can decide for yourself.

END SPOILERS

Lee Marvin had been wounded by Japanese fire during World War II, and the scuttlebutt in Hollywood was that he got a little scary filming the scenes where he got to torment Mifune. This could easily be a publicist's fabrication, but unlike many such stories, it is believable.

Mifune is wonderful, and just terrifically handsome. The entire movie rests on the scene in which he first captures Marvin and decides not to kill him. A lesser actor could not have pulled it off.

My synopsis may make the film sound moralistic or heavy-handed, but this is not so. The picture is about individuals rising above their prejudices and takes no larger stand on the morality of war. The film's greatest weakness is that it is largely without humor. It triggers only a couple of laughs; one for example when Marvin finally frees Mifune from bondage because he's getting sick of his own cooking.

1968 was a big year for relationship pictures and musicals, and Hell in the Pacific was not nominated for a single academy award. This particularly slighted Conrad Hall's gorgeous cinematography. He filmed in a wide aspect ratio -- 2.35:1, so we never get the sense that the actors are boxed in. In many scenes, Marvin is doing business on one end of the long strip of footage while Mifune does different business on the other end. Few films cry louder for a widescreen display; pan and scan would destroy it.

Hall was probably not heartbroken about the academy's failure to nominate him; he won the next year for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Hell in the Pacific was recooked into the novella and later the movie Enemy Mine.

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