Hell in the Pacific is a 1968 film by John Boorman. During the second world war, an American pilot (Lee Marvin) washes up on a deserted island in the pacific and finds that he is not alone. A Japanese naval officer (Toshiro Mifune) has been marooned as well. They do not get on well. The film has no subtitles, and the characters don’t speak a lick of each other’s languages. As such, the film is light on dialogue, and what dialogue there is, is of no use to advancing the plot. It was a method of storytelling out of step with commercial filmmaking of the late 60’s, and a challenge from the get-go to construct a film that would function on physicality, suggestion and metaphor.

Hell in the Pacific

Despite having so few resources from a story stand-point, the film ended up requiring a large budget, mostly because of the on location shoot at a remote island, and so bombed at the box office. This island was key though, because it needed to suggest the predicament the men were in which the script had suggested in plain writing (for instance, an island with no palm trees was chosen because they gave the look of an idyllic paradise). The men go from attempting to kill each other, to holding each other captive,
to building a raft to escape. John Boorman’s fantastic direction provides much of the energy that keeps the film afloat (pun intended), but this is the sort of material that would deflate if the scaffolds weren’t sturdy.

Boorman co-wrote with both an American, and a Japanese writer who had collaborated with Akira Kurosawa (and therefore written for Mifune) before. The group set up three offices next to each other, Boorman would sketch up a scene, and then each of his partners would write the scene in full, and pass it on, translated into Japanese and then back into English to see if it held up, in a “painstaking process”. Shinobu Hashimoto did his own draft, altering the Japanese character into a goofball, which could have
sunk the entire project. Naturally, all these revisions and translations resulted in an extended writing period.

Despite Boorman disapproving, Mifune launched into a buffoonish performance, which he was reluctant to abandon. Hashimoto had provided his draft to Mifune, without consulting the director. After much ado, Mifune was almost asked to leave the film, and refused. Thank goodness for that, because it is his searing performance, matched by a never better Lee Marvin, which brings the elemental qualities of the story to the fore.

In this video, John Boorman speaks at length about the many trials encountered in production (including injuries, conflicts of interest, cultural divides, and war stories), not the least of which was how his project could take shape to reflect the style of silent films from the ground up.

It’s worth a watch to learn how Boorman was able to create a stripped-down and fragmentary microcosm of WWII, a story of men escaping the divide the war created out of need, and re-forging it when reminded of the emblems of their enmities. It’s an experiment that doesn’t always pay-off, but there are lessons in the radical austerity of its writing.

John Boorman on Hell in the Pacific
Tagged on: