Hell To Eternity Review

Phil Karlson made some of the best exploitation movies of the 1950s; trim, efficient works like The Phenix City Story and Tight Spot which worked both as exciting thrillers and exposes of social ills. Although his key concern was clearly getting the job done as quickly and neatly as possible – one could hardly work for Allied Artists otherwise – he, like Don Siegel, was an intelligent man who managed to add layers of interest to relatively simple assignments. Hell To Eternity is his most ambitious film, an account of the war service of Guy Gabaldon, a marine who captured hundreds of Japanese soldiers during the war. What made Gabldon different is that he was raised by a Japanese-American family. He knew the loyalty and patriotism of Japanese- Americans and saw the racism that engulfed them after the attack on Pearl Harbour. Initially refused for active duty, due to a perforated eardrum, Gabaldon persisted, using his knowledge of the Japanese language as leverage.

What is remarkable about Hell To Eternity, and enough to make it one of the most interesting war films of the 1960s, is the unflinching gaze it fixes on the treatment of Japanese families living in America at the beginning of the war. These people were born in America and considered themselves fully-fledged Americans – “We’re Americans, all of us” says George, one of Guy’s adopted brothers – and many were genuinely baffled by the hatred expressed towards them during the aftermath of December 7th 1941. Their eagerness to join up and fight for the Allies met with humiliation as they were seen as Japanese sympathisers or, worse, fifth-columnists. As we’ve seen in films like Air Force, Hollywood invented the idea of constant Japanese sabotage to encourage this attitude and justify the internment policy where Japanese-Americans were placed in camps. Conditions at the camps varied from the miserable to the horrific and, while the film doesn’t portray this vividly, it’s still pretty revolutionary to hear Gabaldon explicitly refer them to ‘concentration camps’. He actually flinches at the word ‘Jap’ – and I can’t tell you how refreshing that is after sitting through two films where the word is used constantly. When he becomes a racist killer, shooting ‘Japs’ in the back at the tip of a hat, it’s made clear that his behaviour is aberrant and a letter from his Japanese-American mother makes him see the light.

Once we’re past the opening stages of the film, it settles down into a fairly standard war movie pattern with basic training, manoeuvres, shore leave and battle in the expected manner. But there’s something unusual here; a grittiness and realism which develops from films of the Fifties like Attack and points forward to Hell Is For Heroes and the more graphic genre films of the second half of the decade such as The Dirty Dozen. This has a definite downside. The middle section of the film is about the marines enjoying a 48 hour pass in Hawaii and is a rather boring compilation of roughneck humour, brawling, drinking and smooching. This demonstrates more than adequately the decline of the Production Code and, indeed, the lack of interest that Allied Artists had in adhering to it. However, the advantage comes in the second hour, when we get a brutal and graphic battle sequence on the island of Saipan. The horror and pointlessness of the carnage is given vivid expression through the character of Gabaldon who becomes increasingly confused and distressed by events. When he shoots the Japanese soldiers in the back, it’s upsetting because it has consequences for himself and those around him – his commander expresses disgust at his actions and they diminish him spiritually. Ultimately, its this spiritual diminution which leads to his extraordinary heroism.

There are excellent performances throughout with David Janssen standing out, largely because he’s a lot more mobile in his expressions than usual and is pretty convincing as a tough sergeant. Vic Damone, in a non-singing role, is good fun as a wide-boy marine and Patricia Owen is an entertainingly tough broad disguised as an ice-queen. As for Jeffrey Hunter, he gives one of the best performances of his career despite being miscast as the Hispanic Gabaldon – Hunter was all-American, a descendent of the Taylors of Virginia. It’s Hunter’s openness and sincerity which make him convincing here though and the part can be considered one of his memorable excursions into the world of racial controversy along with his turns in The Searchers and Sergeant Rutledge.

Karlson was working with a relatively low budget but, as so often, you wouldn’t know it. He uses close-ups intelligently to mask a lack of extras and combines newly shot footage with newsreel to give an expansive effect. Occasionally, period detail is a bit dodgy – the clothes and hairstyles of the opening schoolyard sequence are very 1960 – and the sequence at the internment camp makes it look like a pleasant domestic environment. But the location footage on Okinawa is consistently superb – despite a moment when we can see cars on a distant highway - as are the pyrotechnics by Augie Lohman who later worked on Major Dundee and Barbarella. Burnett Guffey’s cinematography is suitably gritty and atmospheric although this looks like it should have been a Scope movie. One small demerit, however, for the awful music score by Leith Stevens. But Hell To Eternity remains a wonderful surprise – raw, gritty and unafraid to face awkward truths. And the post-battle pan across the plain of dead bodies is quite extraordinary.

The DVD.

The 1.85:1 transfer of Hell To Eternity is very good and sometimes splendid. There is a small amount of print damage on display throughout in the form of small scratches. But the level of contrast is absolutely fantastic and detail, especially shadow detail, is marvellously sharp. The level of grain is suitably filmlike and never excessive. The mono soundtrack is equally good, although that music score – hyping up scenes for no good reason – remains a problem. It perhaps lacks a little oomph during the battle scenes but there's no real cause for complaint.

The only extras on the disc are four trailers - Hell To Eternity, The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare. Subtitles are included for the film but not for the trailers.

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