watched “From Hell to Eternity” (sometimes shortened to “Hell to Eternity”), because I’m trying to figure out the recent posthumous boom(let?) in the reputation of its director, Phil Karlson (1908-85), who has joined Allan Dwan, Budd Boetticher, Sam Fuller, Edgar Ulman as a small-budget auteur. The recent attention has been to Karlson’s early-1950s noirs such as Kansas City Confidential, Scandal Sheet, 99 River Street, The Phenix City Story. A critique of racists recurs in Karlson movies, including the 1958 western “Gunman’s Walk,” which I recently viewed and reviewed, and, especially “The Phenix City Story” (1955), which was also based on a real-life hero fighting for ideals.
Racism is even more central in “Hell to Eternity” (1960), a biopic about Guy Gabaldon (1926-2006), who was raised by a Japanese-speaking (I think Issei) Une family after his parents died (in the movie; the Latino original, one of twelve children he moved in with the Nakanos and attended Japanese language school with his adoptive brothers).
Richard Eyer (Friendly Persuasion) played Guy as a boy and looked like he might grow up to look like Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers). Both look ultra-WASP.
Pearl Harbor led to the forced “evacuation and resettlement” of those of Japanese ancestry (including those born in the US) from the West Coast. I think the Nakanos were incarcerated at Gila River in Arizona, but in the movie it is at Mazanar, east of Mount Whitney. Guy’s adoptive brothers (concentration camp alumnus George Takei and West Point alumnus George Shibata) join the army (the Nisei 442nd) and fight in Europe. Guy has a perforated eardrum and is classified 4-F.
After “Mama-san” (Tsuru Aoki) points out that her other sons are killing people who look like Guy, so that Guy can kill people who look like his brothers, Guy explains his Japanese-language skills and joins the Marines, buddying up at Camp Pendleton and then in Hawai’i with veterans Sgt. Bill Hazen (David Janssen) and Cpl. Pete Lewis (Vic Damone).
Before getting to combat, the boy-men enjoy two stripper performances (one a professional, the other an amateur under the influence of alcohol). It takes an hour for the movie to land on Saipan, an island on which many US Marines and Japanese soldiers and Japanese civilians died in 1944. Guy uses his native-sounding Japanese to lure some Japanese soldiers to their death and some civilians out of hiding in caves. The flips out twice, first on the initial beachhead, later unhinged by grief/fury.
Finally, he captures a general (Sessue Hayakawa, post “Bridge on the River Kwai) and persuades him to order his considerable number of surviving soldiers (though starving and in rags) to surrender. This feat is based on the real success of “the Pied Piper of Saipan,” who was allowed to go off on his own. was credited with the capture of 1,500 enemy soldiers (not counting civilians he persuaded not to commit suicide) and was recommended for the Congressional Medal of Honor by his commanding officer, Capt. John Schwabe (played in the movie by John Larch), because Gabaldon single-handedly captured more than ten times the number of prisoners taken by Sgt. Alvin C. York in World War I. The recommendation was not taken, and he was awarded a Silver Star, which was later (in 1960) upgraded to a Navy Cross.
The cinematography by Burnett Guffey, who shot other Karlson movies (Scandal Sheet, The Brothers Rico, The Silencers), plus “All the King’s Men” and “King Rat,” and who won Oscars for “From Here to Eternity” and “Bonnie and Clyde” was excellent, both the rugged terrain of the island and the stateside interiors. Leith Stevens provided ultra-melodramatic (overkill) music.
Hunter carried the movie and made a range of emotions and mind states palpable. I don’t think that his acting ability was widely recognized during his short life. I don’t remember Hunter in his screen debut (“14 Hours,” which starred Richard Basehart and was directed by Henry Hathaway), but I thought he was very compelling as the (Canadian) “Sailor of the King” (1953) as a lone sniper delaying a German ship’s repairs. John Ford did appreciate Hunter’s talents and cast him as the second lead in “The Searchers” (1956 to John Wayne), “The Last Hurrah” (1958 to Spencer Tracy), “Sgt. Rutledge” (1960 though Hunter was top-billed, the title character was portrayed by Woody Strode). Nick Ray cast Hunter as Jesus in “King of Kings,” which I have not seen, and which seems to have made future castings difficult for Hunter, who still looked boyish enough for the movie to be dissed as “Teen Jesus on the Cross.” Hunter mostly did tv (including an episode of “Combat!” during the 1960s before dying of a (second) stroke in 1969 at the age of 42.
Hunter’s costar, David Janssen, who played the lead on two popular tv series (titles roles in “The Fugitive” and “Harry O” plus the title role in the one-season “O’Hara, U.S. Treasury”) was more handsome (and hirsute) than I remember. Janssen died of a heart attack at the age of 48. Of the top-billed stars only Vic Damone, better known as a singer than an actor, reached old age (he was born in 1928 and is still alive). George Takei (an alumnus of the Camp Rowar, Arkansas and Tule Lake, California concentration camps, who played Guy’s agemate brother as an adult is going strong.
At 131 minutes, the run time of the movie is not tight as other Karlson movies are. The Saipan story is gripping and needs backstory, but more than an hour of it? The strip-teases are not relevant to anything else, but are entertaining (despite Janssen’s overacting) and I guess the “Leave It to Beaver”-like Japanese American family was necessary to sell a 1960 audience on the fierceness of Guy’s loyalty to the one who raised him.
The only DVD extras are trailers for other war movies on DVD.
Pros: interesting story, Hunter, Jansenn, cinematography
Cons: musical overkill, more than an hour of backstory
The Bottom Line: Shows internal battles before and after the Battle of Saipan (1944)