World War II films have been part of the DNA of Star Wars films since the beginning of the franchise. The other half of that DNA are the Samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, more often than not, starring Toshiro Mifune. What happens when you bring those two things together? You get the 1968 film Hell in the Pacific, directed by John Boorman.
Set on an uninhabited island in the middle of the pacific, Toshiro Mifune is a stranded Japanese soldier. Lee Marvin plays an American soldier who finds his way to the same island. Much of the movie is played out in their rivalry, but they realize quickly enough that if either of them are to survive, they’re going to have to work together.
This is a style of film that inspired much in the world of science fiction, from Enemy Mine to episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. It’s no wonder that the most recent iteration of the situation plays out in the episode of Star Wars Rebels called “The Honorable Ones.”
When Zeb and Agent Kallus crash land on an uninhabited moon, they’re left with the prospect of killing each other or working together in order to find a way off the planet. During the course of their exile, they come to a greater understanding of each other. It’s amazing to me that the crew of Rebels is able to condense such difficult ideas and concepts into a show so brief. But we’ve also had the benefit of a season and a half of shows leading up to this point, illuminating Zeb and Kallus for us. We know this is a difficult situation for them, but we don’t realize how difficult until they’re forced to face each other.
Of course, when the situation is adapted to Star Wars, they have to battle survival of the elements, but also of giant ice monsters. Instead of a plane or boat needing to find them, it’s the Ghost. The stakes are raised appropriately for the universe and the personal, emotional scale of the story isn’t sacrificed. War is hell. And the cost is much greater than one would expect. “There are heroes on both sides. Evil is everywhere,” words from the opening crawl to Revenge of the Sith, tell us everything we need to know about the story of these two men stranded in the middle of hell.
Hell in the Pacific is notable in that it does not dub or subtitle the other language. Mifune speaks Japanese through the entire film and English-speaking audiences are not given any window into what he’s saying other than through the context of his actions. It’s a fascinating question. How do you understand an enemy you can’t communicate with? Boorman found a way and made it utterly intriguing. It’s a film driven by the electric performances of Mifune and Marvin. They’re given an impossible task, working opposite each other when their communication has nothing to do with the words they speak, and pull it off with finesse. They even make it look easy.
There’s an additional tie between Star Wars and Mifune we’ve talked about before in this column: the fact that Mifune was one of the early options to play Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s no wonder, since he was central to many films that inspired Star Wars, including The Hidden Fortress, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Stray Dog. He’s one of the greatest actors of his or any generation, and it’s great to see his influence permeate Star Wars.
Hell in the Pacific is rated G by the MPAA, and there’s nothing in it that I’d fear keeping from younger children. It doesn’t paint the most flattering picture of American soldiers, though. Marvin’s character is downright crass and dehumanizing at times. The film is suitable for anyone able to handle the overall themes of war and intense situations that arise from two enemy soldiers coming in close contact to try to kill one another. It’s one I’d definitely show anyone interested in World War II, a classic film with unconventional editing, beautiful cinematography, and some of the best acting the silver screen has ever seen.
Availability: Hell in the Pacific is widely available on DVD. It’s not currently available on any streaming platforms.