There are two war movies that posit Americans and Japanese being thrust together on islands in the Pacific in WWII. “None But the Brave” (1965) brings together two platoons and “Hell in the Pacific” involves two men. Both movies focus on the clash of cultures and the difficulties of peaceful coexistence between enemies that do not understand each other. Which is stronger: the urge for survival or the hatred and fear of someone different than you?
“None But the Brave” was a vanity project of Frank Sinatra. He produced the film and it was the only movie he directed. Thankfully, he did not write it as well. It is set on one of the Solomon Islands. The movie is narrated by the Japanese commander of a cut-off unit. Kuroki (Taysuya Yamihashi) is a warrior/pacifist who is humane, but has a martinet second in command (representing all the other Japanese officers in WWII films). They are building a boat to get off the island when an American unit arrives via a shot down C-47 (in a painfully poor special effect). The Americans are heterogeneously clichéd. The Air Force Capt. Bourke (Clint Walker) takes command due to rank. The Marine Lt. Blair (Tommy Sands) is green, but gung-ho. There is a cigar-chomping, jerk of a sergeant (Brad Dexter). Sinatra plays the boozing, wise-cracking Chief Pharmacist Mate.
The movie revolves around two sets of conflicts. The conflict between the two forces and disagreements between the commanders and their subordinates. The conflict within the units is basically because Bourke and Kuroki want to avoid bloodshed and their seconds want to carry on the war. The hot heads win out so we can have some action. The boat gets blown up, forcing them to realize they are all stuck. There are mutual acts of humaneness like Sinatra amputating the leg of a wounded Japanese. Later, Kuroki saves the LTs life. A storm forces them to work together to save the well. Hey, this just might work… Unfortunately, when an American rescue ship looms on the horizon, the Japanese ambush the evacuating Americans even though they had promised not to reveal the presence of the Japanese on the island . This leads to the climatic fire-fight which results in the film's “nobody ever wins” conclusion.
“Hell in the Pacific” was directed by John Boorman and was released three years later. Toshiro Mifune is stranded alone on an island (the movie was filmed on one of the Palau Islands) when Lee Marvin crash lands. Their hatred and distrust are palpable from the beginning. There are a series of back and forth incidents involving fresh water and fish. They are not willing to share and would rather destroy what the other has. Each has the opportunity to kill the other, but backs off. Eventually, they agree to coexist, but still clearly hate each other. They build a raft, but disagree over construction. Language is a barrier. They leave and manage to overcome the rough surf. Even through a montage of laying around on the raft, they still have little affection for each other. They arrive at a new island and find a deserted Japanese camp. Finally some camaraderie develops over the food and sake, but it is short-lived as each is reminded of the cultural gulf between them.
Besides the obvious similarities in themes, the movies share the emphasis on the language barrier. Both eschew subtitles for the Japanese to give the audience a feel for the confusion and misunderstandings of the two sides. This is effective, but especially in the case of “None”, it can be more confusing than effective. “None” is more interested in examining the differences in command and warrior ethos, whereas “Hell” is more personal. Mifune and Marvin do not so much represent their nation’s attitudes as they represent two nut cases thrust together. Mifune could just as easily have been a cantankerous German.
“None” may have a better template, but it is the inferior film. It is poorly acted with absolutely horrendous dialogue. At one point, Bourke tells Kuroki “Aw shove it, and don’t forget to duck”. WTF Does this make sense to anyone? The soldier talk is laughable (at least we don’t have to understand what the Japanese are saying). The narration is sappy with ridiculous emphasis on pronunciation of the Rs and Ls. It is also riven with clichés. For example, the green, gung-ho lieutenant who gets his battle, but regrets it. Sinatra hams it up, but surprisingly lets Walker lead. The movie does have a good action scene in the battle over the boat and the portrayal of the Japanese enlisted is sympathetic.
“Hell” is better, but could have been a hell of a lot better. It is thought-provoking and well-acted (of course with Mifune and Marvin), but unrealistic. For example, two guys in such terrible shape could not have survived the raft adventure. Some of the vignettes are silly. Marvin throws bullets into Mifune’s fire and they go off like a machine gun. Later, he pees on the Japanese. Some of the interactions are a bit slap-stick. The cinematography is good, but the score is bizarre. It does avoid clichés as both of the men are dislikable and borderline insane. You can’t root for either or both. The ambiguous ending is off-putting, but appropriate.
Both movies have the same pious anti-war message. Each seduces us with the idea that enemies can coexist and learn to respect each other, but then pulls out the rug to hammer its “war is uncivilized” conclusion. The duel is between the ridiculous and the unrealistic. Go with the unrealistic because it has two great actors chewing the scenery instead of a bunch of bad actors playing army men.
None But the Brave = D-
Hell in the Pacific = C