Directed by Phil Karlson
Produced by Irving H. Levin
Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt
Story by Gil Doud
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: David Milton
Set Decoration: Joseph Kish
Music: Leith Stevens
Sound: John H. Bury, Jr. and Ralph Butler
Sound editing: Charles Schelling
Film Editing: Ray V. Livingston and George White
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Guy Gabaldon), David Janssen (Sgt. Bill Hazen), Vic Damone (Cpl. Pete Lewis), Patricia Owens (Sheila Lincoln), Richard Eyer (Guy as a boy), John Larch (Capt. Schwabe), Bill Williams (Leonard), Michi Kobi (Sono), George Shibata (Kaz Une), Reiko Sato (Famika), Bob Okazai (Papa Une), George Takei (George Une), George Matsui (George as a boy), Miiko Taka (Ester), Tsuro Aoki (Mother Une), Sessue Hayakawa (Gen. Matsui)
A serious and expansive biographical film about World War II hero Guy Gabaldon, this could rightly be considered among Allied Artists’ more prestigious movies were it better known than it is. At the same time, it surely benefitted from being made out of the major studios by non-prestigious AA, as well as from the company’s trust in director Phil Karlson, an important figure in its history. It is not only that the film is so effectively uncompromised, while at the same time mature — in its handling of both violence and sexuality as well as challenging social/historical realities — but, even more significantly that Karlson, working from a screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt, takes the opportunity given by the episodic nature of a biographical subject to draw the cinematic arc more from within the central character than from its narrative events.
So, the movie may be a little difficult to grasp in terms of coming to dramatic points in the ways one expects, though they are there throughout, and if one is just looking for those things it may seem attenuated. From the beginning, the focus is on conflict of cultural identity for Guy, which the War intensifies. Guy is introduced as a boy (Richard Eyer) effectively orphaned in the opening sequences but adopted by the Japanese-American family of his friend George Une (George Matsui; George Takei as an adult) after George’s older brother Kaz (George Shibaro) takes him in hand. Guy (Jeffrey Hunter as an adult) takes his new identity as part of this Nisei family to heart and especially his adopted mother (Tsuro Aoki), who sets the tone for the family’s positive values, stoical when, after Pearl Harbor and the advent of war, the family is relocated to a Japanese-American internment camp (though the brothers are later able to enlist). Bitter and conflicted, Guy is encouraged to take a positive attitude by Mother Une and joins the Marines as an interpreter. With his friends Hazen (David Janssen) and Lewis (Vic Damone), he enjoys a wild night in Honolulu with two free-living Japanese-American women (Michi Kobe and Reiko Sato) and a more reserved white magazine writer from the States (Patricia Owens). After this the second of the movie’s two hours follows the Marines on Saipan, where Guy loses both of those friends and responds to the enemy Japanese in several different ways—drawing them out of caves and coldly executing them after the killing of Hazen, but earlier being caring and protective when he can be (especially in a beautifully realized scene with a young Japanese girl) and later negotiating a surrender of troops with a reticent general (Sessue Hayakawa); the general commits hara-kiri but not before being persuaded by Guy’s eloquence that there is no purpose in his command following him, and so Guy ends up saving far more lives than he has taken, and it’s this for which he is now celebrated as a hero.
The cross-cultural journey of Guy, as much spiritual as external, and his complex relationship to race and racism, hold the film together more than any individual thing that happens. He is seen in relation to Japanese brothers and sisters (real and metaphorical) as well as in relation to important Caucasian characters throughout the movie, from a first boyhood fight on to interaction with the Japanese general and by way of the Honolulu party with the three women. And though the movie ends in a positive moment, with the peaceful taking of all those prisoners on Saipan, it’s not felt his identity conflict is ever fully resolved. But it does not need to be, and that is the movie’s great strength. Instead of taking the character from one definitive point to another, it appreciates that a life may always be made up of and defined by many elements—cultural, social and historical as well as personal—and that an individual may find ways to live with these, hopefully positive though they not always be so, in different ways at different times. As a realized artistic creation based on a real person, Guy believably carries this idea, making the movie individual as well as believable and thoughtful.
As Phil Karlson is rightly celebrated for earlier genre movies, especially his crime films that are usually experienced as taut and concise, one might on first reflection not expect this kind of treatment from him. But it can be dangerous to type a director too much, even if it’s meant in a positive way, and the evidence is plainly there, and not only in this film, that his artistic impulses always cut in a number of directions, depending on the opportunities. He evidently cared a lot about this project, and not only because of strong social convictions (cinematic references to Japanese-American internment camps, one of the dark pages in American history, are easy to find in later movies but at this point in time, Hell To Eternity had to be at least close to alone in its acknowledgement and makes it a central event for the evolving consciousness of its hero).
Stylistic inflection that I would expect from him in present, for example, in forceful still moments that follow in the wake of drama, an early example being a beautiful high angle shot of Guy at his family’s home after they have left to be relocated in the camps, powerful in its simplicity, and a more sustained series of shots after the brutal first battle on Saipan, with dialogue absent for more than several minutes as the soldiers quietly regroup in the aftermath and gravely absorb all the death. Anyone who remembers something like the end of the middle part of The Brothers Rico (1957), with James Darren quietly walking out of his house to face his killers in extreme high angle long shot, will know Karlson’s mastery with these kinds of moments, and his gift for absorbing violence into an imposing calm.
But in Hell To Eternity, I find even more striking the unexpected ways in which scenes may be stretched out, taking on a very modernist feel at one with currents of world cinema that are important throughout the 1960s, so it’s one more Hollywood production (there are a fair number) prescient in this respect. A striking example is the erotically charged party with Reiko Sato’s practiced Famika stripping and then, unexpectedly, Patricia Owens’ Sheila stripping with even more abandon, glad to feel the effects of the liquor and the erotic pull of the moment that at last has shattered her reserve and finally set up an end to the sequence (not really an end—as the end is clear, it simply stops). Instead of being concerned about what an episode like this contributes to balance or coherence of narrative, it becomes interesting to consider what it contributes to tone of the whole—and the early scenes in East L.A. and the longer, richly developed ones on Saipan may be considered in the same way.
An insightful overview of Karlson by Bill Krohn for a Cinematheque Francaise retrospective in 2014* addresses several things about this—that Karlson liked for a movie to have three acts (Krohn uses Hell To Eternity as an example of these three acts all being different, and indeed the Honolulu sequence seems to come in almost as something self-contained, even though we know the characters, and makes the first and third parts seem that way too) and that his relationship with actors may be almost documentary-like (as Shelia, Patricia Owens—who excelled in a fair number of fetching films, most famously as the desperate heroine of The Fly, 1958 —first projects the customary poise and ladylike reserve her beauty had always carried and seems liberated by the overt sexuality she then projects). With directors this gifted, it’s important not just to acknowledge their genre expertise but to observe and appreciate inflections of sensibility that are all their own, apart from whatever place they may have carved out in the cinema of their time and place.
There’s a lot to appreciate in Hell To Eternity and surely more than I’ve made note of here. Hopefully touching on things that are aesthetically interesting about it as well as what’s emotionally moving in realization of the subject are at least a start, and surely those things are related too. Guy’s divided cultural identity as seen in the film may be something Karlson personally responded to (the director was half Jewish and half Irish) and may be one reason why he treats this with such sensitivity throughout while also being related to his embrace of the freer structure and the personal flow that comes with this. Karlson also cared enough about visual tone to borrow cinematographer Burnett Guffey from Columbia, where they had worked on key films before—Guffey was a master of sharp images in bold black and white as here—and gave his usual attention to actors, including an ideally cast Jeffrey Hunter as Guy, believably earnest and intense as in all his best roles, a more extroverted David Janssen before his indelible TV lead in The Fugitive, John Larch (whose career as he came into features, often as the heavy for which his looks suited him, was helped immeasurably by Karlson) as a sympathetic commander, and most of all, Tsuro Aoki as the deeply knowing adoptive mother. It may not be the most perfect or polished film, but at the same time has so much, and those positive things are the ones that deserve attention, make it steadily absorbing, and give it its character.
For Phil Karlson and Allied Artists, the movie was the end of a long relationship that began with the director’s first films for Monogram. When the company began to go beyond its B films as AA (for about five years Monogram and AA continued to exist together), Karlson made the first of those movies (Black Gold, 1947) and he returned during his Columbia years for another important work The Phenix City Story (1955) before finishing with them with this movie. It would be hard to imagine him apart from Monogram/Allied Artists history, and just as hard to imagine that company without him.
*archived in Kinoslang as “Phil Karlson Confidential”
Blake Lucas is a writer and film critic living in Los Angeles.