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The true story of Guy Gabaldon, a scrappy Mexican-American kid raised in East Los Angeles by a Japanese-American family and one of the most unconventional (and unsung) heroes of World War II, is told in the 1960 war drama Hell to Eternity directed by Phil Karlson. The young man, who spoke fluent Japanese, joined the Marines at age 17 and served in the South Pacific, where he used his fluency with the language and the culture of the enemy to coax hundreds of Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender during the invasion of Saipan. He single-handedly captured more enemy soldiers than any American, including World War I hero Sergeant Alvin York, and was awarded the Navy Cross and the Silver Star.
Jeffrey Hunter, the athletic actor best known for his role opposite John Wayne in The Searchers (1956), plays Gabaldon as a tough street kid with a fierce loyalty to his Asian family. Appalled at their treatment of his adoptive parents (they were sent to a relocation camp) and turned away by the draft board for a perforated eardrum, he joins the Marines, who value his language skills. At six feet two inches, with broad soldiers and an action movie physique, Hunter is a very different specimen than the real Gabaldon, who was barely over five feet tall, and he hardly speaks Japanese like a man raised in the language, but he is appropriately driven and dedicated. David Janssen co-stars as Gabaldon's drill sergeant and singer Vic Damone has a supporting role as his girl-crazy, finger-snapping boot-camp buddy. The legendary Sessue Hayakawa, the one-time Hollywood silent screen star who disappeared from American screens until his memorable, Oscar®-nominated return as the POW camp commander in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), plays the commanding officer of the Japanese forces and yes, that is a pre-Star Trek George Takei (billed as George Takai) as Guy's adoptive brother George, who joins the 442 regiment in the European theater.
Patricia Owens (famed as the tormented wife of the original The Fly, 1958) gets fourth billing for a mere two scenes as a reporter nicknamed "the Iron Petticoat" (because no one can get past her defenses), but her last scene is a doozy. A drunken private party with Gabaldon's buddies ends with a PG strip tease contest between Owens and a burlesque dancer showing off their moves to the soldiers, who bark and wolf-whistle their appreciation (the scene was reportedly so provocative that it had to be edited down; as it is, the scene is pretty sexy for 1960). Owens slips down to her undergarments to a razzing swing record and gets a big smooch with Jeffrey Hunter, a scene immediately followed by an abrupt cut to battleship guns blazing. It's a jump that sends our boys into battle, but the juxtaposition is just too wicked not to be a sly joke: better than fireworks, this barrage suggests that there was more than just smooching going on after the cut.
Hell to Eternity was produced by Allied Artists, an independent production house (it was formerly the B-movie studio Monogram) competing with the studios with a budget-conscious approach. Phil Karlson was no stranger to low budget filmmaking or Allied Artists. He directed his first features for Monogram before he climbed out of the B-movie industry with tough-minded films that made the most of limited resources, and he had directed one of Allied's most memorable pictures, The Phenix City Story (1955), where his hard-hitting style elevated the expos-style tabloid material.
Karlson struggles with the limited scope of his production in the film's most ambitious battlefield scenes, cutting together isolated shots of enemy combatants with military battle footage and stock shots to suggest a massive canvas of war. Where he shines is in the dynamic hand-to-hand fight between enemy armies, tightening the focus down to a small but violent conflict where charging forces collide in the chaos of battle. Karlson masterfully designs and choreographs the sequence as a non-stop stream of fighting men, fierce attacks and falling bodies, killed by guns, knives, bayonets and sometimes by bare hands. And when the battle is over, he surveys the ground littered with corpses--American and Japanese both--to take stock of the cost of war. No longer us and them, they are all simply humans killed in war. It's a startling and effective dramatic moment on which the film pivots and our hero is inspired to end the battle for this island with as little bloodshed as possible.
While not one of Karlson's best films, Hell to Eternity was a major box-office hit and led to bigger (if more anonymous) productions for the director. It was also a rare film to draw attention to the plight of Japanese-Americans in World War II (even as it strikes a patriotic note of duty and sacrifice). It is also an interesting portrait of a man torn between patriotism and identity when confronted with the inhuman military culture of the Japanese soldiers. Initially driven to avenge his fallen fellow soldiers (his ferocity is reminiscent of Ethan Edwards in The Searchers and he may have channeled John Wayne for these scenes), Gabaldon finally brings the two sides of his identity together to bring, where possible, a nonviolent end to the conflict to honor both his country and his family.
Producer: Irving H. Levin
Director: Phil Karlson
Screenplay: Ted Sherdeman, Walter Roeber Schmidt (screenplay); Gil Doud (story)
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: David Milton
Music: Leith Stevens
Film Editing: Roy V. Livingston, George White
Cast: Jeffrey Hunter (Guy Gabaldon), David Janssen (Bill), Vic Damone (Pete), 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).
by Sean Axmaker