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Hell to Eternity

Hell to Eternity(1960)

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"Based on a true story" is generally an irrelevant claim, an attempt to add a little heft to a film that's apparently in need of that something extra. Every now and then, though, there's a movie like Phil Karlson's Hell to Eternity (1960) where its basis on a real story keeps viewers from being distracted with its implausibilies, in effect cutting down second-guessing whether the details of the real-life story are known or not. In this case, an L.A. kid is adopted by a Japanese family so that he learns to speak that language. During World War II his bilingual abilities allow him to talk over a thousand civilians and soldiers on Saipan into surrendering. On film this looks like an even less likely story but in fact is mostly what actually happened to Guy Gabaldon. Told with flashes of flair and a sharp post-war sensibility, Hell to Eternity puts Guy onto the screen with complexity and a firm sense that we need to hear about what he did.

Director Karlson (The Phenix City Story) and writers Walter Roeber Schmidt and Ted Sherdeman stay close to the main events but by the time Hell to Eternity was made in 1960 they weren't interested in telling a gung-ho propaganda story. In fact the most striking aspect of the film even to viewers today is that less than two decades after Pearl Harbor it is so completely accepting of the Japanese. Not even "sympathetic" really which sounds a bit half-hearted and possibly even a tad condescending. Guy's family in L.A. may speak Japanese at home and keep some of their old ways but they're pure American: bacon and eggs for breakfast, school sports, car buffs, even dress like early 40s teenagers. On Saipan the aims of Imperial Japan as a country are clearly considered wrong and the individual soldiers unrelenting but Karlson doesn't completely portray Guy and Americans as noble warriors. In one of the most unsettling sequences Guy reacts to the combat death of a buddy by going on a loner hunt where he lures or forces Japanese soldiers out of bunkers and then coldly shoots them, often in the back. Positioned as a kind of reaction to rage, it's hardly any more humane than the Japanese soldiers who elsewhere in the film generally do give at least a straightforward fight.

Karlson and company aren't making Guy an anti-hero but they do undercut heroics, particularly in a long sequence of the soldiers on liberty about halfway through the film. After a mercifully brief training sequence, Guy (played by Jeffrey Hunter, who was in King of Kings the following year) befriends his Marine drill sergeant (David Janssen). Together with another buddy, the carousing trio cheats a local Hawaiian cabbie out of several bottles of liquor then hook up with two Japanese party girls bringing an American "ice queen" journalist in tow. Throughout, the American soldiers act beyond even the bounds of the usual boys-being-boys hijinks and the sequence lasts so long that it becomes a kind of abrasive commentary on brash Americanism or macho posturing. One reason it's so effective is that it can't be neatly pinned and labelled. The sequence ends with Guy locked in a passionate embrace with a half-disrobed woman when it cuts to a swirling circular spiral and firing cannons, either one of the most audacious edits in film history or one of the most ill-considered.

Without that "true story" Hell to Eternity might seem like just another tossed off script from overworked writers. Knowing this will keep most viewers from saying "Oh come on now" at a few key points but the details as presented aren't entirely accurate. For one thing the real Guy Gabaldon was, unlike Jeffrey Hunter, Hispanic not to mention nearly a foot shorter than the actor. In fact many people have speculated that Gabaldon's ethnicity is the reason he was awarded a Navy Cross instead of the Medal of Honor. For comparison consider that Sergeant York received the latter medal despite capturing barely a tenth of the number that Gabaldon did (and despite the movie version, the real Sgt. York didn't do it alone though Gabaldon did). Also the real Gabaldon as a kid did indeed have a family but instead more or less adopted his Japanese family on his own. He also wasn't as hesitant about joining the military during the war as the film version. Gabaldon died in August 2006 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

But these changes don't really matter in the end. Hell to Eternity does portray some of the sheer bravery of the real Gabaldon but it's not meant to be a documentary. The film shows a man trying to weigh family and country, who's of ambigous ethnicity in a country that's always insisted on assigning exact categories, and who has to resolve the necessity of military force with its horrible results. The film shows the infamous civilian suicides on Saipan though at a distance and is possibly the first Hollywood film (and still one of the only) to mention the Manzanar detention camp. Perhaps it took enough distance from the war for the filmmakers to tackle this balance of "it had to be done" war film with a sharper critique of militarism. (For comparison to the literary world consider that Joseph Heller's Catch 22 would appear the following year and James Jones' caustic The Thin Red Line the year after that.) You can still see that the filmmakers are feeling their way, especially with a running time of 132 minutes that easily needed 15-20 minutes trimmed. But if in the end Hell to Eternity isn't a must-see classic it's nevertheless a thoughtful, engaging film that deserves more attention than it's received.

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by Lang Thompson