Hell in the Pacific is a seasoned American war film released in 1968, set around a lone isle cast in the south pacific, between two castaways of opposing militaries. The coincidental crossing of two men, at first combative, retains a disconcerting and improvised relationship; with not starving on a beach taking precedent over some war.
Over the course of the film, the two begin to splinter from their nationalistic tendencies, to a point of questioning the direction of their moral standards leading them, overall pretty good stuff. What’s important to take from this classic is not so much the plot and character development but the scrupulous use of sound. It takes many routes in this movie, with different sounds forming a sort of subliminal code to portray the language not spoken on screen. John Boorman’s first war film in 1969, at a time when the capabilities in story development in cinema was spotty at best, this film became an example to future filmmakers as a guide to filming sound.
The first major example of this is when our two soldiers of misfortune first clash on the pacific beachhead. The two soldiers run fearlessly toward one another, only to stop dead in their tracks, stricken with unknowing mutual fear. The audience is able to pick up on the internal dialogue as the camera pans to each soldier, portraying an exaggerated grim result of the impending altercation, each one envisioning their own demise. This depicts a second layer simmering under the rather stark reality of two opposing soldiers with sole intention to eliminate their foe.
One of the biggest concepts on the importance of sound is the context. Two opposing soldiers, interchangeable cat and mouse on a small island, deceive one another in order to control the scarce resources available. While literal sound will be given first chair as it follows the plot, conjectural sound fills the background in detail, channeled to illustrate subtle intentions, desperation, and raw emotion. The sound of the waves, the birds and animals in the background, and all foreign landscape to the foreign Lee Marvin (American).
The Japanese soldier, played by Toshiro Mifune, exploits this weakness, spreading a smokescreen throughout the jungle, bringing not only a literal fog into play, but adding on to the metaphorical fog already beginning to seep in the mind of the American soldier.
The tone is personified as desperation, as the two reform their efforts from desperately one-upping one another into some level of cooperation, in an order to maintain resources for survival. The language barrier between the Japanese and English soldier presents a communication barrier from the beginning, not just between the two but between the audience and the story, they can’t exactly just say how they feel, we are left to interpret.
Sound is further articulated when the characters make decisions or react to these decisions; the audience knows the American will go and steal water from the Japanese officer by showing a superhuman ability to hear the drip of water, dehydration is implied. The canteen, the loudest one money can buy, is used to annoy both sides yet fail at retaining any water, spilling across the hot sand. Further along, the Japanese officer makes a fortress, only for the American to make small explosions out of throwing bullets into his fire. The annoyance of the Japanese soldier becomes exponentially easier to depict in the sudden crashing of waves and loud banter of the animals on the island, showing raw emotion, reaching a breaking point.
Once all calm is lost, the true element of the unknown is expelled through the sounds and images of the inner island, and it affects both characters. All these elements compile with the overall coincidental nature of the story to bring out a more basic message: that when broken down, we are all humans, humans with feelings and emotion, errors and bad judgments. The film encompasses the moral conflict of the soldier all the while as a visual textbook on how to use sound in film.
The opposing cultures and political agendas of both sides, along with their tools of technology and language are put aside, when survival of mankind is at stake. When a movie chooses to align the story with a diverse composition, this shows the audience there can be meaning found beyond what is visual, we just have to listen carefully. War is shown as almost a privilege of man, one that can be abused, out of desperation, but ultimately can not stop the humanity in all of us.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be so grim for us, if we choose to listen, to the sound, all around us; it’s a hell of a story.