Judge Daniel MacDonald isn't really sure what this title means. And he's seen the movie.
He defeated a Japanese army, single-handedly. An astonishing true story of World War II.
A biographical drama about American war hero Guy Gabaldon, Hell to Eternity would seem to have lots to offer the war film buff—drama on the home front, internal conflict, and bravery in combat. But can it deliver?
Facts of the Case
A young boy whose mother lays dying in hospital, leaving him to fend for himself, Guy Gabaldon (Richard Eyer, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) is taken in and raised by a Japanese-American family, learning an appreciation for the language and culture of his adoptive parents. Years go by, and life seems pretty swell for the grown-up Guy (Jeffrey Hunter, The Searchers), until the attack on Pearl Harbor, and resulting attitudes toward those of Japanese descent, break up the family and leave Guy as a conflicted drifter.
But once Guy is reunited with his "Mama-San," and is given a form of permission to go to war against the Japanese armies, he enlists and starts a new life as a soldier. In battle, his fluency in Japanese and humanist instincts make him an invaluable warrior to the fellow members of his squad.
As a portrayal of Guy Gabaldon's life, Hell to Eternity comes off as overly hagiographic, sketching the man as straightforward and uncomplicated, always ready to do the right thing at a moment's notice. He has two real moments of weakness in the entire film, one when his family is disbanded to internment camps and his life seems briefly aimless, and a second when he hits the beach in his first battle and is reduced to tears by the bodies of Japanese soldiers strewn about. But neither of these could remotely be described as character flaws, as they just make him all the more sensitive. Later, Guy reacts to the death of a friend by setting off alone on a killing spree, but he's killing enemy soldiers in combat, not innocents or those trying to surrender, so even here he can't really be blamed. No, the Guy of the film seems almost superhuman in his goodness, which makes him awfully difficult to relate.
On top of the unrealistic main character, Hell to Eternity is burdened by a melodramatic score that sweeps in to put an exclamation point on nearly every major scene, especially in the movie's first half. At times it feels like a Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows) film, overly accentuated sentiment belying the real emotion behind the sequences. Scenes set Stateside or in training are too big, too convenient, and sometimes just too much.
Things perk up a bit once the combat begins, as director Phil Karlson (Walking Tall) has staged some huge battle scenes featuring hundreds of soldiers and perpetual explosions, debris constantly blasting across the frame. The most impressive moments of the running time can be found here. Hell to Eternity doesn't shy away from blood or tough situations, and for a while it redeems the preceding hour or so, but the selflessly heroic Guy Gabaldon prevents us from becoming completely invested in the drama.
That's too bad, because I'm sure a powerful and engaging movie could be made out of Guy's life. Tension in certain scenes between him and racist troublemakers who want to blame Japanese-Americans for the attack on Pearl Harbor is genuine, and the evolution of the man from impoverished boy to war hero is fascinating. But to make Guy relatable, he has to be seen making the wrong choice sometimes or his successes ring hollow, which is unfortunately what happens by the end of Hell to Eternity.
While at times he emotes like a Bruce Campbell (The Evil Dead) imitation of a courageous soldier, Jeffery Hunter is generally good as Guy. He's got the all-American physique and stands out as a formidable soldier among his peers at first glance, although scenes of marching, saluting, are played surprisingly sloppily. The real stand out is David Janssen (The Fugitive) as Guy's friend Bill. Janssen underplays most of his scenes, and when he goes big it's appropriate, like when he's catcalling at a stripper after a bottle of whisky; Janssen is a beacon of reality in the melodramatic sea. And watch for the reliable George Takei (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) in a few scenes as Guy's brother.
Despite its flaws, Warner Bros. has given Hell to Eternity and impressive, high bit rate transfer with only occasional specks of dust and one major scratch. I noticed no compression artifacts or shimmering, and fine object detail in clothing and landscapes was well defined. It's not up to the standards for a modern film, but is quite good for one nearly forty years old. The Dolby Digital 1.0 mono sound does the job, balancing the dialogue and the incessant score nicely with no problem areas.
The only extras are a selection of trailers from other 1960s war pictures; they're kind of ratty, but at least they're anamorphic.
Hell to Eternity has a great deal of inherent drama in its very premise, a Caucasian raised in a Japanese family who uses the lesions he's been taught against that country's soldiers, and for the most part it successfully capitalizes on its potential. Unfortunately, a penchant for melodrama and the unwillingness to portray Guy's flaws keeps this from being a classic war picture.
Guilty of overwhelming a good premise with bad decisions.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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