Ahh, the wonderful world of John Boorman, that perennial cinematic oscillator between the realm of exhausted greatness (Point Break, Deliverance) and spirited atrocity (Zardoz and Exorcist II). The man just eludes categorization, except that all of his films seem to share a pure and unabashed self-centeredness. Yet many of his best films paradoxically stamp themselves in the director’s personality not through baroque visual extravaganzas but through thriller minimalism. His greatest achievements are not screeds radiating shards of discontent or phantasmagorical whirlygusts of excitement. Deliverance and Point Break are white-knuckle, certainly, but they are also thoroughly dog-tired, whipped features, spent forces rather than self-propagating fires of combustion.
The near-silent introduction of his unjustly forgotten near-masterpiece Hell in the Pacific, the story of two elderly soldiers stranded on an island, joins them. It’s a marvel of thriller composure, yet the catharsis of the two men, one American (played by Lee Marvin, returning from Boorman’s previous masterpiece Point Blank) and one Japanese (played by Toshiro Mifune), chasing one another toward eventual resolution is not violent thrust of assault but a tacit acceptance retreat. Without a single word, Hell in the Pacific pushes the two men toward one another only to – without visual alteration – give us each man’s mental fiction of swift justice and murder. Neither is dramatic or even forceful; the murders are matter-of-fact and devoid of catharsis, the pathetic final stand-off of not-young men waging a war that no longer truly means anything to them, as though fighting out of force of habit rather than any reasoned introspection.
But as soon as each man’s death is done, we are instantly shocked back into reality, the two men still standing at opposite ends of the screen, stone-like in their expression, one holding a wood-fashioned sword and the other a wood-fashioned knife and a branch-like shield. Their weapons are Boorman’s visual parody of men in conflict, here rendered with grave tragicomedy and absurdity. The lack of explanation or wordplay asks us to accept the fight as a fact rather than a logic, implying that their conflict really can know no explanation, that a logical explanation would be a lie. They just chase one another as a fact we must accept, not understand. When they do not immediately rush to the kill, the film registers their uncertainty and apprehension and perhaps implies that a certain sense of arbitrariness to the conflict is dawning upon them, that their continual pining to kill rather than work together to fashion a home out of this universe is, bluntly put, silly.
Hell in the Pacific is a beautiful film, a masculine work of anti-masculine philosophy, a film about togetherness that also cheekily undermines the macho-poetics of most male bonding movies. Connection in Hell is not a drunken release of brooding pent-up angst or stories of their past lives at home. The two don’t really “get to know one another”, and the only common language they share is murder. Connection here is an anxious outpour of ambiguity and curiosity about the other, a study of two men who slowly see the other in movement and become receptive not to their tales of conquest and battle (a more famous satire of this is the compare-battle-wounds scene in Jaws) but in seeing the others’ flubbed attempts to hurt and hinder the other. Attempts that morph, without words or explicit reasons, into more ambivalent interactions. They start performing odd gestures for the other without quite admitting it, as if morbidly curious what the other man will do with the help, what their ingenuity will wring out. It’s as if the men are afraid that actually killing the other will deprive them of the only perverse human contact they have on the island, deny them not only their only known mode of interaction (masculine conflict) but their only accepted understanding of interpersonal contact in this most perverse parody of friendship.
Boorman conspicuously defeats their more overt and classical “fights”. They spend twenty minutes fumbling around one another, but the first actual fight is a five-second affair suffused in smoke, obfuscated, devoid of any visual catharsis for either man and for the audience. Their interactions mutate into flashes of mutual, skeptical, and almost silent coexistence. It could be an allegory – the exposed, elemental quality of the two men devoid of backstory all but demands exactly this poetic, mythological interpretation – but it also has the quality of a mental projection, Boorman’s mind imagining a scenario and playing it out for the sake of cinema without inherently higher ambitions. This frayed parable sometimes feels like a dry-run for Boorman’s Deliverance, but Hell also radiates its own comically absurdist sensibility in the way the two principal figures insinuate the loopy scruffiness of two extremely bedraggled men fighting out of automaton-duty and because they secretly want to make friends, even when they don’t know it. At some point, their gambits feel like Boorman’s attempt to wring men of any composure and power and debase WWII into a bunch of abandoned children playing in the sand. By the end, they are taking turns playing prisoner for the other.
Conrad Hall was the cinematographer (immediately following the more famous one-two punch of In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke) and the sheer cinematographic writing of the film is masterful, dilating for moments of verite-camera pandemonium and smashing back to Panavision wide-screen images of densely-present natural textures registering alternately as exotic heaven and hell. The film’s philosophical reflections aren’t always truly ingenious, but the tectonic pull of its physicality most certainly is: Hall, Boorman, and everyone involved conjure a truly frightening jungle battleground. Rare is the film that is both so animatedly vivacious and so punishingly dehydrated.
There’s obviously a touch of Herzog here, or rather Herzog has a touch of Boorman in him, and like Herzog, who is often partially mis-read as psycho-subjectively visualizing his characters’ insanity in his jungle locations, Boorman resists the obvious openly psychological imagery and symbolism of a feverish plunge into the mind. He prefers a terrifyingly external film, one without complete access to his characters, who are more like icon-figures in his graphical lightning-scribe rather than mental architectures – skeletons – to ornament with visual muscles and tissues. Much like an Antonioni film, Boorman reminds us – especially through pause-point images of the island from far off, abstracted to recognize the two men as mere specks in a much larger geography – that this place does not exist for the two characters. They are intrepid wanderers in a natural world that can choose to reflect them but is not imprisoned within them. Hell in the Pacific, it seems, is the character’s dawning realization that, without their perverse power-plays and condescending put-downs of the other, their willingness to play master and servant for the other and switch-up the roles, they would be confronted with precisely this understanding of their essential smallness and irrelevancy in the world around them.