As someone of Japanese-American heritage, it’s become a personal preoccupation of mine to search out films that in some way represent the lives of my grandparents and their generation. This means the rich Issei and Nisei communities of Los Angeles, the subsequent internment camps, and even the famed 442nd Infantry Battalion.
Obviously, Hollywood has always had a complicated history with minorities, mirroring broader historical context. Thus, the opening images of Hell to Eternity feel like a bit of a surreal pipe dream — something I’ve looked for a long time and finally discovered. You almost have to pinch yourself into believing the industry actually made this movie.
A young punk (Richard Eyer) and his friend (George Matsui) stare down a trio of thugs who look ready for a fight. Its fitting proof Phil Karlson’s bloody knuckles aesthetic can enter the schoolyard as the two battling adolescence are pulled apart by their physical education instructor (George Shibata)
Japanese-Americans and their culture play a rich and integral part in this biography of celebrated war hero Guy Gabaldon. No, he was not one of them, but he might as well be. Coming from a broken home, his only place to turn is the Une family who gladly welcomes him into their home.
In some small regard, these scenes play out quaintly if not altogether conventional. Guy begins to pick up Japanese quickly and even teaches his benevolent “mama-san” a few terms by pointing to objects around the house. Despite, the stilted acting and out-and-out authenticity aside, the images themselves are powerful. And some background is in order on multiple accounts.
We have George Shibata who was the first Japanese-American graduate out of West Point. Then, Tsuru Aoki was one of the premier stars of the Silent Era even before Sessue Hayakawa. But the connections run deeper still because due to their Hollywood roots and the anti-miscegenation laws at the time, Aoki and Hayakawa wedded and remained married until her death in 1961.
The slightly older George is played by an extremely youthful George Takai. Meanwhile, there’s further Japanese-American representation in Papa-san, Bob Okazaki, and the likes of Reiko Sato and Miiko Taka.
It should be noted the Unes are some sort of amalgam of the real-life Nakano family whose son Lane fought in the 442nd and later become a short-lived actor in the likes of Go For Broke! and Japanese War Bride (1953). All of these basic details are based on fact.
However, with this necessary context in tow, it’s about time to turn our attention to the man himself who held such a unique background in his own right. Because make no mistake, Guy Gabaldon is certainly worthy of the biopic treatment even if a picture like this can’t quite do the man justice. That’s fine.
Although what it develops into is an unwieldy drama and having Jeffrey Hunter portray Gulbadon is one of the most hilarious examples of overstated Hollywood casting. It feels like having John Wayne play Audie Murphy. However, what Hunter lacks in similar likeness and physique, he more than makes up for by capturing the resiliency of his subject. He offers believable candor and the embodiment of American exceptionalism.
Allied Artists was a B movie mill and Hell for Eternity was their wealthiest, most expansive undertaking to date, with their number one moneymaker on assignment: industry workhorse Phil Karlson. In one sense, Karlson seems well-equipped for some elements and then woefully disadvantaged for others.
Hell to Eternity proves itself to be wildly uneven because without jumping the gun, the opening scenes are quietly revolutionary and truly unprecedented when you consider Hollywood’s track record. Then, there’s a shift as his family is unceremoniously shipped out to internment camps, and you have Guy rushing to every branch of the service only to be rebuffed at every turn. Still, his remarkable qualifications — namely his Japanese abilities — gain him an in-road.
We also have the introduction of his buddies. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Sergeant Bill Hazen (David Janssen) proves himself to be an intense adversary and an even fiercer companion. As they foster mutual respect and camaraderie, it becomes evident he’s the type of buddy you want in your corner. And if he’s too intense, the swinging, snapping, undulating lady’s man, Junior (Vic Damone), more than brings the party.
It’s around this time where the film reimagines itself as what could easily be considered an entirely different movie. The midpoint in Hawaii has them left entirely to their own devices with one glorious night of freedom out on the town before they ship out. Not to be disappointed, they are treated to a titillating striptease show, courtesy of Sato, with the steamy hot jazz cutting through the night. The men cheer on the women with a rueful round of inebriated leering.
Where does this all end? How does this tie into Guy Gulbandon’s story; in short, it doesn’t. What does happen is the softening of the so-called “Iron Petticoat,” a woman journalist, who has gained notoriety for her prudish ways. It’s by far the most cringe-worthy sequence as Ms. Lincoln (Patricia Owens) lets her hair down, as it were.
What follows is a barrage of lingering shots over heels, tights, legs — you get the salacious idea — and from a distance, we can admit to it being fairly risque for the 1960s. It becomes amusement for their entire company. The woman’s impregnable defenses have finally been conquered. Whatever that means.
However, with a few abrupt cuts the whole meaning of these scenes is almost salvaged. Effectively, there is no interim. We get thrown directly into the campaign and their wild bender of an evening is only a distant memory as they cut their way across the shores toward the enemy embankments.
Even as Karlson isn’t able to make every crosscut of action fundamentally compelling, he’s far more in his element amid the volatility and constant barrage of bullets and bodies. What felt initially so quietly groundbreaking and devolved into needless exhibitionism, finally settles into his forte.
Here he can dig knee-deep into the nitty-gritty and give us something that packs a wallop. Hell to Eternity is a lot less sanitized than I would have surmised, especially given its era. However, there is no mincing when it comes to what we are privy to on the simulated battlefield. He capably mobilized thousands of extras from Okinawa for some of the most spectacular scenes where the large scale is matched with tumultuous elements of very intimate trauma.
And even as the skirmishes settle into a kind of chaotic equilibrium, Galbadon — using his Japanese skills — earns his moniker as the “Pied Piper of Taipei.” Using the talents he’s been gifted by his incredible upbringing, he does his best to coax the already cowed but testy enemy to surrender using their native tongue.
The one foe emblematic of the proud enemy is portrayed by Sessue Hayakawa, emulating his similar role from Bridge on the River Kwai as a derisive Japanese officer. Once Galbadon can conquer him, he’s all but won the fight behind enemy lines. More than anything, I’m disappointed in the fact that we never circle back around to his adopted family nor the exploits of his brothers. Still, for more context, Go For Broke! plays as a decent companion piece about the 442nd.
So although it’s an imperfect and often befuddling vehicle, Guy Gulbadon was a hero more than worthy of a biopic. Regardless of any faults, Hell to Eternity is bristling with not only action but specific depictions of a historical time and place that often remain overshadowed in Hollywood to this day. It’s been one of my missions to discover more representations of Japanese-Americans in American cinema, and in this regard, Hell to Eternity is a stirring success. It can’t help but be groundbreaking even in spite of its unassuming nature. I look up at the screen and there’s a personal connection.