ETERNITY WITH PHIL KARLSON.
Seeing Hell to Eternity again after nearly sixty years was a curious experience, not least because the copy that Channel 9 ran late night (how did that happen?) was considerably longer than the one I’d seen in 1960.
Two hours and eleven minutes was a hopelessly ambitious length for a black and white B movie that was going to end up on bottom halves of programs.This one was one of the US action movies of the day which had their after-life in flea pit
re-issues. I thought I was their only fan in the world till I made it out of Australia and
found the crumbling movie palaces at the Central Railway end of Sydney had a
counterpart in London’s Biograph and Tolmer, Dublin’s Ballsbridge Ritz, 42nd. Street’s
grindhouses or Paris’ Studio Actions and Le Mambo where the interval curtain had local
trader decals like a turn of the century music hall. As with the Hong Kong Films of the
Seventies, their re-cycling double feature programming encouraged repeat viewing and hammered the material into memory.
The product had curious limits. Hoppy and Roy Rogers were too juvenile. The newly
accessible European skinflicks were too adult. One distributor described the ideal product
as "a colour Western with a G Certificate" - to which were added the Black and White
Crime, Monster & War movies. I remember the editor of Films and Filming saying his
writers watched too many films. These were the ones he meant.
centre of their movie going experience. More conversations turned to them than James
Bond, Tom Jones, l’Aventura and the London Film Festival. Instead of Taste of Honey,
La Chinoise and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance we soppped up the exploits of
Audie Murphy, Rory Calhoun, Joel McCrea, Dan Duryea, Sterling Hayden and of course
Randolph Scott. A feature performers like Allan Ladd, Glenn Ford and Richard Widmark
were welcome visitors. Women didn’t have the same profile, with Maria Montez and
Maureen O’Hara past their zenith and Yvonne De Carlo and Shelley Winters kind of
peripheral. Julie London maybe.
|Bob Stevens' Never Love a Stranger: Milan & Barrymore|
Nazzarro, Lee Sholem, Herman Strock or Joe Pevney - like Gerd Oswald better on TV.
The best work among the thousand or so contenders was near to always attached to a
regular suspect director. Along with the western Holy Trinity of Anthony Mann, Delmer Daves and John Sturges, Andre de Toth and later Bud Boetticher generated the Randolph Scotts, Jack Arnold did No Name on the Bullet and It Came from Outer Space, Maury Dexter Woman Hunt and House of the Damned, Joseph H. Lewis Lady Without a Passport, The Big Combo and Terror in a Texas Town, Bob Stevens The Big Caper and Never Love a Stranger, Hugo Fregonese Apache Drums, The Raid and Black Tuesday. Don Siegel followed Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Baby Face Nelson and The Line Up and Sam Fuller, demoted from his Fox features, contributed Underworld USA, The Crimson Kimono and Shock Corridor to match Jacques Touneur’s Night of the Demon and Wichita. Killer’s Kiss and The Killing came from a young still photographer named Stanley Kubric.
Which brings us to Phil Karlson not honored in his own country or any place else until it
was all over and he got to share a book with Joe Lewis. Karlson clambered up the ranks
of B movie gophers in the thirties emerging as a director with A Wave, a WAC and a Marine in 1944. Not all of the poverty striken second features he had his name on were masterpieces but a determined viewer would have spotted that his entries in the Shadow series (Behind the Mask 1944) and the Charlie Chans (his very noir The Shanghai Cobra 1945) outclassed their running mates and by 1949 his Down Memory Lane compilation from Mack Sennet footage, The Big Cat in subdued Technicolor and Iroquois Trail canibalising the Randolph Scott Last of the Mohicans all showed him pulling away from the pack. Columbia started giving him more ambitious product which he handled professionally. Valentino imitator Anthony Dexter and Tony Quinn in The Brigand was fun.
However our man found his niche in the fifties crime movie. 99 River Street, Kansas City
Mixed in with some TV work, the excellent Gunman’s Walk and The Scarface Mob (The
Untouchables pilot) followed, before Hell To Eternity, not Karlson’s most expensive project but his most thematically ambitious.
When they decided to film the story of Guy Gabaldon, WW2’s "the Pied Piper of Saipan", the backers probably expected they would get something like To Hell and Back. The State Department was urging Hollywood to play nice with their new Japanese allies and a few films like John Sturges’ great Bad Day at Black Rock or Robert Pirosh’ Go For Broke were already in circulation.
|Hunter, Vic Damone, Janssen & Galbadon|
The film is a fictionalised version of Galbadon’s WW2 exploits preserving the shape that made them notable. Steered away from delinquency by his school’s Japanese sports coach, the character finds himself in the cross hairs when America enters WW2. An effective scene has Hunter at the drive in lunch counter with his adoptive brother’s Japanese fiancée. One of the diners, who has just heard the broadcast of the Pearl Harbour attack, abuses the girl starting a fight but the man’s friend has a clearer view of events and warns Hunter “Get that girl off the streets!”
The Karlson film spoke out on racism in WW2 America quite explicitly in a touching scene of the Japanese family rounded up by the military from their tract home for “a concentration camp” and querying why German and Italian Americans are not being collected in the same way.
There is a brief scene in a minimally detailed Manazar, the camp subject to a more thorough examination in Alan Parker’s 1990 Come See the Paradise. At this point the film shifts into more traditional ground with scenes of marine training under Sgt. David Janssen. After some strenuous R&R in the Islands, the Americans land at Saipan overcoming Japanese resistance and witnessing civilians flinging themselves off the cliffs after hearing of the barbarism of the invaders. (this is detailed in Ken Burns brilliant documentary The War) Galbardon uses his skills to negotiate the bloodless surrender of more than a thousand of the already defeated enemy.
Hell to Eternity can’t avoid the defects of it’s schizoid form. The two scenes which stuck
|Owens : Hell to Eternity|
In her relatively short career Owens had quite a profile in Grindhouse repertory with this film, The Fly and Sturges’ The Law & Jake Wade.
The other vivid memory episode was Janssen’s last scene, with its propulsive trackings and
savagery. It is more connected to the film’s main drive; Galbaldon / Hunter’s vacillating in
his perception of the Japanese as a civilized nurturing culture and bloody handed aggressors.
Karlson manages all the action material effectively, notably the amphibian landings, his
limited budget running to a few pieces of war machinery and a generous number of uniformed extras, presumably the contribution of the 3rd Marine Division from Okinawa
who collaborated on this film. I’m told military detail is scrupulous. By contrast the Corps had refused aid to Stuart Heisler's Beachhead which was perceived as grisly enough to discourage recruiting
Hell to Eternity sneaks in imaginative touches - reflecting the naval barrage on General
Hayakawa’s field glasses, showing the body strewn aftermath of battle in total silence or
having the performers who played the family in the early scene re-appear as suicidal
Japanese Islanders. This last has been blunted in post production by superimposing their
earlier appearance on the scene which played more effectively without it. More
daring, Hayakawa does his big speech to the troops in Japanese without translation -
remarkably impressive. This gets around the big ask of making the effect of his oration credible to non speakers. Compare betrayed Yul Brynner angrily dictating his memo in Russian in 1959’s The Journey.
Hayakawa was coming to the end of an international star career stretching back to 1914,
of which regrettably little is accessible. His performance outclasses the film’s other
elements, despite the limitations of script and staging which put him at the mercy of
carbine waving Jeffrey Hunter (“Shot by a lousy P.F.C. There’s no honor and glory in
|Hell to Eternity : Hayakawa and Hunter|
anachronistic notion of military valour, in conflict with the brutality of the situation - the
banzai frenzy he has generated in his troops. His part was the major casualty of the condensation which, while it may even have improved the film, robbed it of this richest ingredient.
|Sessue Hayakawa matinee idol|
|Sessue Hayakawa in Hell to Eternity|
Also notable is the only sound appearance of Hayakawa’s wife and silent movie co-star
Tsuru Aoki who registers vividly as Mother Une, generating motivation that the writing
has trouble matching.
Outside of a dreary score, the production values and Karlson’s deployment of them have professional excellence. Notice the speedy wind up, characteristic of the best of the cycle - films like The Big Heat or Black Tuesday.
Karlson at very least understood what the film was about, defying that denigration which Hollywood personnel apply to colleagues they don’t respect. Touches like the one shot of the stateside bar where men are swilling their drinks under the realisation of the war situation or the ambivalence allowed Hayakawa are not what you expect from the thick ear environment of Allied Artists making a grind house feature.
Karlson had more ambitious work ahead of him, films with Robert Mitchum and Elvis Presley. His endearingly trashy The Silencers re-cycled the backwards shooting gun from The Brigand. His The Young Doctors was a main stream feature anyone would have been proud of and Walking Tall made him a fortune.
Now we can see Hell To Eternity in there with Cornel Wilde’s Beach Red, as a step towards the greater sophistication in war films like Speilberg’s Saving Private Ryan or the Clint Eastwood Letters from Iwo Jima with which Eternity shares a number of elements. It puts earlier Major Studio efforts like Battle Cry and Between Heaven and Hell in the shade, despite their prestige and more substantial resources. This one bookmarks a whole class of film making that has never been properly appreciated.
Eventually the stars would retire with only Lee Van Cleef managing the transition by
becoming the Italians’ Mr. Ugly. For a while there Steve Reeves and Franco Nero filled
the ranks of the fallen but the cowboys were gradually replaced by Shaolin Masters and
Karate Kids. The theatres fell victim to the once despised exploitation films. I remember
traveling out to Islington newly become the Screen on the Green to see Girl on a
Motorcycle in what had till recently been an action double bill house. One of the old
regulars was sitting in the row behind me and muttering to himself “Sex, sex, sex. It’s all
sex now!” Comes the scene where Marianne Faithful and Alain Delon get it on and, as
they climax and the image freezes, he looked up and added “All over now.” He was right.
I was so sorry to see it go.