Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific
Toshiro Mifune in Hell in the Pacific
Image: Supplied / IMDb

I find myself on the balmy Indian Ocean island of Réunion this week. So, in tribute to the escapist pleasures of island life, this week’s column features three very different but anti-Edenic films that take place on islands. It’s not always sea, sand and sun as these films demonstrate. Sometimes no matter how remote the place you find yourself may be, life continues to be brutal, hard and short.


The arthouse essential: 

The Naked Island — YouTube

Japanese director Kaneto Shindô’s 1960 drama is a dialogue-free, patiently executed study of the rhythms and toils of agrarian life. Set on a remote island, the film follows the daily struggles of a family of four as they go about the necessary but difficult business of irrigating their crops — carrying the water they need from a neighbouring island they row to each morning. It’s a simple but effective Sisyphean parable that offers a harsh dose of reality that’s out of step with the idyllic idea of islands as escapist paradise.

Shindo was inspired to write the story because of an ambition to make a film without dialogue and ultimately, after sinking his own money into the project, he was rewarded by the financial success of the film, which saved the independent company that produced it.

The director’s lead actor Taiji Tonoyama was suffering from severe liver damage caused by years of alcohol abuse. His participation in the film ultimately saved his life because, with no alcohol to be had within miles of the film’s location on the island of Sikune in Minara, Hiroshima, he had no choice but to sober up. Tonoyama’s life would later form the basis for a biopic directed by Shindô.

A difficult but honest and committed drama about the resilience necessary for basic survival in difficult conditions, the film was nominated for a Bafta and still stands as classic that has relevant things to say about the drive to survive; and the ways in which it places human beings in conflict with nature.


The stone cold classic: 

Hell in the Pacific — YouTube

Fresh off of the success of his 1967 classic crime noir Point Blank, British director John Boorman followed up that film with this 1968 World War 2 parable set on a remote island and starring only two actors — veteran tough guy Lee Marvin and Japanese legend and frequent Akira Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune. Both actors had in real life fought for their countries in World War 2 and here they play servicemen trapped on an island with no-one else to turn to except each other for survival.

Boorman made the decision not to subtitle Mifune’s Japanese dialogue so as to convey to the audience the difficulties that the two initial enemies have in communicating as they make the difficult journey from mistrust to eventual mutual co-operation.

Boorman’s direction perhaps sometimes overemphasises the repetitive nature of the daily struggles of the characters, but ultimately due to the performances of two undeniable legends of their era there’s intrigue in this simple but effective anti-war parable. The real damage to the film was done after its completion when the producers decided that Boorman’s original ending — in which the two men, after having struggled and worked together to escape, achieve their goal and then walk away soundlessly from each other — be replaced by a cynical deux et machina conclusion that sees a bomb fall on their shelter, killing them and making all they’ve worked towards mean nothing.

Unfortunately, no version with Boorman’s original ending exists. So, the dead hand of the studio continues to exert its disappointing influence on a film that makes many provocative and still necessary points about the need for mutual co-operation between enemies, before it undercuts them by blowing them to hell.


Hell in the Pacific is a 1968 World War II film directed by John Boorman and starring Lee Marvin and Toshirō Mifune, the only two actors in the film. It is based on the importance of human contact and the bond that can form between enemies if lacking other contact.

The diamond in the rough: 

Battle Royale — YouTube

Long before the Hunger Games, director Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 cult-classic offered plenty of violent, brutal examination of the battle for survival among youngsters in this baroque horror fantasy. Here a group of ninth graders are sent to a remote island, given maps, food, weapons and fitted with an explosive collar around their neck. The rules of this deadly game are simple: kill or be killed and if you’re the last one standing, you earn your escape from the island. If there are two survivors left, both will die when their collars explode.

Outrageous, brutal, baroque and unabashed in its use of the overreactions and melodrama of adolescence to hammer its memorably gory kill scenes home, Fukasaku’s film sparked outrage in Japan, where its bloody mix of gory violence and cynical black humour was questioned in parliament.

This was despite appearances and the fact that it was based on a best-selling Japanese pulp novel — not entirely as fantastical as it may at first appear. Fukasaku himself was a teenager at school when in 1945, he and his classmates were caught in a barrage of artillery fire, forced to hide under a pile of dead bodies and then made to bury the bloodied bodies of their dead classmates — an experience that certainly must have influenced his approach to the material here.

Ultimately it’s a blazing, distinctively memorable mass of gruesome bloody mayhem that remains as effectively visceral and disturbing as it was when it made its appearance 24 years ago.


© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.