Most movies about the Second World War either deal with brave men performing heroically as expected or less heroic men doing the unexpected. In HELL TO ETERNITY the focus is on a man who is neither brave nor cowardly. He is no Henry Fleming dreaming of great exploits. Rather he is a man driven by hate for the same people whom earlier he had once called his own. He is Guy Gabaldon, a real life U. S. Marine who won several decorations for valor fighting the Japanese on Saipan.
The movie begins with Gabaldon as a boy living in a troubled street in Los Angeles. He is homeless, friendless, and more than a little filled with rage at a world that has no place for a poor boy of mixed Hispanic origin. A Japanese family sees worth in him, and much as Don Corleone did with Tom Hagen in THE GODFATHER, agree to take him in and raise him as one of their own. The adult Gabaldon is played by Jeffrey Hunter, who has the uneviable task of playing Gabaldon at varying times in a psychologically varying condition. Gabaldon learns to speak fluent Japanese and his face beams with delight as he addresses his adopted matriarch as 'Mama-san.' Life in the United States is indeed sweet, at least until Pearl Harbor, when he is swept up into the maelstrom of war. He does not relish the thought of fighting his adopted people, and he suffers greatly from the image of shooting at Japanese soldiers. During his initial introduction to training, he is befriended by a pre-Fugitive David Janssen, who shows him the ropes of being a soldier. Gabaldon learns to count on Janssen as a soldier, a friend, savior. During a vicious battle, Gabaldon sees Janssen gunned down right in front of him, and at that point, his world view is turned upside down. He now hates the Japanese with a ferocity that amazes even his friends. He uses his fluency in Japanese to lure them out of their lairs, and he guns them down by the hundreds. His hate drives him on until he meets a Japanese officer played by the immensely dignified Sessue Hayakawa, whose personal bravery restores Gabaldon's emotional equilibrium.
HELL TO ETERNITY is the rare war movie whose focus on killing is not to showcase either the fighting skills of the individual soldier or to build a national sense of patriotism and warlike fervor. Instead, director Phil Karlson uses the confusing images of war to mirror the equally confusing turmoil of one man who is called on to shift mental gears once too often.