- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 1, 2008

Guy Gabaldon, one of the Marine veterans of World War II buried in Arlington National Cemetery, was the subject of a largely forgotten war movie of 1960, “Hell to Eternity,” now available on DVD from Warner Home Video.

An inadequate memorial to a remarkable tour of duty during the Battle of Saipan in June and July 1944, when Pfc. Gabaldon served as a scout and interpreter of Spanish and Japanese with the 2nd Marine Division, the movie nevertheless made fitfully stirring and haunting contact with a war chronicle that combined perilous and merciful aspects in a distinctive way.

A remake seems to have been in the works during the last years of Mr. Gabaldon’s life - he died in 2006 at age 80. Simultaneously, there was an active campaign to upgrade his Navy Cross to a Medal of Honor. I assume that effort continues posthumously.

The Navy Cross itself was a belated upgrade from the Silver Star; this elevation was prompted by the release of “Hell to Eternity,” which was encouraged by a 1957 episode on Ralph Edwards’ TV series “This Is Your Life,” which specialized in luring guests into half-hour live biographical tributes. I must have first become aware of Mr. Gabaldon during the Edwards telecast that recalled his exploits on Saipan.

At one point, Antonio Banderas seems to have been attached to plans for a new Gabaldon biopic. That might have overcorrected for one oversight in “Hell to Eternity,” which neglected to identify its hero, first depicted in boyhood, as a Mexican-American youth from a slum neighborhood in East Los Angeles. He had no fixed ethnic identity. The movie couldn’t well ignore the next ethnic angle: Mr. Gabaldon was adopted by a Japanese-American family.

The poignancy of the story depends on creating a conflict of loyalties after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Gabaldon’s adoptive family is sent to the Manzanar concentration camp in Arizona. As a Marine, he eventually kills Japanese soldiers in combat but transcends the carnage by persuading hundreds of surviving Japanese soldiers and civilians to surrender in the closing days of the campaign.

The movie contrives to muddle his methodology as a lone-wolf incentive to surrender. The Gabaldon MO mixed guile and language skills with a willingness to kill if necessary. Evidently, he began testing the waters soon after the division was on the island. He netted prisoners piecemeal for weeks before his ultimate gamble - a parlay with Japanese troops at the end of their rope on the northern end of the island - paid off.

This last-ditch outpost had become an appalling suicide ground, especially for civilians indoctrinated to expect the worst of Americans. Pfc. Gabaldon’s intervention brought about 800 people back from the brink of pointless slaughter. Before being wounded in the subsequent battle for Tinian, he may have been instrumental in saving about 1,500 lives.

Even if Mr. Banderas sufficed as an ethnic lead, he would have replicated another oversight from “Hell to Eternity,” which starred Jeffrey Hunter as Mr. Gabaldon. The real prototype was 18 when he earned the sobriquet “Pied Piper of Saipan.” A high school dropout, he had enlisted in the Marines on his 17th birthday. To get a little closer to the authenticity of it all, a movie would need someone who could pass as a very young Mexican-American who happened to know enough “street Japanese” to be a lifesaver in a war zone, not to mention a war zone where banzai charges proved notoriously self-defeating.

Mr. Hunter was in his mid-30s when he played Mr. Gabaldon. Mr. Banderas is nearing 48. There must be a better solution than stretching the age differential by another decade. It’s likely that the Gabaldon chapter will find its way into the epic TV series “The Pacific” next year. This is an ambitious undertaking by the “Band of Brothers” apparatus that aims to re-enact many of the major battles from Guadalcanal to Okinawa. Maybe the series makers will recognize the value of casting plausibly young.

The scattered virtues of “Hell to Eternity,” which used Okinawan locales to simulate Saipan, begin with the appearance of a legendary actress, Tsuru Aoki, cast as Guy’s adoptive mother. The age problem persists because Miss Aoki, a silent star from about 1914 to 1923, was chronologically closer to a grandmother than mother. Nevertheless, she proved a beatific maternal presence in what would be her first and last talking picture. She died in 1961 at age 69.

Her most famous leading man from the silent era, Sessue Hayakawa, was also her husband for 47 years. He makes a guest appearance in “Hell to Eternity” as the Japanese commandant. After Mr. Hayakawa’s performance in 1957’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” no one else enjoyed comparable rank, but his “Eternity” role is a threadbare fabrication. It requires the character to endorse Pfc. Gabaldon’s surrender deal while simultaneously committing hara-kiri. Nothing remotely similar happened. The highest rank the real Guy Gabaldon had to deal with at that stage was a lieutenant.

The movie’s vintage curiosities include roles for David Janssen and Vic Damone as the hero’s buddies. The former, more extroverted than his temperament usually permitted, seems to be channeling Dean Martin (maybe in “The Young Lions,” which came out two years earlier). The latter suggests a hopeless longing for Frank Sinatra, the big-time crooner whose career had been saved by “From Here to Eternity” a few years earlier.

“Hell to Eternity” had the same cinematographer, Burnett Guffey, whose lighting of the battle scenes is often more effective than the staging. Nevertheless, director Phil Karlson, whose specialty at the time was crime thrillers, did himself proud with the aftermath to one battle sequence: a panorama of carnage encased in silence as the survivors make their way across the battlefield.

Strictly speaking, it’s probably a sequence that belongs later in the plot continuity to influence the hero’s final venture behind enemy lines, but it has a gravity that becomes the subject matter.

The backlog of exemplary war stories will never be exhausted, but Hollywood’s ability to do justice to the ones it picks has always been treacherous. The shortcomings in this justifiable tribute to Guy Gabaldon were typical. After all, the potential impact of “To Hell and Back” had been dissipated even as Audie Murphy portrayed himself.

TITLE: “Hell to Eternity”

RATING: No MPAA rating (Released in 1960, several years before the advent of the film rating system; scenes of World War II combat and carnage, including inserts of documentary footage)

CREDITS: Directed by Phil Karlson. Screenplay by Ted Sherdeman and Walter Roeber Schmidt. Cinematography by Burnett Guffey. Art direction by David Milton. Music by Leith Stevens.

RUNNING TIME: 132 minutes

DVD EDITION: Warner Home Video

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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