Five Gates to Hell (1959): James Clavell’s Feature Debut, War Adventure (Women in Film)

James Clavell made an impressive directing debut with Five Gates to Hell, a b/w war movie, featuring a large female cast, starring Dolores Michaels and Patricia Owens.

Nurses Athena Roberts and Joy Brooks, Catholic nun Sister Marie, and surgeon Dr. Richter are taken captive in Indochina by marauders. Their leader Chen Pamok takes them to a jungle fortress guarded by five gates and heavily armed men, deemanding that Dr. Richter treat the ill warlord Gung Sa.

Infatuated with Athena, Chen rapes her after she resists. Richter diagnoses a malignant brain tumor and is told that, if his surgery does not save Gung Sa, he and the other prisoners will be put to death. When the patient survives, Richter is told the women will be kept as sex slaves but, as a reward, the doctor may choose one woman as his own. Although in love with Athena, he chooses Sister Marie, to spare her virtue.

Athena leads a revolt, shooting guerrillas with machine guns and orchestrating escape into the wild, with Richter sacrificing his life to help save theirs. Chen’s men pursue and many from both sides are killed. Sister Marie ultimately picks up a weapon to fight back. Athena is able to shoot Chen, who pledges his love for her while dying.

In the last scene, Athena confesses to Joy that she might be pregnant, and the tale ends with no discussion of that issue.

Robert L. Lippert, who produced low budget films for Fox, wanted to make a war film set in Asia. Lippert also liked to give chance to first time directors (among them Sam Fuller), and Clavell had written the popular feature “The Fly” (the year before), also starring Patricia Owen.

The film was ahead of its time in is depiction of strong women as action figures and war heroines, and in portraying interracial tensions.

Considering its small budget (about $300,000), Five Gates to Hell is well shot by Sam Leavit, a three-time Oscar nominee, winning the Best Cinematography Oscar in 1958 for Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones.

Of the half a dozen films, he had directed, the most popular one is To Sir With Love, starring Sidney Poitier, in 1967

The film was released by Fox on September 23, 1959.

Dolores Michaels as Athena
Patricia Owens as Joy
Neville Brand as Chen Pamok
Ken Scott as Dr. John Richter
Nobu McCarthy as Chioko
Benson Fong as Gung Sa
Nancy Kulp as Susette
John Morley as Dr. Jacques Minelle
Gerry Gaylor as Greta
Shirley Knight as Sister Marie
Greta Chi as Yoette
Linda Wong as Ming Cha
Irish McCalla as Sister Magdalena


FX Retro showed the movie on April 13, 2020.