Hell to Eternity (1960): Phil Karlson’s WWII Biopic, Starring Jeffrey Hunter (Playing Hispanic

Based on the real experiences of Marine hero Pfc. Guy Gabaldon, a Los Angeles Hispanic boy raised by a Japanese-American foster family, Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity is a well-intentioned and well-executed movie, starring a handsome Caucasian actor in the lead, Jeffrey Hunter. (If the movie were made today, it would have been more careful and authentic in the casting).

In 1957, Gramercy bought the screen rights of Gabaldon’s story, which had been featured on the TV show This Is Your Life.

Tale begins in Depression era L.A., when Guy Gabaldon gets into a fight at school when another boy snitches about his breaking into a grocery store. After Japanese-American Kaz Uni (brother of Guy’s teacher) finds out Guy’s mother is in the hospital and his father is dead, he invites Guy into his family. Guy learn Japanese, and when his mother dies, the Unis adopt him.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Gabaldon’s foster family is sent to internment camp. Gabaldon is drafted, but fails his physical exam due to perforated eardrum.  Nonetheless, George and Kaz were allowed to join the Army and are now fighting in Italy. Gabaldon then enlists in the Marines on the strength of his language skills.

At first, Gabaldon doesn’t get along with Platoon Sergeant Bill Hazen at Camp Pendleton, but eventually wins him over.  Shipped to Hawaii to join the Regimental Intelligence Section, he and his pals get booze and socialize with Japanese-American women.

He freezes when he comes under fire for the first time, but later regains his composure. His Japanese language skills prove effective in persuading Japanese soldiers to surrender.

During a Banzai charge, Lewis is killed, and later during the campaign for the island, Hazen is shot and then killed by a Japanese swordsman. Angry, Gabaldon starts killing them ruthlessly.

After observing civilians kill themselves rather than surrender, he remembers George and changes back to his previous civil ways. In the end, during a crucial battle, he convinces 1000 Japanese soldiers and 500 civilians to surrender.

Director Karlson consider Hell to Eternity, which was shot on location in Okinawa, to be one of his “most important” pictures, because it was based on Nisei’s true story, but was disappointed when distributor Allied Artists (UA) treated it as just another war movie.