Back Door to Hell (1964)

Hollywood has frequently (and variably) dealt with the WWII Pacific conflict: this is another such film, for which ‘indie’ director Hellman managed to secure the backing of a major studio, Twentieth-Century Fox (though the end result being just 69 minutes long, it was clearly sold as a ‘programmer’). Anyway, Hellman’s talent for introspection is even more evident (in an otherwise slightly-plotted effort) than before, with the emphasis on characterization (pertaining especially to the initial-distrust-which-develops-into-mutual-respect between the different races involved)…though the action, whenever the film resorts to it, is sufficiently well-handled.

Jack Nicholson co-stars as one of a trio of American soldiers who arrive by raft to the Philippines in anticipation of the imminent Allied invasion of Japan. Though good as always, and already displaying his chameleon-like abilities, the role (joker, radio operator and Japanese interpreter all rolled into one!) does not allow him to shine like he did in the simultaneously-shot FLIGHT TO FURY (1964), another Hellman collaboration. The chief reason for this has to do with the fact that the central figures here are Nicholson’s conscientious superior (a youthful-looking but undeniably effective Jimmie Rodgers) and the dehumanized leader of the rebel army (imposingly played by Gerald Maga).

The third member of the outfit, then, is blood-thirsty John Hackett (who co-wrote the film!), while the locals also number among them a strong-willed girl who became attached to Maga after he lost his family during the early days of the war. The two units clash over the treatment to be accorded some Japanese officers they capture, but soon they are fighting them side by side: the Americans’ radio having been rendered useless in a skirmish, the trio then decide to infiltrate the enemy camp in order to send word back home that their mission is accomplished. Caught in the act, however, Nicholson succumbs to a hail of bullets and, when the two groups eventually reconvene, the girl tells Rodgers that Maga has fallen as well!

Though reasonably impressive as a cinematic exercise, the general tone proves rather too low-key for the film to be properly gripping as a whole. Besides, the overall pace is decidedly leisurely (consequently feeling longer than its running-time would suggest!), while the overly familiar situations that unfold throughout do not exactly help make it a distinguished example within such a prolific genre.