The men in question this time are two of the most iconic representations of “manliness” from East and West – Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune. They play Word War II soldiers on opposite sides shipwrecked on a tropical
island somewhere in the Pacific. The movie begins with their first moment of discovery, when they realize that not only are they not alone on the island, they also happen to be sleeping very near the enemy. Palau
From there the movie follows a classic cat-and-mouse structure, each attempting to capture the other and his natural resources (food, water, rafts) before the other does the same. The difference here is that Boorman wisely retains the language barrier between the two of them, even as they slowly realize they will have to form a grudging alliance to build a raft and get off the island. There are no cute you-learn-Japanese / you-learn-English scenes. These two soldiers are far too stubborn and far too patriotic for that. Of course, these are same two traits that will come back to haunt them once they get off the island.
In the meantime, the language barrier makes for some fantastic “pure cinema” moments. Tension and character development are all achieved through action and gesture. Words are the enemy here and only seem to confuse and exacerbate situations when they ARE used.
A sampler of the great moments: Marvin delicately trying to steal water from a sleeping Mifune’s supply with a canteen on a string. Mifune trying to hide a giant clam from Marvin and eat the sloppy insides before Marvin sees him. Marvin raiding Mifune’s camp by tossing bullets into his campfire which soon go off PING-PING-PINGING all about Mifune’s head.
These scenes are what movies do best. And what Boorman does better than most of today’s so-called action directors. He’s sure-footed with the camera and economical in his steps. The only time the movie’s in danger of tripping comes at the end, in the inevitable wrap-up. Let’s just say, it’s abrupt. And there’s an “alternative ending” on the DVD that, for my money, works better while staying true to the characters. Both endings are perfect in the sense that they are achieved through pure action, after words have failed, tempers flared, and images are the only thing left to go on. It’s a toss up.