No man is an island, yet it takes just two to start a war. A William Hodges vista establishes John Boorman’s dense pictorial sense, promptly intensified by a series of cuts revealing Toshiro Mifune sitting cross-legged by the beachfront, impassive before the crashing waves. A descending vertical pan finds Lee Marvin muttering amid the exposed roots of a mighty tree, and there you have the two combatants in their verdant battleground. The American pilot and the Japanese captain in their tattered uniforms, representing their flags until survival turns hostile one-upmanship into grudging comradeship. War simplified to the utmost, East and West scrambling to sabotage each other in hostile terrain, "win some, lose some." The pacifist metaphor is mere scaffolding for a tremendous visceral touch located somewhere between Anthony Mann’s and Werner Herzog’s: Alive to every natural texture, the Panavision widescreen feasts on the matted bamboo surrounding Mifune’s makeshift palisade, the cobalt sky darkened through the charred branches of a bonfire, the little sound Marvin’s canteen makes as it dips into his foe’s water still. (Buñuel in Mexico filming Defoe is a distinct precedent.) No less vital is the interplay of Marvin and Mifune, both sly physical comics, both perfectly attuned to the absurd farce of castaways taking turns making prisoners of one another. "Watchman, what of the night?" Aboard a sun-baked raft, the truce endures; at a bombed-out compound, between cups of sake and pages of Life magazine, it dissolves. An exploration in silent-film storytelling (cf. Kubrick’s Dawn of Men that same year), the distillate of Boorman’s metaphysical-elemental conflicts, practically a rough draft for the arduous mastery of Deliverance. Roeg and Weir take plenty of notes, Frankenheimer in The Fourth War updates the parable. Cinematography by Conrad Hall.
--- Fernando F. Croce