Back Door to Hell (1964)


(director: Monte Hellman; screenwriters: from a story by Richard A. Guttman/Richard A. Guttman/John Hackett; cinematographer: Mars Rasca; editor: Fely Crisostomo/Monte Hellman; music: Mike Velarde; cast: Jimmie Rodgers (Lieutenant Craig), Jack Nicholson (Burnett), John Hackett (Jersey), Annabelle Huggins (Maria), Conrad Maga (Paco), Johnny Monteiro (Ramundo), Joe Sison (Japanese Capt.), Henry Duval (Garde); Runtime: 68; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Fred Roos; Twentieth Century Fox; 1964)

“The film’s main strength is the lively banter among the American soldiers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Renown cult director Monte Hellman (“Flight to Fury”/”The Shooting”/”Two Lane Blacktop”), in his first directing effort, does wonders with this wartime adventure story considering he was operating on a shoestring budget and didn’t have the bread to shoot extensive battle scenes. The black-and-white film is based on a story by Richard A. Guttman and scripted by Guttman and John Hacket (he also has a leading role as a sergeant called Jersey).

It’s set in 1944 in Luzon, Philippines, just prior to the American advance to take back the island from the Japanese. A three-man American commando team from an Intelligence unit led by Lieutenant Craig(Jimmie Rodgers, noted country singer, he financially backed the film along with executive producer Lippert and Fox studio),ahardnosed sergeant called Jersey and a young philosophical wisecracking radioman called Burnett (Jack Nicholson). The three get to their rendezvous point with Filipino guerrilla fighters after losing some men in a Japanese ambush. Instead of being met by Miguel, they are met by brash new leader Paco (Conrad Maga). He says he killed Miguel because you can’t trust people during the occupation. The Americans, unsure of the new leader, have no choice but to ask Paco to assist them in their important reconnaissance mission to determine the strength and position of the Japanese forces. The Japanese under the command of an evil captain (Joe Sison), threaten to kill the village children if the guerrillas don’t turn over the Americans. This prompts the Americans to team up with the guerrillas and take over the Japanese in a surprise raid. The soldiers then meet on the road a Filipino bandit who trades info about the Japanese positions for the American’s radio. But the bandits are not willing to wait around as the Americans check out the info before relaying it, and steal the radio. This prompts the Americans to sneak into a Japanese-held village and have Burnett send the message on a Japanese shortwave radio. When spotted by the Japanese a shootout results, with heavy losses for the Americans and guerrilla fighters.

The film’s main strength is the lively banter among the American soldiers. Nicholson ribs the cynical Hackett with the line “You’re the kinda guy who’d call Mahatma Gandhi a rabble-rouser.” In another exchange Hackett says to Nicholson in the battlefield “We’re all gonna die anyway – tomorrow, next week, 30 years from now. Did that little thought ever penetrate your thick skull?” Nicholson replies “Yeah, once when I was a boy, but naturally I dismissed it as being too outrageous.” The small film had that kind of big personality.