Review: Back Door To Hell (1964) – A Jack Nicholson Retrospective

Click here for the introduction and the first review in my Jack Nicholson Retrospective.

My sincerest apologies to the four people that were flaying themselves in a noble attempt to lessen the pain of not reading more reviews from my Jack Nicholson retrospective. (The last one was in May! Yikes!)

Alas, when you’re supervising a film’s post production, writing a book and two screenplays, and have two full time jobs, even studmeister Nicholson must take a back seat.

But, my fellow film fanatics, I return with renewed vignor, comforted in the knowledge that The Shining is only a few movies away from…

[Double checks IMDb]




Shot almost back to back with Flight to FuryBack Door to Hell follows a trio of US soldiers in 1944 as they make landfall on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. Their goal? To scout the area in preparation for the Allied invasion of Japan.

The team consists of their leader, Lieutenant Craig (Jimmie Rodgers); the gruff and cynical Sergeant Jersey (John Hackett, who also co-wrote the screenplay); and the jolly radio communicator Sergeant Burnett (Jack Nicholson).

But soon after they land they find their contact has been killed, and the trio are forced into an uneasy alliance with the new rebel leader Paco (Conrad Maga).

However their arrival has not gone unnoticed by the Japanese, and soon threats are made to kill one Filipino child for every hour the Americans refuse to surrender.

Shot on location in the Philippines, Back Door to Hell is an interesting, yet somewhat undemanding example of American cinema. Considering it’s technically a war movie, director Monte Hellman chooses not to embrace the epic-ness this might traditionally entail. That said this might mostly be down to the low-budget nature of the feature.

But the choice to shoot on location makes it all the more disappointing that the film was shot in black and white. While the lack of colour isn’t detrimental to the plot, seeing the jungles in all its visual glory would have been a damn sight better than the monochromatic drudgery our eyes are instead exposed to.

However, considering the time periods that the film was both made and set in, it says much for the writer and director that the Filipino actors were not portrayed as simple folk being led along by patriotic Americans. Rather the film takes the time to flesh out many of these supporting actors, especially in the case of Conrad Maga’s Paco. Easily the best actor in the film, his confidence and military mind shows exactly why he was chosen as a rebel leader. His acting is all the more impressive considering that this is the only movie that Maga ever performed in.


But a close second to Maga is Nicholson himself. While it’s not his best performance so far (that honour still belongs to The Raven); his quirky attitude brings a great deal of levity to the proceedings. Said attitude is only improved by Nicholson having some of the best lines of the movie. (“You’re the kinda guy that would called Mahatma Gandhi a rabble-rouser!”)

But interestingly the film also spends some time commenting and debating about the darker aspects of war; such as the treatment of POWs, torture and civilian casualties. This makes the actual climax of the film an utterly baffling experience, as the final few minutes are so over-the-top patriotic, it’s hard to believe that the director had any control over his own movie’s ending.

For those looking for a more bombastic war experience, Back Door to Hell may not quite be your cup of tea. It’s a little rough around the edges, but with its intimate exploration of war and the psychological effects, the seventh movie in the Nicholson pantheon can be considered a decent watch.

Overall Score:


Next Time: A Review of The Shooting (1966)

Photo Sources: Movie Poster Warehouse, Cult Film Freak, Photobucket,

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