The time is World War II. The place is the Philippines, shortly before the famous return of Douglas MacArthur. Three U.S. soldiers have been sent on a very important mission to knock out a Japanese communication center before the American invasion. Lt. Craig (Jimmie Rodgers) is their leader and he worries that he might not have what it takes to kill a man. Sgt. Jersey (John Hackett) is cynical and tough. Cpl. Burnett (Jack Nicholson) is the radio man with a sarcastic sense of humor. They have been told to meet up with a rebel leader named Miguel but, shortly after arriving, they discover that Miguel has been killed and the new leader is Paco (Conrad Maga), who distrusts the Americans almost as much as he dislikes the Japanese. Meanwhile, a Japanese captain (Joe Sison) threatens to execute all of the children in a nearby village unless the Americans either surrender or are captured.
The main reason that most people will probably want to see this low-budget, black-and-white war film is because it features a youngish Jack Nicholson in a supporting role. (It was one of two films that a pre-stardom Nicholson made in the Philippines with director Monte Hellman.) This is one of the best of Nicholson’s pre-Easy Rider performances, with none of the stiffness that’s evident in most of his early work. Nicholson is relaxed and there are even a few hints of the persona that would eventually make him famous.
This was not just an early role for Nicholson. This movie was also an early work of Monte Hellman’s, who went on to direct some of the biggest cult films of the 70s. Hellman makes the most of his low-budget, emphasizing character over action and complexity over simple flag-waving. There is a hard edge to Back Door To Hell. When Craig asks Paco to interrogate a Japanese soldier, both the movie and Paco understand that Craig is asking Paco to torture the prisoner, something that Craig cannot do because he is bound by international law. After conducting his interrogation, Paco does not hesitate to call the American out on his hypocrisy, even while ordering the prisoner to be executed. By the end of the movie, the surviving soldiers and rebels are so emotionally drained that they cannot even celebrate the liberation of the Philippines. When someone asks, “What do we do now?,” no one has an answer. Even beyond the presence of Jack Nicholson, Back Door To Hell is an effective and underrated war film.