Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)
"The British don't do things like that."
|Stanley Baker & Wolf Morris|
Although Hammer are best known for their production of Gothic horrors, readers of this blog will know that it was within the rest of their output that the company’s most interesting and challenging films can be found. Ok, I’m deliberately avoiding mention of Mutiny on the Buses, but Taste of Fear, The Nanny, Paranoiac and Hell is a City are all notable films. And now, I would add to that list Yesterday’s Enemy.
The film started life as a controversial BBC television play which the author, Peter Newman, claimed was based on an incident that took place during the British retreat through Burma in 1942. Stanley Baker plays Captain Langford ...
... an officer in command of the survivors of a Brigade headquarters. He carries the burden of getting the men, including the wounded Brigadier (Russell Waters) back to the British lines.
Langford is forced to make difficult decisions after the group encounters civilians in a Burmese village occupied by Japanese soldiers. Finding a vitally important map showing Japanese positions, the captain is forced to confront the question of whether it is right to abuse prisoners and murder civilians – effectively committing war crimes – in order to decode the map and potentially save hundreds – if not thousands – of British lives? This brings him into open conflict with some of his fellow officers and does not shy away from showing the inner turmoil his decisions bring, both for himself and for the soldiers under his command.
Produced in 1959, at a time when both the British and American film industries were routinely producing films portraying the glories of war, Yesterday’s Enemy is a drama that confronts serious issues about the things soldiers are forced to do in wartime. It challenges the notion of the British as the ‘good guys’, showing both the British and the Japanese resorting to the same methods in order to achieve their aims. It also challenges British history, acknowledging crimes committed in the name of the British Empire. The anti-war message doesn’t stop there, with Stanley Baker’s Captain Langford challenging the views of the Padre (Guy Rolfe) and a war correspondent (Leo McKern) who both seem to approve of war but who don’t want to see its realities first hand. As Captain Langford tells them: "Don't you preach at me, if you want help enlist God's aid ... You don't mind when a bomber pilot pushes a button and kills a few hundred civilians. You don't mind murder from a distance, so long as you personally are not involved."
The film's subject is as dark and bleak as what we see on the screen: there is no beauty in this jungle. Instead it's a place where daylight hardly penetrates through the damp and claustrophobic canopy of trees that hangs over them.
|Gordon Jackson & David Lodge|
Though filmed entirely within a studio that recreated jungle streams, thick foliage and a Burmese village, this small-scale drama effectively lets you know that ‘war is hell’ without resorting to Wagner, helicopter rides, pyrotechnics and a budget even bigger than the mumbling star’s belly. The message is not necessarily anti-war but forces the viewer to confront their understanding of where war takes a man. Effectively it’s a ‘soldiers’ film – one about fighting men who are real people rather than the caricatured heroes of Hollywood. Heroism is depicted as sometimes being stupid and cowardice – whatever that means – is examined as a natural human reaction. These are men who face a firing squad, not with defiance on their faces but with fear – and tears – in their eyes. Religion also comes under scrutiny, with its moralities and formalities being shown as luxuries that have to abandoned by the fighting man. As Captain Langford tells his sergeant (Gordon Jackson): "My concern is the living not the dead."
|Gordon Jackson & Stanley Baker|
From its opening, the sound of a scream – that sounds human but is actually a parrot – to the final off-screen execution of the British soldiers, it was a film the director Val Guest was openly – and quite rightly – proud of.
The film includes a notable and familiar supporting cast, including:Gordon Jackson:
This is a film that should be watched by all those with an interest in war films, especially those jaded by the unrealistic, glory hunting epics that surged out of Hollywood in the post-war years. It is currently available on DVD: