Saturday, 16 October 2010

Yesterday's Enemy (1959)

Country: UK

The underappreciated and adult World War Two drama Yesterday’s Enemy was Hammer Film Productions’ fourth serious look at a conflict that had only concluded fourteen years before. It followed on the heels of The Steel Bayonet (1957), the hysterical and racist The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and the taut but highly compromised Ten Seconds to Hell (1959). Val Guest contributed direction to a Hammer film for the eighth occasion, illustrating that in the 1950’s at least he was the British companies most prolific director. The material was particularly suited to Guest’s gritty and realistic talents, and is shot in sumptuous monochrome by the brilliant Arthur Grant. Guest is perhaps more well remembered for The Quatermass Xperiment (1955) and Quatermass 2 (1957), but I’ve always felt his talents were better suited for a film such as Yesterday’s Enemy. The film was shot in Megascope, and whilst this creates a certain distance between the audience and the events of the film, it gives the film an expansive quality that highlights the suffocating climate of the Burmese jungle. If you’re looking for protracted battle sequences you will be disappointed. This is an intelligent character driven film, with a plot that revolves around two major moral decisions.

The film opens on a small platoon of exhausted soldiers struggling to make their way through a stagnant swamp deep in the jungle of Burma. They are led by Captain Langford (Stanley Baker) a no nonsense soldier enduring the pressures of being cut off behind enemy lines with wounded and weary soldiers. While its very common for Vietnam films to emphasise the challenges of the climate and terrain, its all too rare in World War Two films, but Yesterday’s Enemy spends almost ten minutes quietly showing the dehumanising effect the environment can have on the nerves and mental health of human beings. On arrival in a small Burmese village the platoon come under enemy fire, but succeed in eliminating their Japanese adversaries, and unwittingly stumble on maps that suggest a major battle strategy from their opponents is about to be launched. Here the film shifts from the predictable trajectory of a war movie into an interiorised world of ethics and morality. In the films most controversial scene Langford has two innocent villagers shot in order to make a prisoner talk. Langford is convinced that his decision will save thousands of lives, but this does little to placate the Padre (Guy Rolfe) and journalist Max (Leo McKern) who in the first half of the film represent the moral conscious of the soldiers. What is most surprising about this episode is that Langford turns out to be correct in his assumptions and is thus exonerated in the eyes of his critics.

When the village is later recaptured by a resourceful band of Japanese soldiers, the film slips into ironical mode in order to set up the bleakest of endings. Much credit must be given to Peter R. Newman’s screenplay which offers both perspectives of the combatants. This is an important redressing of the balance after the stereotypical sadism and cruelty of the Japanese military in the harsh POW drama The Camp on Blood Island. Langford’s opposite number is the intriguing and charismatic Yamazuki (Phillip Ahn) an intelligence officer determined to discover how much Langford and his troop know about the secret military operation. Yamazuki is well read, with an intimate knowledge of Britain and is at his best when attacking the hypocritical sense of fair play and ethics that Langford resorts too in his defence. Ultimately Yamazuki pushes Langford into the same position he placed the informant in, only this time it is the lives of his soldiers that are at risk. This is a superb plot twist and shows that Langford cannot avoid punishment for the innocent lives he sacrificed.

This is an extremely powerful anti-war film, and one which deals with the complex issues in a lucid and philosophical manner. The characters are all given a position to represent - 2nd Lt Hastings (Richard Pasco) for example must come to terms with his fear and potential cowardice, and his moment of awareness becomes very important later on. The Padre becomes much more than a conduit of faith and belief, and is even willing to take up arms, thus questioning the moral ethics of his belief system. But the burden of leadership means that ultimate decisions of life and death lie with Langford (Baker puts in a superb performance) and his refusal to co-operate leads to certain doom, but is in total keeping with the development of the character. Yesterday’s Enemy belongs to an alternate history of Hammer, one in which adult dramas get the acclaim and critical plaudits they deserve, and are not ignored because of a ‘House of Horror’ perception that has marginalised some surprisingly good films.

© Shaun Anderson 2010

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