My notes on Yesterday’s Enemy
Made – in part – to atone for the lurid, gory spectacle of The Camp on Blood Island, this is one of a clutch of gritty, gutsy war films Hammer made in the late 1950s, but it’s also a companion piece to Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman – a chamber piece with an exotic setting, based on a TV play which presents a dramatic conflict that pays off like a theatre piece. Wolfe Morris is in it too, as a Burmese traitor this time, and Stanley Baker – the star of The Creature Hammer should have carried over to The Abominable Snowman – gets to play a conflicted lead.
In the festering swamps of the Bray backlot, passing for Burma c. 1942, Captain Langford (Baker) leads a troop of British soldiers cut off behind enemy lines, and circumstances force him to execute by firing squad two completely innocent villagers in order to persuade the weaselly informer to explain the significance of a map found on a high-ranking, now dead Japanese officer. Of course, this horrifies a few characters who are on the patrol to provide an oppositional viewpoint – a padre (Guy Rolfe), a doctor (David Oxley), a sensitive junior officer (Richard Pasco) and a war correspondent (Leo McKern), who debate the issue – but the Captain’s regular squaddies (Gordon Jackson, Bryan Forbes, David Lodge, Percy Herbert) go along with it. The payoff is that Japanese Major Yamazaki (Philip Ahn) shows up and the situation is reversed, with the surviving Brits lined up to be shot if Langford doesn’t talk. There are a couple of action scenes, but it’s less expansive than Blood Island – and we’re mostly indoors (or inside a hut) with the drama.
Playwright Peter R. Newman gives the characters more depth than usual, and the face-off between Langford and the enemy who by no means despises him is well-played and neatly ironic – when Langford deliberately provokes a junior into shooting him, Yamazaki respects him for doing what he would have done but still has all the prisoners shot at the fade-out. A potentially sticky bit as the doomed men follow the padre’s lead in reciting the Lord’s Prayer is redeemed by the fact that the reporter keeps his mouth firmly shut during the tracking shot – acknowledging, as films rarely do, that sometimes atheists have principles too, even in foxholes. Like Blood Island, it has a certain quality which is unique but also dated – the enemy consists of one Korean guest star, the inevitable Burt Kwouk, ethnic specialist actors like Morris and every oriental waiter who could be roped in. Suni (Edwina Carroll), the village girl, fulfills a Hammer requisite by showing some sweaty cleavage, and posing for cheesecake stills – though she has a surprisingly strong role, packing up and leaving the village mid-film, declaring that the British and the Japanese are equally disastrous for her country.
The piece’s TV origins mean it talks too much – and can’t match, say, Aldrich’s Attack! or Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets as a revisionist war film simply because it tries to get away from the B movie conventions through respectable drama rather than embracing them while delivering unpalatable truths with more impact than heavy messages. Still, it was unprecedented to admit that the British committed war crimes too, which makes it a brave piece.
NB: now available on BluRay in the Indicator Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror set.