The popular perception of British war films of the 1950s is that they all feature stoic types keeping a stiff upper lip and carrying themselves with unimpeachable honour whatever the provocation. Hammer films seem to have an equally stereotypical image; they are all exploitative gothic horrors shot using a vibrant and vivid palette. Well, Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) is a war movie produced by Hammer at its peak, and it stubbornly refuses to conform to any preconceived expectations. Instead, it casts a cold, bleak eye over a complex moral issue and asks questions for which there are no easy answers.
The story takes place in Burma in the early years of WWII when the outcome was still far from certain and everything hung in the balance. A small group of British soldiers, under the command of Captain Langford (Stanley Baker), are struggling through the steamy, oppressive jungle on the retreat and trying to get back to their own lines. Physically exhausted and burdened by the wounded men among their number, they stumble upon an isolated village where they hope to rest up before pressing on again. However, this village has been occupied by a detachment of Japanese and a firefight ensues before it is secured. In the aftermath of the fighting Langford makes a discovery that will have far reaching implications for both him and the men he leads. The small Japanese party had a full colonel with them, and he was carrying some clearly important documents. The only surviving member of the Japanese group is a Burmese informer and Langford is convinced he knows more than he’s saying. Feeling sure that the captured documents contain vital information about the enemy’s plans, Langford sets about breaking down the informer’s resistance. When all his threats prove unsuccessful Langford takes what will be a fateful decision. He orders the execution of two Burmese villagers in order to convince the informer that he means business. When his own people cry foul and protest that this is nothing short of a war crime, Langford makes the point that if one is to successfully fight a war then the gloves have to come off. Although the information is now in his possession, Langford finds his command menaced by Japanese reinforcements and unable to move out due to the mounting number of casualties. The situation is further complicated by the damage to the radio that means all communication with HQ is impossible. As if the apparent futility of Langford’s brutal action were not enough, the positions are swiftly reversed and he and his men find themselves facing an enemy who takes an equally pragmatic approach to fighting a war. Thus, two basic questions are raised. What exactly constitutes a war crime? And does the cause for which one fights justify the means employed? These are not simple issues, and the film offers no pat answers; in the end, we are left to reach our own conclusions.
Yesterday’s Enemy was envisaged as a film that would damp down some of the furore that had arisen in the wake of Hammer’s previous look at the war against the Japanese, The Camp on Blood Island. That movie was accused of tasteless sensationalism, and the studio therefore tried for an entirely different approach to the subject. Val Guest’s direction is a nice mix of toughness and sensitivity, but it never descends into mawkishness or sentimentality. We’re allowed to see and learn enough about characters to empathize with them but they are still ruthlessly killed off with the minimum of fuss – Gordon Jackson’s Scots sergeant is a good example of this. The action scenes have a brutal urgency and intensity that feels authentic, with violence erupting unexpectedly and ending just as abruptly. If one wanted to be picky it would be possible to complain about the studio bound setting, but I thought it was well designed and only the slightly hollow sounds occasionally drew attention to the fact that it wasn’t a real jungle. Anyway, this is not a movie that depends on strong location work; the plot is driven by character and psychology for the most part. The role of Captain Langford was an ideal one for Stanley Baker and gave him the opportunity to flex his acting muscles. He is no petty martinet but a hard headed realist who’s been handed a set of circumstances that no one could envy. He has to consider the welfare of his men, weigh this against the bigger picture of the campaign in general, and then make ethical choices that are both painful and unavoidable. He is no fanatical barbarian but an ordinary man – he has a wife and children back home – to whom fate has dealt a lousy hand. His Japanese counterpart, Philip Ahn, is almost a mirror image. This is not a stereotypical sadist devoid of conscience and contemptuous of foreigners – he’s a cultured man of the world, a former diplomat and student of English literature. All of this heightens the moral dilemma at the heart of the picture since neither man is a villain in the true sense of the word. The support cast is filled with familiar faces from British cinema and Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Richard Pascoe in particular make a strong impression. It’s also notable, and highly effective, that there’s no music whatsoever from beginning to end, the noises of the jungle providing the only soundtrack accompaniment.
Yesterday’s Enemy comes to DVD via Sony in the UK, and it’s been given a very fine anamorphic scope transfer. The image is clean and sharp with only very minor instances of damage. As for extras, the disc itself has a gallery and English HOH subs plus there’s an excellent 24 page booklet penned by Marcus Hearn that’s detailed and informative. The title was until recently exclusive to MovieMail in the UK, but it’s now gone on general release and this attractive disc can be picked up for a very reasonable price. I’d say this film should appeal to a broad range of viewers – those who like war movies, Hammer productions, and good intelligent drama alike. I was very favourably impressed and have no hesitation in recommending it wholeheartedly. If you think you’ve seen all that British war movies or Hammer have to offer then I suggest seeking this one out – you may be pleasantly surprised.