The Long and the Short and the Tall

It’s war. It’s something in a uniform. It’s a different shade from mine.

War movies fall into two broad categories: those which could be described as the “Boys’ Own” variety, where heroics are celebrated and high adventure is the order of the day; and then there’s the anti-war type, films which use the horrific aspects of war as a kind of backdrop to raise questions about our sense of humanity. I think both have their place and are worthy of consideration. The latter category is frequently more interesting though, in cinematic and artistic terms, as the character of war (and I do think it’s reasonable to refer to it as such since the conflict portrayed can be legitimately viewed as a character itself in the drama) necessarily hones in on the very essence of humanity. It’s sometimes claimed that crisis and adversity bring out both the best and worst in people, and surely warfare can be viewed as the ultimate example of this. The tragedy inherent in this rawest expression of human conflict is that it divides and unites in equal measure; there’s that sense of national and international solidarity, perhaps even nobility, in the defense of an ideal, while there’s the simultaneous schism created by different interpretations of said ideal. And on an even more fundamental level, we are drawn together by common feelings regarding what is right and torn apart at the same time by the way we define it. The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961) does exactly this – it looks into the hearts of a handful of men who are bound together and also separated by their views on right and wrong.

As the opening credits roll, accompanied by the First World War song Bless ‘Em All (although I certainly remember hearing an old drunk offering up a lusty rendition of this with the word bless replaced by a more colorful four letter variant when I was a youngster) and images of plants and animals locked in mortal combat, the message seems clear: the struggle for survival is truly universal and not just an affectation adopted by our own species.  The setting is the jungles of Burma in WWII, and a British patrol are taking part in an exercise, one which seems almost juvenile under the circumstances. The half-dozen men under the command of Sergeant Mitchem (Richard Todd) are experimenting with “sonic warfare” – using recordings as a kind of decoy to wrong foot the enemy. Nobody likes the detail, Corporal Johnstone (Richard Harris) wants to get back to base camp and Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey), a Londoner with nothing but contempt for the army, wants anything but his current circumstances and companions. Even in the early stages there’s friction between the members of the patrol, Johnstone needling Mitchem over his loss of a previous patrol and subsequent demotion, and Bamforth taking a pop at everyone, even the mules, mainly because they don’t hail from London. Still, this is all of little consequence, no more than the natural ribbing that arises when a disparate group of individuals have spent longer than is desirable in close proximity. The first sign of genuine danger comes when the nervy radio operator (David McCallum) tunes into a Japanese transmission which suggests the patrol might be more isolated than expected. And then an enemy soldier strays into their temporary camp. These are the two key elements influencing all that follows; Mitchem has the responsibility for seeing his patrol safely back to base but there’s also the matter of their newly acquired POW and how to treat him. If there was a touch of antagonism before, the moral dilemma now presented – survival vs humane and ethical conduct – threatens to tear the fragile unity of this group apart.

The Long and the Short and the Tall was adapted from a stage play by Willis Hall (screenplay by Wolf Mankowitz) and the theatrical origins do show in the film. Some of the early scenes do have a very stagey quality to them, accentuated by some of the acting and dialogue, but that aspect becomes less pronounced, or at least less important, as the story progresses. The whole thing, with the exception of a bit of stock footage, is shot on studio sets, which I feel actually adds to the claustrophobic feel of the piece. Erwin Hillier’s photography is sweatily atmospheric and director Leslie Norman ensures the focus remains on the men and not on the jungle set. For me, the main thrust of the film is the way pressure and extreme circumstances can change men, how their true characters are revealed by unexpected developments. The early scenes invite us to form an opinion about the patrol and even to pigeonhole the members. However, as the situation changes, as their survival is threatened, those perceptions are altered. The characteristics we might initially have thought of as strengths are shown to be flaws and weaknesses, hypocrisy and prejudice rear their ugly twin heads, and decency and honor manifest themselves from the least likely source.

Richard Todd has the leading role as the veteran sergeant, a man whose capability is never really in doubt, despite the insinuations of his subordinate. One of the more notable features of the film is the shift in character, and therefore in audience sympathy, which takes place over the course of the story. Perhaps it’s not quite as radical in the case of Todd, a hardening of attitude is seen for the most part. On the other hand, both Richard Harris and Laurence Harvey depart significantly from the expectations the audience are initially encouraged to foster. If I wanted to be critical, I could say both men lay the performances on a little thick at times, especially Harvey at the beginning. With the latter there’s a definite theatricality to his playing at first, although that’s at least partially down to the writing, but this improves as the plot develops. By the time the final act comes around the roles have been reversed, and both Harris and Harvey deserve credit for achieving this effect credibly. When a cast is small then the contributions of all the members become more important, and I was favorably impressed by the work of David McCallum, Ronald Fraser, John Meillon, John Rees and Kenji Takaki.

To my knowledge, The Long and the Short and the Tall has only been released on DVD in the UK so far. That disc presents the film full frame, which is clearly not how a movie coming out in 1961 would have been shot. IMDb suggest 1.85:1 as the correct ratio and that sounds correct to me. Aside from that, the film looks pretty good with nice contrast and little or no distracting damage visible. Sadly, there are no extra features whatsoever offered. I suppose some might complain about the studio-bound setting but I can’t say I found it problematic, the story is of the intimate, powder-keg variety so it works well enough. Personally, I find war films a fine vehicle for raising ethical conundrums and a means of focusing attention on our view of fellow men. In terms of setting and moral complexity The Long and the Short and the Tall shares some features with Hammer’s Yesterday’s Enemy, and both movies would make for an interesting double feature.

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34 thoughts on “The Long and the Short and the Tall

  1. I’ve been meaning to catch up with this one for ages. Really enjoyed the review (and thanks, as ever, for the general avoidance of spoilers) and am now ordering this one as I speak …

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      • I am not necessarily a fan of lawrence harvey – he is brilliant in MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, DARLING and ROOM AT THE TOP but mainly because he plays unpleasant characters, so I suspect that may have held me back.

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        • I understand – I get that too and rarely make a point of seeing his movies. His character takes a very interesting journey in this one though.
          He wasn’t bad in The Alamo either, despite a lot of competition, but he was another “hard to like” type in that too.

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          • Yes, THE ALAMO was the other one I was going to add. He was also a terrific COLUMBO villain as an overly-competitive chess champion. On the other hand, watching DANDY IS ASPIC was a wretched experience, just so dour and depressing

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            • I remember that Columbo episode, very entertaining.
              Agreed on A Dandy in Aspic – I found that a real chore and have no desire to revisit it any time soon, if ever.

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                • That’s so often the case, isn’t it!

                  Yes, I have the old Optimum DVD, which I think looks generally nice, although it should certainly be in some widescreen ratio.

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                  • Thanks – it would be nice if they did re-master in the correct AR but when it comes to war movies from that era, there is I suspect the perception that the target audience won’t be bothered by this. In fact, quite the opposite potentially!

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                    • Quite. I don’t get as bothered as some over whether it’s 1.66:1 or 1.78:1, but I reckon either ratio for the majority of such titles would be welcomed on the whole.

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                    • I agree completely – the 1.66 / 1.75 / 1.85 debate by some of our friends out there seems mostly absurd – most of the time either of these would be just dandy by me as the difference is truly marginal compared with open matte, which is often cropped anyway.

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                    • I fully sympathize with the desire to see things as near to correct as possible but I can’t personally summon up the enthusiasm to argue over those small differences either. Zoomed open matte does bug me, and panned and scanned scope is just a total disaster.

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                    • I have lots of respect for those who research the aspect ratios and fight to have the right choices presented. As a viewer though, my head starts to spin with the onslaught of technical minutiae that often accompanies such discussions, and I fear there’s always the danger of missing the wood for looking at the trees.

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  2. This plays quite regularly on TV here in the U.K. but I’ve always avoided it for the very silly reason that we had to study the play when I was in school. I have a built-in aversion to spending leisiure time with things I was compelled to write essays about when I was 15! It’s time to put this foolishness to one side and to watch it. I’m sure that my school essays about it were incredibly insightful and intellectually rigorous (!!?) 🙂 but the plain fact is that I’ve long forgotten the details. I will pick up the DVD asap. Regardless of everything else, I always enjoy Richard Todd’s performances. I’m convinced that he had the straightest back in British cinema. I challenge anyone to find a Todd role where there’s even the slightest indication of a slouch in his posture! Thanks for the review Colin.

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    • I know exactly what you mean, Dafydd, there’s something about being forced to study a book or play that can really kill your passion for it – a combination of the age this generally happens and the sense of unwanted responsibility it brings.
      Todd was a good fit for military roles – he did serve in the war of course – and there was usually a bit of that to be seen in most of his parts I think.

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  3. Nice review, Colin, of a film I too have never seen. Not sure why. I always liked Richard Todd but not so keen on Richard Harris (in his younger days) or Laurence Harvey – maybe that has something to do with it. That said, I really enjoyed Harvey in the 1954 film “THE GOOD DIE YOUNG” which also starred Stanley Baker, John Ireland and a great cast.

    As to the Aspect Ratio debate, I have to confess to having been a bit ignorant on this score until recently when I have received an education on the subject via these blog discussions. The only problem I would have is panned & scanned scope films (they just don’t work). The rest doesn’t hang me up too much at all.
    Worst disaster of p&s I ever saw was that terrfific western “THE QUIET GUN”. Even ruined, I could tell it was terrific!! Now of course all has been righted on that one.

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    • Thanks, Jerry. We all have some actors who don’t “do it” for us and I completely sympathize on that score.

      Pan and scan really is an abomination and I sometimes wonder how I managed to watch movies which were often butchered on TV broadcasts in the past.

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  4. We either had no choice (or didn’t know any better perhaps in my case back then). I am gradually replacing anything like that in my collection with “the real thing”!

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    • Yes, that probably sums it up for most of us. While there are still a few notable offenders, it’s great that so much is now available to be viewed as it should.

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    • Yes, comments by others here recently have pointed out the presence of a lot of titles online, something I hadn’t noticed, but which makes it easier for people to check out the films in question.

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  5. Hi Colin,
    I don’t know if you saw my comments on the previous thread about how American war films
    made during the Korean War had a very anti-Communist vibe and later films moved on from all
    that and became more introspective.
    The same thing,sort of, happened with British War Film as they moved away from the “stiff
    upper lip” type films to something more in tune with changing times.
    As with the very excellent YESTERDAY’S ENEMY; these films reflect the era,the dawn of
    the “angry young man” cycle and the emerging “kitchen sink” type of drama.
    Furthermore a need breed of radical young director was emerging like Lindsay Anderson,
    John Schlesinger and Tony Richardson…times indeed were ‘a changing.
    A new breed of British actor would soon emerge in the form of Caine,Stamp and Reed.
    Interestingly more or less the doyens of the “stiff upper lip” era namely Richard Todd and
    Kenneth More would find it hardest to adapt to this new era,sure they kept working but the
    quality of the films they made faded from their past glories.
    Their fellow actor peers like Jack Hawkins and John Mills frankly made better career choices.
    I too liked Richard Todd and it wasn’t for want of trying that he adapted to these changing
    times. He tried sex comedy DON’T BOTHER TO KNOCK, sex maniac stalker thriller THE
    VERY EDGE and the arresting (sorry! 🙂 ) j.d. courtroom thriller THE BOYS
    There again there was that very interesting mis-fire NEVER LET GO,you cannot deny
    that Todd was doing his best to adapt to a landscape that had changed vastly.
    A very much sought after Todd film when he was still very much a star was the South African
    Western THE HELLIONS. This take on HIGH NOON was strikingly shot in widescreen
    Technirama and featured Lionel Jefferies,James Booth and Brit Rocker Marty Wilde having
    the time of their lives playing members of a murderous clan.
    I do hope that THE HELLIONS finally makes it to DVD,or better still Blu-Ray…it’s a film that
    I for one would love to re-visit!

    .

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    • Very good points there, John, about the changes not just in war movies as the new decade dawned but also in the direction of cinema generally. Todd was definitely open to trying all kinds of films and genres – I quite like Never Let Go myself. I’ve never seen The Hellions but it does sound like it’s worth a look.

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  6. Watched this this AM, and I can’t say that it left a great mark on me.

    I was initially intrigued by seeing Laurence Harvey’s name on it. Although I generally consider him a fairly limited actor, he is front and center of two films that are on my indispensable list – Manchurian Candidate, and Room at the Top. I generally like his movies. This one was a real departure for him, as his usual coldness wasn’t evident, but I found him distracting early on. You hit the nail on the head exactly – it’s a “stagey”, over the top performance. Likewise with Harris – I felt that the tension between Johnstone and Bamforth was a construct. They hate each other because the plot dictates it, and for a great deal of the 1st half of the movie, neither seems like a real person.

    I like the foundation of the story, that these men come to the gradual realization that they are in a lot of trouble, and I thought the battle sequences were good, despite being shot in studio. Overall, an OK watch, but not a great movie.

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    • Thanks for getting back after viewing the movie, Jeff. Harvey often came across as cold, and it works well in certain films, but there’s none of that on show here. I found his work in the early part of the film very broad and affected, and Harris was straying close to that too. The second half picks up a lot though and the performances settle and improve as the drama intensifies.

      I wouldn’t want to try selling this a a “great” movie, there are too many flaws for that, but it worked well enough for me as an all round package.

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  7. Colin

    One of the better transfers of a stage play to film in my humble opinion. Nice write up. Watched this for about the 5th time just a few months ago. What a great cast and fine work by them as well as the crew.

    Gord

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    • Yeah, plays don’t always work as pieces of cinema and the stage origins can be quite distracting at times. This film, however, skips round that particular artistic pitfall early on and then settles down to providing good, absorbing drama.

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  8. Colin
    One of the best jungle warfare films I’ve seen in the last while is the 2006 Australian production, KOKODA. It is about the brutal fight for the Kokoda Trail in New Guinea in 1942. This is one mean and nasty war film, and well worth a look in my opinion. Review up of course.
    Gordon

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  9. Another Aussie WW2 film worth a look is THE LAST BULLET from 1995. It is about a small unit action in the last days of the war. It is set in Borneo during the mopping up operations in 1945. Again, write-up at the usual place. I love war films set in unfamiliar places.

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    • For someone who used to watch a lot of war movies, I’ve managed to let a fair few slip by in recent years, and I do go to the cinema regularly enough too.

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