As if smarting from the critical and political fallout from previous war film The Camp on Blood Island (which nonetheless struck a chord with the British public and became a big financial success), Hammer followed with Yesterday’s Enemy, a fascinating anti-war film that perhaps atoned for the excesses of the earlier effort by showing that the British could commit war-crimes too. Indeed, it could be argued that this film casts the Japanese in a better light than the Allied soldiers- its agenda simply what it describes as ‘total war’; that civilized codes of conduct or morals of right and wrong in a bloody conflict can seem pointless and ironic.
Both The Camp on Blood Island and Yesterday’s Enemy were directed by Val Guest and they do make an utterly fascinating double-bill, two sides of the same coin perhaps. From the more sophisticated vantage-point of 2018 they both remain provocative, challenging and surprising: however, it is clear that Yesterday’s Enemy is the more measured and intelligent of the two, and far less exploitative. It could easily be argued that it is, in fact, one of the finest anti-war films ever made- certainly one of the most forgotten/lost ‘classic’s of its genre.
The film follows the last survivors of a British Army Brigade struggling behind enemy lines in the depths of a Burmese jungle who chance upon a small village and a group of Japanese soldiers led by an officer who is killed holding a folder of maps and plans. After the frantic battle the British CO, Captain Langford (a powerful performance from Stanley Baker which was rewarded by a BAFTA nomination) realises that the maps if deciphered could hold the key to military operations in the jungle. Langton threatens a captured Burmese spy who was working with the Japanese and executes two of the villagers to prove his threats are real. While some of the brigade are satisfied that Langfords methods are warranted, such as the loyal Sgt Mackenzie (Gordon Jackson), others, notably the civilian Padre (Guy Rolfe) and a journalist trapped with them (Leo McKern) object to Langford flagrantly ignoring the Geneva Convention. Time is running out, however, as Japanese forces looking for their senior officer descend on the village and begin to use similar methods to find out what the British know of their plans and their missing officer.
The film has several surprising twists and turns and builds its tension throughout, with an excellent ensemble cast delivering great performances and really ensuring the tension and sense of moral as well as physical conflict. The final denouncement is terribly bleak and inevitable, which delivers a dark message about the grim realities and futility of war. It is a brilliant and powerful anti-war film and yes, one I had never seen before, demonstrating again the importance of box-set releases such as this. These Hammer box-sets from Indicator continue to deliver surprises and quality and ensure that Hammer’s legacy is not wholly predicated on the studios Gothic horror output.
4 thoughts on “Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)”
A really good movie that raises lots of interesting if difficult questions. The ease with which it switches and twists plot and perspective is impressive.
That is astonishing. I had no idea that such a bleak portrayal of the jungle war existed. Do you know how the public responded to this film? Was there a backlash?
Well it wasn’t particularly successful with the public although the critics liked it (and Baker himself was rewarded with a BAFTA nomination and probably should have won). I think it was just too soon after the war (just fourteen years, remember) for people to look back on the war in such a bleak light. Considering the financial success of the earlier exploitation film The Camp on Blood Island, audiences much preferred the good guys noble and decent and the bad guys as evil and one-dimensional as possible. But Yesterday’s Enemy has certainly aged better. It is a great pity it has been so forgotten though- hopefully this disc release will be a part in rectifying that.
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