The third and latest boxset of Hammer films from the superlative label Indicator has arrived- subtitled ‘Blood and Terror’ it comprises of four racially-charged war and horror films. I haven’t seen any of these films before and will kick things off with the first title in the set – The Camp on Blood Island.
I found it difficult to watch The Camp on Blood Island without considering how politically-correct the world is now- this film just could not get made today, and even back in 1958 critics were appalled by this films depiction of Japanese soldiers as monsters and sadists, and the casting of mostly white actors in rather odd make-up as these Japanese fiends only compounded the sense of exploitation and unfairness. From the perspective of sixty years later, however, it is so unlike anything else it actually almost seems refreshingly bad taste and rather unique. Japanese POW films today (The Railway Man or Unbroken spring to mind) can be unrelentingly brutal and indeed more graphic than their 1958 predecessor, but they also have to be balanced and respectful to both sides of the war with a fair account. Not so this Hammer film, and its so unapologetic that its quite astonishing.
I suppose as its a Hammer film it could actually be considered as much a horror film as a war film. There is no Geneva Convention being observed by the Japanese devils of Blood Island- Colditz and Stalag 17 are like holiday camps compared to the horrors inflicted upon the British POWS here. The film opens with a prisoner digging his own grave and being summarily executed by gleeful Japanese in front of the assembled prisoners. Their mail is burnt in front of them and hostages taken and beheaded as punishment for subsequent escape attempts. One emaciated escapee makes a break to the women’s camp to see his wife one last time, and is killed by machine-gun fire before her very eyes, the Japanese soldier laughing as he shoots, the wife (played with customary style by the great Barbara Shelley) reacting in total horror.
What makes the film so watchable is a twist that is quite fascinating. The prisoners on Blood Island are led by Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell, excellent as ever as he somehow makes even the most implausible seem ordinary), who knows from a radio that the prisoners have rigged up, that the war is actually over. Unfortunately for them, the prison commander, Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd), has a history of war-crimes to his name with nothing to lose, and has already boasted to Lambert that if/when the Japanese lose the war, he will slaughter all the prisoners in the camp, and also all the women prisoners held in the other camp across the island. Keeping the secret of the wars end to just his closest officers, Lambert has instigated a series of escape attempts to try get word of their plight to the outside world, and repeated sabotaging of the Japanese radio equipment to keep Yamamitsu in the dark – but these efforts have resulted in bloody reprisals on the prisoners who have become wary of Lambert’s actions.
Considering the boys-own adventure war films of its era, such as those that starred John Wayne, The Camp on Blood Island is surprisingly dark, brutal and indeed nihilistic. When all seems lost at the films finale, Lambert leads a violent last-ditch escape that results in himself blowing up one of his own officers by mistake, and the wasted deaths of many of his men during the battle, just prior to Allied forces arriving to save them having been contacted by one of the successful escapees. Its a dark and rather sober conclusion to a film of much misery and suffering and, yes, extreme sadism by monstrous Japanese. The whole thing is utterly fascinating and so utterly non-politically correct that it is remarkable indeed and the opportunity to actually see the film (it hasn’t been screened on British television since 1979, for perhaps obvious reasons) is something to savour. While there are obvious issues with the films approach and its sensibilities I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it surprisingly challenging and well-made considering its era and low-budget. There was clearly much more to Hammer than the gothic horrors it became so famous for and I can only commend Indicator for this excellent release.