Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)

yest1.jpgAs 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.

yest2The 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.


Fury (2014)

Brad Pitt;Shia LaBeouf;Logan Lerman;Michael Pena;Jon BernthalThe shadow of both Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s Band of Brothers looms large over David Ayer’s Fury. That’s no fault of the film itself, its just the way things are- its as inevitable as watching Guardians of the Galaxy and comparing it to Star Wars, or Interstellar and comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. In what is perhaps a concious effort to step from out of that Private Ryan shadow, Fury pushes the envelope with its graphic onscreen portrayal of war. People burn horribly, heads explode, severed body parts litter the screen… this war isn’t pretty. And yet the one shot that lingers in my mind is one of a vast armada of bombers in the sky, weaving a spider-web of contrails across the clouds as the air trembles with the sound of their engines- its a beautiful, arresting image, quite at odds with the horrors the film portrays down on the ground.

This raised a thought whilst watching Fury; is it acceptable to portray the horrors of war in the guise of entertainment? Is it an artistic or even moral right to show the brutality of it, exploding heads, burning flesh, the blood and body parts, in a movie designed to entertain? Is there something wrong with viewers gaining enjoyment and satisfaction from watching such bloody horrors unfold? Is it even possible for any film to really encapsulate what war is? Fury may not flinch from showing battles in graphic detail but I dare say it pulls its punches- there is a limit to what censors will allow I’m sure, but as the years pass the boundaries keep moving, and I wonder where it may end. Even the heroes (as we used to understand the term in war movies) aren’t what they used to be-  the Allied soldiers seem as bitter and twisted and destroyed as the Germans they are fighting, even though its the last days of the war and the Allies are clearly on the winning side with victory near. They are all broken men. Broken by their experiences of the war.

kelly1This isn’t a consideration for earlier war movies- I found myself thinking of Kelly’s Heroes, another film featuring tanks, and one of those movies I can watch over again and again- its a war movie from back in the days that Hollywood war movies were really Boys Own Adventure films (albeit in Kelly’s Heroes case focused through a prism of late ‘sixties/early ‘seventies cynicism). Back when soldiers would get shot and fall down dead with the minimum of fuss or gore or sign of pain. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule (All Quiet on the Western Front for one), but prior to Apocalypse Now, war movies were in no way focused on the reality and madness of war. Just thinking of war movies starring John Wayne makes me cringe- only the other day whilst flicking channels I stumbled on a movie, I don’t know what it was, but it had Charles Bronson in army get-up playing soldiers with a bunch of other actors like Henry Fonda and it looked, frankly ridiculous, like grown men playing at being soldiers, almost in bad taste. But war films are what they were, prior to Apocalypse Now, Platoon and of course Saving Private Ryan. The playing field has changed now, and Fury is clearly a product of its time.

Fury is a very interesting and arresting film. Visually it is quite brutal, although it sometimes seems a little too keen to shock the viewer. It does seem brave for having such a largely unsympathetic group of characters; it is very difficult to empathise with the nominal good guys at times and that’s contrary to how films work with protagonists in peril (you really should root for the ‘good guy’ otherwise why care what happens? Perhaps it is simply showing how war and its horrors breaks men and strips them of their humanity. Its evidently a concious decision of the film-makers, because the performances themselves are all of a very high standard- they just in no way try to engender audience sympathy. Interestingly, I don’t recall any of the characters really talking about their old, pre-war lives, as if the war is all there is, all there has ever been (perhaps they don’t really believe its ever going to end).
fury3The battle scenes are well-shot and staged, albeit quite harrowing, and the film does look beautiful, which is odd considering what horrific things are depicted. Steven Price’s score is unusual and effective, and although its a bit disconcerting to hear music that sounds so like his earlier Gravity score in a period movie, on the whole it works well.

So Fury being a war movie with tanks, being compared to Kelly’s Heroes as another war movie with tanks, is hardly any fit comparison at all, but all the same, its interesting to note how much has changed with war movies. Watching the two films back to back (something I really must do someday) would be a sobering thing indeed, to see just how much things have changed in the decades between them. I guess the world has changed, and how we perceive war, as much as Hollywood’s depiction of it. Which influenced which, I wonder? Did our knowledge of war force Hollywood to change, or was it the change in Hollywood war films that influenced our view of what war is?