Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Camp on Blood Island

In the dying days of the Second World War the inmates in a Japanese prisoner of war camp learn that Japan has lost the war. This news is not a cause for jubilation, however, since the commander of the camp, certain to be executed for war crimes if Japan loses, will kill every prisoner, man, woman and child should he find out.

The strengths of Val Guest's The Camp on Blood Island (1958) are much the same as those of his other war is hell in the pacific entry Yesterday's Enemy (1959).

The director's quasi-documentary style is a positive, even if not as well realised as its successor due to an increasing focus upon action film elements later on.

So too, without reservation, are the sweaty atmosphere and tension that he conjures up, and the performances he elicits from a talented cast that includes Hammer stalwarts such as Andre Morell and Richard Wordsworth.

The writing nicely explores the ethical dilemmas facing those in command, both military and civilian, without didacticism or reducing these characters to mouthpieces.

This, however, also leads to one of the negatives, that the rank and file are again given less characterisation and attention – when six men are executed in reprisals for an escape all they are is a number, devoid of names and of individual identities.

Another flaw, at least for some, is likely to be the casting of actors of other ethnicities, such as the Anglo-English Marne Maitland and the white British Michael Ripper, as Japanese soldiers.

Here, however, I'd say it is important to consider the film as a product of its time and place and to recognise that, much like its companion piece, there is considerable thought-provoking ambiguity throughout.

So, for instance, Ripper's cameo role is one of a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, fated to die through no fault of his own.

Similarly, if the female prisoner who consorts with one of the soldiers is played by an East Asian actor, it is not that her character is set against the others by race, given that their numbers including other non-whites, rather by her placing of self above collective.

(As an aside, the film made me think about present-day debates around casting? Does being an actor and thus by definition playing people other than oneself render them irrelevant? Is the main issue an imbalance of power between majorities and minorities in who can play who? Is there a difference when the character being played is an actual historical figure or a religious one believed to be real?)

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