Monday, March 17, 2008

Fear and Loathing on Blood Island

More than a decade before Hemisphere Pictures introduced us to Dr. Lorca and his raucous, green-blooded progeny of science in MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968), Hammer Film Productions set two important pictures on a Blood Island of their own.

Hammer's THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1957) and THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND (1965) -- the company's most controversial forays into realistic, non-fantastic horror -- have more or less faded into obscurity, never released on tape or disc and no longer shown on American television. It is conceivable that these WWII dramas, detailing the suffering of British prisoners of war at Japanese encampments in occupied Malaya (now Malaysia), have been deliberately suppressed, as they were deemed outrageous and offensive long before the term "politically correct" was coined. One feels the urge to defend them because they are well-made, have noble humanistic content, and convey potent anti-war messages; at the same time, one feels embarassed by their depiction of Japanese soldiers, for reasons that have nothing to do with their wartime behavior.
Made during the period between Hammer's epoch-making THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957) and HORROR OF DRACULA (1958), THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND was directed and written by Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT), working from notes which he claimed had been scribbled on toilet paper by co-credited writer Jon Manchip White during his own Japanese POW experience. It is set in 1945 Malaya, where word of the war's end has yet to reach the prison camp of Colonel Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd). British Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell) has received the news through his own covert channels, but he and his men must keep it from reaching the enemy, as Yamamitsu's sadistic, rat-faced second-in-command Captain Sakamura (Marne Maitland) has made it known that, in the event of a Japanese defeat or surrender, he and Yamamitsu intend to save face by killing all their prisoners and then themselves by blowing up the camp. When an American soldier (Phil Brown) parachutes to ground and is captured by the Japanese, suspense kicks in as Lambert must somehow make the delicacy of the situation known to him before he can inform his captors of the Japanese surrender.
Photographed by the great Jack Asher in gritty black-and-white, and featuring bloodshed that is all the more startling for its black profusion and realistic context, CAMP comes very close to being one of Hammer's most serious, best-acted pictures. The dialogue is also surprisingly strong -- one line spoken by Michael Gwynne, "You friggin' Jap bastard!", was blatantly relooped, suggesting that even stronger words may have been used on set. The bleakly ironic ending, in particular, posits this film as an antecedent of Michael Reeves' WITCHFINDER GENERAL in showing how violence begets violence and corrupts the best of intentions. Morell is at his customary best, and he's ably supported by a Who's Who of Hammer's top supporting players -- Barbara Shelley, Michael Gwynne, Richard Wordsworth, Milton Reid, Edwin Richfield -- each of them giving their all in a quality and, let's face it, patriotic piece of melodrama. But their proud efforts cannot help but be deflated every time Maitland (who actually gives a fine performance), the chop-suey-munching Radd, or even Michael Ripper appear in their crummy yellow-face makeup.
Some genuinely Asian actors appear in the film as underlings, standing guard or driving trucks; of course, the British film industry had no shortage of such actors, but they were not cast in the appropriate key roles as it was the tendency of Hammer's casting department to stick with those names they knew and trusted. Even so, the portrayals of the Japanese are so hateful and inflammatory that there's every possibility that authentic Japanese actors, starving or not, would have turned the film down rather than risk adding to the tensions on the set. And those simmering postwar tensions were very real, even abroad: in September 1958, when THE CAMP ON BLOOD IDLAND was being readied for US release through Columbia Pictures, the chairman of the Motion Picture Production Association of Japan made an unsuccessful attempt to have the film banned in America. His point was inadvertently supported by VARIETY's reviewer, who praised the film by promising "It will jerk out of complacency any person who now tends to regard the Japanese as not being as bad as they thought."
It was the film's stated ambition -- presented in a caption appearing over the image of a starved prisoner lying in an open grave, machine-gunned in his bare chest -- to tell the "brutal truth" about the British POW experience, and there is no doubt that incidents such as it portrayed actually occurred. However, by casting the Japanese roles with ill-disguised British talent, the authenticity of the suffering it depicted was inadvertently cheapened by the ugly, seething racism inherent in its degree of caricature. Nevertheless, the film's many positive qualities demand that it be seen and preserved. Released to television in pan&scan transfers, the Megascope film has not been available for viewing in its original 2.35:1 dimensions for roughly half-a-century.
In 1959, director Gerardo de Leon made TERROR IS A MAN, the first Filipino horror film to be set on "Blood Island," a locale to be revisited to greater commercial success a decade later. Around the same time, Roger Corman's Filmgroup company released BATTLE OF BLOOD ISLAND (1960), an independent WWII film directed by Joel Rapp, based on the story "Expect the Vandals" by Philip Roth. It had nothing to do with the Hammer film, but it kept the phrase "Blood Island" alive in the consciousness of moviegoers as synonymous with Hell in the Pacific.
THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, Hammer's 50th production, became one of the company's biggest early money-makers. Nevertheless, it generated so much heated controversy that they heeded strong suggestions from leading British film industry figures that further pictures exciting unpleasant memories of WWII should be discouraged. Nevertheless, after seven cooling years, it was possible for James Clavell to achieve best-sellerdom with the novel KING RAT, which was promptly bought by Columbia and filmed by Bryan Forbes in 1965. Hammer took this precedent as a green light to move ahead with THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND, shot in color and released by Rank and Universal in 1965 -- a non-sequential "prequel" to their earlier hit, set in 1944 Malaya and involving a different set of characters.
Here Barbara Shelley plays a woman pilot on a top secret mission who is shot down over Japanese-occupied Malaysia -- almost 200 miles shy of her urgent destination -- and must elude discovery by the Japanese by posing as a male POW in one of their prison camps. Shelley, with short-cropped hair, gives a resolutely asexual performance and the film ventures very little in the way of sexual intrigue or romantic interludes. Surrounded once again by top-drawer talent including Charles Tingwell (her husband in DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS), Jack Hedley (THE ANNIVERSARY), and Edwin Richfield (QUATERMASS AND THE PIT), Shelley is here opposed by the ogreish and even more offensively made-up Patrick Wymark (!) as Major Jocomo and Michael Ripper as Lieutenant Tojoko. All things considered, Ripper isn't too bad; he barks his Japanese orders in a manner that shows he took the dialogue seriously... but Wymark is so blatantly miscast, he's an offense not only to the Japanese but to every other well-meaning actor in the piece.

SECRET was better than adequately directed by Quentin Lawrence, who had previously made another of Hammer's most winning non-horror titles, CASH ON DEMAND (1961); it was ably scripted by John Gilling, and is well-stocked with its own share of earnest performances. Yet, like its predecessor, it is a film that might have succeeded superbly if not for the inadvertently comic look of its leering putty-eyed villains. Furthermore, there is a feeling here of a film that was advised to pull its punches, in a way that THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND did not, and -- in a hint at studio editorial interference -- it starts off on an awkward foot by presenting the climax first, as a lead-in to Shelley's voice-over narration, which only serves to make the story's culmination needlessly familiar when we earn our way back to it.
The Blood Island films are somehow more attractive as a diptych, as a two film series, than as two stand-alone pictures from different decades. The fact that they are owned by two different studios makes it all the more unlikely that they will be revived any time soon on DVD. This is unfortunate because -- PC powderkegs or not -- they contain too much of quality and historic witness to be consigned to oblivion. One hopes they may someday return to circulation, and that its authors can forgiven for their strong feelings as we have forgiven those who provoked them. If Japan can produce a film about the facts of war as unflinching as Kazuo Hara's THE EMPEROR'S NAKED ARMY MARCHES ON, the least the rest of us can do is assume responsibility for our fictions.
Speaking of fiction, a movie tie-in novelisation of THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND ("The Brutal Truth of What Really Happened!") was published in paperback in 1958, credited only in terms of being based on the screenplay by White and Guest. It proved popular enough with the British public to earn later printings as recently as 1972.

In preparing this article, I relied on my own viewing of these films, as well as on research put forward by Tom Johnson and Deborah Del Vecchio in their book HAMMER FILMS - AN EXHAUSTIVE FILMOGRAPHY (McFarland and Company, 1996), which I gratefully acknowledge.
PS (3/18/08): Reader Mike Mariano has written to inform me that THE SECRET OF BLOOD ISLAND actually had a VHS release, possibly unauthorized, under the title POW: PRISONERS OF WAR. "[It was released] by Kestrel Gold Video, a Canadian company, I believe," he writes. "It's a decent fullscreen transfer in color. There are several copies available on the Amazon Marketplace, with pics of the box cover."

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous10:46 AM

    I was too young to see this Hammer release in 1965, and curiosity led me to pick up a copy on DVD-R (cut from the above mentioned video) and I was surprised at how restrained the whole thing was considering the publicity it had on release.
    The limit of the budget was on show (as there never appear to be more than about a dozen prisoners around) but it rattled along reasonably well and Barbara Shelley and Jack hedley did as well as they could with the material. The only real standout error was Patrick Wymark as the sadistic camp commandant who appears to have strayed in from a badly drawn Japanese cartoon.
    Probably one for Hammer completists only.

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