Yesterday’s Enemy

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YESTERDAY’S ENEMY—-  gripping 1959 British war film, little shown in the US the following year, ripe for rediscovery and appreciation. Shot in black & white, on indoor sets, with no music score, sweating out 95 tense minutes under the direction of Val Guest.

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                             “When You Go Home, Tell Them Of Us And Say,
For Your Tomorrow, We Gave Our Today”

Bloody, bungled Burma, 1942. Lost in the jungle, a few dozen retreating British soldiers occupy a small village. Desperate circumstances compel their harsh officer (Stanley Baker) to execute some villagers in order to force a confession about enemy locations, despite outrage from the chaplain (Guy Rolfe) and a war correspondent (Leo McKern). Then, the Japanese catch up, and things get even grimmer.

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The script doesn’t pull punches portraying the hellish situation, sharply probing at ethical questions around guilt and duty; gratefully it never descends into mawkish grandstanding or sentimental filler. Under his unobtrusive direction, Guest keeps the atmosphere simmering, with the well-appointed sets heightening the steamy claustrophobia of being hemmed in by hostile elements. The jungle sound effects are quite effective; the detailed costumes and makeup have everyone appear believably hot, soaked and tired. The fine monochrome camera work credits Arthur Grant. When the action scenes arrive, they’re handled with intensity and brevity, no standard phony heroics or playing of favorites, conveying instead the indiscriminate nature of hot flying pieces of metal, their lethal course making no distinction between uniforms or hopes.

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Strong cast: all the acting is excellent.*  You could make a good case for Stanley Baker as the Welsh version of Richard Widmark. Having emerged from villain ranks into tough hero mode, this is one of the rugged and missed Baker’s best performances; his trapped-by-duty officer makes a good companion to his more famous accidental commander in Zulu.  Refreshing to see Rolfe, usually a real baddie, playing a soft-spoken, decent fellow, who also has to task his morality when tested.  Baker’s counterpart, the equally tough, equally logical Japanese officer, is played by veteran Philip Ahn, the venerated Korean-American actor playing a Japanese soldier for the umpteenth time (vying with Richard Loo). He makes the most of it, and gets a great little speech to hurl at Baker: “But who started the war against the Sudanese, or the Indians or the Boers? Did you have any rules for war then? No. But now that you have someone else just as big as you, now that you are not fighting spears with guns, you want a code of conduct.”

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With the always welcome Gordon Jackson, plus David Oxley, Bryan Forbes, Richard Pasco, Percy Herbert and Burt Kwouk. Written by Peter R. Newman.  Much better than the somewhat similar The Long and the Short and the Tall, which came out as a play the year this movie was released, and then was done on screen in 1961. With bigger stars–Laurence Harvey, Richard Todd and Richard Harris–it got more notice, but this beats it hands down.14906-21709

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* Percy Herbert had just appeared in The Bridge On The River Kwai. In WW2, after the Fall of Singapore, he survived four years as a P.O.W. of the Japanese. The great Philip Ahn was a truly fascinating guy, with quite a life, of which his long acting career was only one segment.  Stanley Baker to his wife, shortly before he died: I have no regrets. I’ve had a fantastic life; no one has had a more fantastic life than I have. From the beginning I have been surrounded by love. I’m the son of a Welsh miner and I was born into love, married into love and spent my life in love.”

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