THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND, an unremittingly bleak WW2 saga from Britain’s Hammer Studios in 1958, was a rather rough customer at the time, churning up publicity and controversy (how much of each is hard to sort out) for being brutal and exploitative, while it made a sizable hit at the Brit box-office, with an ensuing paperback novelization that went through dozens of editions and sold 2,000,000 copies.
A Japanese POW camp in Malaya, 1945. When the surviving abused Allied prisoners find out via a hidden radio transmitter that the war has ended, they try to keep the news from their vicious commandant, who has told them he will kill them all—men, women and children—if Japan surrenders. Faced with annihilation, the prisoners scheme to fight back.
Directed and co-written by the capable Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, The Day The Earth Caught Fire), it’s a lean-budgeted item that Guest and cinematographer Jack Asher adeptly frame in settings (Berkshire and Surrey in England, outfitted with tropical foliage to substitute for schlepping to Malaysia), costuming and makeup (lay on the sweat) and through smart use of extras in the vigorous action scenes, so as to cover for its lack of color and scale (the epic, location-lensed The Bridge On The River Kwai came out the previous year).
The press ripple at the time was for its ample degree of pain-infliction, showing torment of the prisoners. Six decades of ever-explicit cinema mayhem have reduced that charge, and even the laziest look at that darn thing called History shows that there’s little the screen could convey, then or now, to approximate the actual horror of those prison camps. ‘Kwai’ was a fabulous movie, but it soft-pedaled the real-life viciousness. *
In more recent evaluations, now that the movie has made its way to a new shelf life on DVD, Guest’s saga is taken to the cleaners for alleged/assumed racism over its harsh portrayal of the Japanese, particularly the use of non-Asian actors, doing ostensibly offensive ‘yellowface’ interpretations. The film-makers are indeed lazily culpable to the second part of that judgment, with English actors Ronald Radd and Michael Ripper, and Anglo-Indian reliable Marne Maitland playing the Japanese. Something approaching veracity would have been to import Teru Shimada (Battle Of The Coral Sea) or Hollywood standby stalwarts Richard Loo or Philip Ahn instead. The advertising was less-than-subtle and blatantly carefree about possibly offering offense. So: guilty. As to ‘harsh portrayal’… well, that rates an un-p.c. cold-water-douse asterisk. **
81 minutes, with a strong lead role for unsung veteran André Morell as the senior British officer, Michael Goodlife, Hammer favorite Barbara Shelley, Carl Möhner (Sink The Bismarck!), Walter Fitzgerald, Edward Underdown, Richard Wordsworth, Michael Gwynne, and the imposing Milton Reid (wielding that samurai sword).
This okay movie was followed in 1964 by an apparently lame quasi-prequel called The Secret Of Blood Island, again with Hammer babe Barbara Shelley and the lead Japanese officer played this time by Patrick Wymark, but I’m hard pressed to dig up that one, which promised “It’s New—It’s Shocking—It’s Savage!” It’s MIA.
In 1959, Val Guest did another WW2 film, superior to this, set in Burma, the fine Yesterday’s Enemy.
* The sub-genre of WW2 movies about prisoners of war in Asia owes a good deal to the trauma—hard to comprehend today—that was inflicted on the Allies by the sudden, stunning, total victories Japan logged against the arrogant, contemptuous Anglo-Europeans and Americans in 1941-42. The bitter price paid can be gleaned through Three Came Home, A Town Like Alice, King Rat, Prisoners Of The Sun, The Great Raid, Return From The River Kwai, The Railway Man, Merry Christmas Mr.Lawrence, Unbroken, Empire Of The Sun, Paradise Road, To End All Wars and The Bridge On The River Kwai.
** Right—‘racist’, ‘unfair‘ portrayals of WW2 Japan’s POW camps, and their merciless military in general—now that’s rich. Nothing if not blatant racism, murderous nationalism and vile sexism on a colossal rampage, Japan’s grotesque record from 1931 through 1945 can shatter the shame test against any Boy’s Club on the globe, anywhere, anytime. Don’t believe the European and American POWs—those who somehow lived? They might be prejudiced: starvation, degradation and torture will do that. Okay, ask a Filipino, Korean, Malaysian, Thai, Burmese, Vietnamese or Pacific islander. Try to tabulate the slaughtered Chinese–modestly eight to a probable thirty-million dead. It wasn’t called ‘The Rape of Nanking’ because the word ‘appreciation’ was unavailable. Revisionist p.c candy coating of Imperial Japan’s massively documented cruelty is no less of an outrage to fact than are the ravings of Holocaust deniers. Oh, and, as of… right now…NO apology. Zero. Zilch. Like Turkey with the Armenian genocide, Japan has never owned up. I’ll worry about ‘hurting feelings’ when their leaders, educators and artists have the balls to Man the Hell Up. Good luck: you might as well hope our homegrown, officially-sanctioned and revitalized racist pigs will reveal human hearts and brains.