Powerhouse Indicator continues its series of exotic attractions from the house of Hammer — productions that found new ways to shock audiences than tradition-breaking gore and violence. Two are war pictures with sharply contrasting themes, and the second pair constitute a popular-cinema referendum on racist colonial attitudes.
Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror
The Camp on Blood Island, Yesterday’s Enemy, The Stranglers of Bombay, The Terror of the Tongs
1958-1960 / Color / B&W / 1:85, 2:35 widescreen / / Street Date July 30, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £44.99
Directed by Val Guest, Terence Fisher, Anthony Bushell
It’s true — unless one is a full-on Hammer true believer that considers The Brigand of Kandahar and Creatures the World Forgot to be timeless classics, delving into the lesser-known Hammer films can be a case of diminishing returns. But when the company got truly creative, either with a radical screenplay or a committed director — Terence Fisher, Val Guest, Joseph Losey — isolated masterpieces could result. The new Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror disc set is composed of (1) a genuine great war picture all but unknown in America, (2) a lurid exposé of war atrocities, (3) a frightening, fascinating tale of gruesome colonial crimes, and (4) a thoughtless and cheap ‘Yellow Peril’ melodrama that brings back attitudes that had been outdated for decades.
Powerhouse Indicator has found its niche among genre fans by providing quality extras from knowledgeable people that care enough to think about what the films are really saying. Each of these features is daring in a different way, and a couple of them confront subjects that that are still highly controversial.
The Camp on Blood Island
1958 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 81 min.
Starring: André Morell, Carl Möhner, Walter Fitzgerald, Edward Underdown, Phil Brown, Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Michael Gwynn, Ronald Radd, Marne Maitland, Wolfe Morris, Richard Wordsworth, Mary Merrall, Michael Ripper, Jan Holden, Geoffrey Bayldon, Milton Reid.
Cinematography: Jack Asher
Film Editor: Bill Lenny
Original Music: Gerard Schumann
Written by John Manchip White, Val Guest
Produced by Michael Carreras, Kenneth Hyman, Anthony Nelson-Keys
Directed by Val Guest
By the middle of the 1950s the ‘how we won the war’ accolades to British valor (The Dam Busters) were beginning to thin out. The topic of Allied troops in Japanese P.O.W. camps was not a favorite, as any realistic depiction of conditions would be deemed be too grim for public consumption. The classic The Bridge on the River Kwai and the laudable King Rat cast ambiguous doubt on the glory and patriotism that invariably accompany traditional tales of warfare, but they also can’t convey the full measure of misery — their ‘starving’ prisoners just look too healthy and too well fed. Hammer’s horror successes taught them that times were changing, that sensational content could claim an advantage in the commercial marketplace. The Camp on Blood Island was conceived as an exposé of the kind of war crimes recounted almost exclusively in trashy tabloids. Camp’s key advertising image is as lurid as a cheap paperback cover: a horrid, subhuman ‘Jap’ prepares to decapitate a waiting British soldier. The movie is more restrained.
John Manchip White’s screenplay gathers together a number of true incidents, placing them all in the same P.O.W. camp, a Malaysian outpost called Blood Island. The news is that the war is almost over, and the brutality of the guards rises proportionately. Prisoners caught trying to escape are executed. When Colonel Lambert (André Morell) protests, the commandant vows to kill everyone if Japan is defeated. The prisoners risk their lives to keep the isolated camp from getting fresh news, while anxiety grows among the maltreated men, and the women prisoners in a camp not far away. The sadism escalates, as the prisoners prepare for a desperate last-chance revolt.
Today’s ‘sophisticated’ audiences will likely have difficulty getting beyond Blood Island’s use of using Anglo actors in yellowface, with crude effects makeup around their eyes. Not only are most of the captors not played by Asians, they are depicted as completely inhuman monsters. Marne Maitland jabbers out words in semi-Japanese, commandant Ronald Radd’s Japanese sounds like controlled belching, and a hilariously made-up Michael Ripper speaks pidgin English. But in terms of the mistreatment of prisoners, the film is accurate. In many Japanese commands, fanatic officers were as cruel to their own men as they were to their captives. WW2 thrillers continue to feature inhuman Nazi figures nearly eighty years after the war, but the negative depiction of Japanese war criminals has been much less frequent.
The advertising for Blood Island surely revulsed viewers that thought war atrocities were not fit content for fiction filmmaking — and quite a few actual survivors of the camps felt the same way. Val Guest’s well-directed film takes the issue seriously within an obvious exploitation framework. The show suggests most of the carnage, and none of the slayings are graphic. The show’s exciting storyline — escape is impossible, so survival depends on keeping the Japanese uninformed — pays off with a disastrous but uplifting battle of the kind that never happened in real life. The prisoners have ‘magic’ grenades, which when thrown from a distance from which only a big league pitcher could score, explode just at the right moment. Occupation tribunals later convicted many war criminals, but even the Japanese complained that some major offenders used their rank to escape indictment, and returned to prosper in Japan’s later economic recovery. See my review of Masaki Kobayashi’s The Thick-Walled Room.
Compared to an all-time masterpiece like Kobayashi’s The Human Condition, Blood Island is a cheap War Horror Comic. An excellent 1956 version of Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice also finds a good path through the problem, but its romantic framework can’t fully express the barbaric hopelessness of life in a Japanese P.O.W. camp.
The great Val Guest almost overcomes the tawdry approach, with smart scenes, good acting, and a production that almost convinces us that locations in the English countryside are in Malaya — that overused gravel pit shows up, along with one effective matte painting.
The versatile Hammer stalwart André Morell is a fine ranking officer, while almost everyone gets standout parts — Barbara Shelley, Michael Goodliffe, Michael Gwynne, Phil Brown. Carl Möhner of Rififi and Sink the Bismarck! is a Dutch prisoner. Richard Wordsworth (The Quatermass Xperiment) has a gaunt appearance that expresses the truth of starvation in the camps.
The extras in video and text illuminate the problem of Blood Island — should Hammer be proud of its box office success? Is it a legit expression of wartime truths some people would rather not see, or a trashy incursion of Hammer Horror into the war film genre? A rather exploitative author is the story source, but we’re told that every war crime depicted actually happened — the cruelty of the Japanese office corps is well documented.
The featurettes and interviews examine the wide range of public and official reactions to the picture, from condemnation to faint praise. But nobody in 1958 was concerned about the portrayal of Asians by Anglos in grotesque make-up, a filmic given. The yellowface tradition has perpetrated negative images, but the real damage has been done by books and films that consistently portrayed Asians as subhuman devils.
Perhaps to counter the general ‘boys club’ image of horror fandom, PI uses more female spokespeople in this boxed set, who are variously credentialed and experienced. The ‘Women of Hammer’ extra on this disc features Kat Ellinger profiling actress Mary Merrall. In Blood Island she plays a prisoner who helps communicate with the men’s camp in code, by speaking in Latin.
1959 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min.
Starring: Stanley Baker, Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern, Gordon Jackson, David Oxley, Richard Pasco, Philip Ahn, Bryan Forbes, Wolfe Morris, David Lodge, Percy Herbert, Edwina Carroll.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editor: Alfred Cox
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Written by Peter R. Newman from his play.
Produced by Michael Carreras
Directed by Val Guest
Everyone has heard the argument that no war film can be ‘anti-war,’ because spectacular combat and heroic braveries under pressure have always been sure-fire dramatic material. War movies have examined bravery, cowardice, honor, duty, and the pressure of command. Even when pointing out the waste of lives, the injustice and the innumerable tragedies involved, the subject fascinates: war and combat presents a defining situation against which men can be tested.
Hammer and Val Guest’s follow-up to Camp on Blood Island comes from a noted TV play. In the average ‘lost patrol’ combat movie, brave soldiers penetrate enemy territory and sacrifice themselves as necessary to achieve the mission. They kill enemy soldiers but in general are welcomed by the locals, as ‘our’ forces are always better liked than those of the enemy. In the movies, patrols tend to be successful, even if not every soldier comes back alive.
Yesterday’s Enemy puts things in a completely different perspective, that can be overwhelmingly depressing. It’s still a play in which various patrol members debate the logic and morality of various actions, but it doesn’t subscribe to the traditional ‘Good Housekeeping’ rules of movie warfare. When men are hot and exhausted and convinced that their lives are in danger, all bets are off. The cynical sentiment expressed in Apocalypse Now takes effect: “Charging men with murder over here is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indianpolis 500.”
A patrol in Burma is cut off in swampy enemy territory. Japanese patrols have already contacted the natives. Captain Langford (Stanley Baker) takes a small village away from some Japanese guards, and finds a map. When none of the locals will explain the map, Langford eventually resorts to executions to force cooperation. Some patrol members are disturbed by what Langford considers a tactical necessity. The map is the enemy’s plan to encircle a large group of Allied forces. Langford decides that the patrol can’t simply race to inform their superiors, but must instead stay in place and behave as if they haven’t learned anything. He dispatches three men to deliver the message, but everything goes wrong. His patrol is eventually captured and brought back to the same village. The Japanese Major Yamazaki (Philip Ahn) makes the same demand of Langford that Langford did to the locals: talk or die. Yamakazi will start killing Langford’s men until he capitulates.
Yesterday’s Enemy confronts the absurd cruelty of decisions made in combat. The title itself asks us to remember the fact that all too often ‘yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend.’ The more moralistic among the Brits, including the chaplain, are appalled by Langford’s ruthless, perhaps murderous actions. Is Langford a war criminal? The irony comes home to roost when, because of his actions, Langford cannot negotiate with the Japanese commander on a moral basis: the patrol is guilty of crimes usually ascribed only to the ‘savage’ Japanese. Langford killed for the sake of expediency, and the Burmese locals are surely not going to take his side against the Japanese.
Yesterday’s Enemy can be a traumatic experience for viewers convinced that they’re owed happy endings. American audiences have consistently rejected war movies that show defeat in any form — Tora! Tora! Tora! being a good example. Only ‘glorious martyrdoms’ qualify: Wake Island, The Alamo — and to make them glorious, filmmakers often distort historical events. The ‘horror’ of Val Guest’s show is a soldier’s worst nightmare. Captain Langford’s patrol faces not only death, but the possibility of obliteration: no honors, no parade, no grave. Noone may ever know what happened to them.
The show is cast with impressive talent. The great Stanley Baker often specialized in tarnished criminals and cruel lovers. The patrol’s ‘Padre’ Guy Rolfe (the star of this collection’s The Stranglers of Bombay) is not the kind that plagues his commander with Bible quotes, but simply a witness who tries to stand up for basic decency. Patrol members include the marvelous Leo McKern (Day the Earth Caught Fire), Gordon Jackson (The Great Escape), David Oxley (The Hound of the Baskervilles), Richard Pasco (The Gorgon), Percy Herbert (One Million Years B.C.) and future director Bryan Forbes (Quatermass 2). The talky script zeroes in on the basic absurdity of modern warfare, which now begins with atrocities and the killing of innocents. Captain Langford’s only crime is being efficient and wanting very badly to WIN, to prevail. His situation is a ‘cold equation’ in which many would say there is no correct thing to do. If captured, the patrol might be tortured and killed for any number of reasons. Langford’s actions put him at a terrible disadvantage with the Japanese Major, whose code of conduct has a different moral foundation.
Director Val Guest was always looking for something different in film subjects; he steers this ‘bad news’ war film away from melodramatic extremes. No veneer of emotional soundtrack music guides our feelings one way or another, offering disapproval here and sympathy elsewhere. The film takes place on interior jungle sets, often waist-deep in water. The usual pitfalls of such fakery are avoided by excellent set design, very good lighting and direction that restricts what we see. The anamorphic Megascope framing gives us just enough spacial context to avoid total claustrophobia. Unlike Guest’s Blood Island there are no specific graphic horrors to contemplate, just the evil that men do. Armies are no different than any other association of men with weapons, under stress. Men will kill for necessity, but also for expediency’s sake and sometimes just out of convenience.
The Val Guest audio interviews help us to understand Yesterday’s Enemy, which in England invited considerable critical controversy yet remains all but unknown in the United States. Hammer solicited the opinion of veteran officers for its initial press handouts, one of which is reproduced in the illustrated booklet. We also get excerpts from the novelization.
The ‘Women of Hammer’ extra this time around highlights the uncredited Edwina Caroll, who is best known as the zero-gravity Pan Am stewardess in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The Stranglers of Bombay
1957 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 81 min.
Starring: Guy Rolfe, Jan Holden, Andrew Cruickshank, George Pastell, Marne Maitland, Paul Stassino, Allan Cuthbertson, David Spenser, Tutte Lemkow, Marie Devereux.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editor: Alfred Cox, James Needs
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by David Zelag Goodman
Produced by Michael Carreras, Anthony Hinds, Kenneth Hyman
Directed by Terence Fisher
This new disc presentation of the notorious historical horror thriller The Stranglers of Bombay, is reviewed separately by Glenn Erickson at Cinesavant, at this link. Another highly recommended treatment of this same subject is 1988’s The Deceivers, produced by Merchant-Ivory and starring Pierce Brosnan.
The Terror of the Tongs
1957 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 80 min.
Starring: Geoffrey Toone, Christopher Lee, Yvonne Monlaur, Marne Maitland, Charles Lloyd Pack, Barbara Brown, Burt Kwouk.
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Film Editor: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Original Music: James Bernard
Written by Jimmy Sangster
Produced by Michael Carreras, Kenneth Hyman, Anthony Nelson-Keys
Directed by Anthony Bushell
1960’s The Terror of the Tongs is Hammer’s attempt at a Fu Manchu- like story, centering on a 1910 Chinese gang called The Dragon Tong and its gangster kingpin in Hong Kong. The great Christopher Lee is Chung King, wearing eye makeup that makes his eyelids begin halfway down his nose. Filmed in bright color and directed by Laurence Olivier associate Anthony Bushell, Tongs is a silly, racist tale that would seem to be an allegory for Communist subversion. Working for evil Tong leaders in Mainland China, Chung King wants to keep anti-Tong, pro-Brit Chinese merchants from learning more about his organization, which steals cargoes, extorts money from businesses and controls the slave trade.
The Tong also imports opium to Hong Kong, an evil that the film forgets was commenced by the British fifty years before as a means of pacifying the natives. The Tong assassins murder Chung King’s enemies with hatchets while ‘hopped up’ on the narcotic — a laughable misreading of the effects of opiates. After killing anti-Tong agent Mr. Ming (Burt Kwouk, The Pink Panther’s Cato) Chung King’s goons inadvertently murder the daughter of sea captain Jackson Sale (Geoffrey Toone). They then spend the rest of the movie fumbling the relatively simple job of silencing Sale as well. One Tong agent dispatched to kill Sale, instead blabs every detail about the Tong’s activities. The strongest scene sees Chung King instruct his brutish torturer (Milton Reid) to stick needles into Sale’s chest: “Tell me – have you ever had your bones scraped?”
Yvonne Monlaur, the star of the same year’s The Brides of Dracula looks darn good as Miss Lee. Decked out in China Doll garb, her tight dress is slit almost to the waist. Monlaur’s French accent is so strong, when she laments that there is no city in the world where she would fit in, we immediately think, Paris! Lazy screenwriter Jimmy Sangster frequently demonstrates his unenlightened, Sax Rohmer attitude. Miss Lee tells Captain Sale that Occidentals are foolish to think that Orientals will ever be civilized. Then she tells him for the umpteenth time that her only desire is to stay with him and ‘take care of him.’ By the way, those tight silk dresses Monlaur wears come in red, green and purple. Every possible Asian slur is here, undiluted.
The unforgettable (yet still un-billed) Milton Reid is Chung King’s most agreeably sadistic henchman. We recognized Reid’s one-of-a-kind face in 55 Days at Peking and Dr. No, where he did not receive credit either. Good actor Charles Lloyd Pack has fun playing make-believe as a murderous Tong doctor, and Marne Maitland is back as a ragged dockside beggar who appears to suffer from a skin disease — his face is crumbling away.
Tongs has always been something of a disappointment — the script generates little excitement, Anthony Bushell’s direction is dull, and many sets look cobbled from the bargain bin at Pier One Imports. The same multicolored bead screens hang in several different sets. Even the lighting is flat and ugly. Geoffrey Toone is an unappealing hero for a Yellow Peril tale; his Captain Sale solves problems with his fists, taking care not to dislodge the heavy makeup on the Anglo actors. The movie mishandles unpleasant scenes (the death of Sale’s daughter) and makes others inadvertently funny, as when Mr. Ming’s bullets fail to stop a charging Tong assassin. Ming just stands there and lets the man bury a hatchet in his chest.
In a preview of his series of Fu Manchu movies, Christopher Lee is appropriately grave but does little but sit and mumble threats in a vague monotone. The favorite Hammer actor may be the sole good reason to see the picture, even if the production fails to give his fanciful Chung King an aura of mystery. Anyone looking to score points about racist attitudes in film will find a wealth of offensive examples — the picture displays its demeaning stereotypes proudly. Whereas the wild card writer David Zelag Goodman layered The Stranglers of Bombay with shades of political complexity, The Terror of the Tongs’ Jimmy Sangster doesn’t have much to contribute.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror is a fine presentation of these often-overlooked thrillers. All are in extremely fine shape. Fans that have seen earlier DVD releases will be impressed by the extra detail of the images and the enhanced clarity of the soundtracks. The Stranglers of Bombay can be viewed in three alternate versions — one censored for England, another censored for America, and a third copy that includes all the material from both versions.
I didn’t touch on all the extras, which are listed below. Each disc comes in its own separate keep case, with its own booklet; collectors that want to file war movies separately from horror pictures will be pleased. I only ran across one quizzical error that showed production haste: a mention of Val Guest’s The Abominable Snowman is illustrated with a still from Toho’s Half Human. Oops.
Hopefully Powerhouse Indicator’s example will lead other studios that hold rights to Hammer titles (Warners’ especially) to release them in similar quality editions, or to license them out to companies willing to do so. This set offers curious fans a wealth of information about these coveted productions. We’re hoping that the next collection of Columbia titles will bring us the culmination of Hammer’s B&W science fiction efforts, Joseph Losey’s These are the Damned. It was severely cut and its release was spread out across three years; it’s production history is loaded with unanswered questions.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hammer Volume 3 Blood and Terror
Movies: Blood: Very Good, Enemy: Excellent, Stranglers: Excellent, Tongs: Fair
Supplements (from Indicator): New documentaries with Jonathan Rigby and Dr Josephine Botting, produced and directed by Marcus Hearn; The Stranglers of Bombay audio commentary with screenwriter David Zelag Goodman; The Terror of the Tongs audio commentary with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster, assistant editor Chris Barnes, and Marcus Hearn; The Guardian Interview with Val Guest (2005): archival audio recording with director Guest and Jonathan Rigby at London’s National Film Theatre; interviews with actors Barbara Brown (The Terror of the Tongs) and Edwina Carroll (Yesterday’s Enemy), props master Peter Allchorne (The Terror of the Tongs) and assistant costume designer Yvonne Blake (The Terror of the Tongs); The Stranglers of Bombay and the Censor (2018): ex-BBFC examiner Richard Falcon discusses the film’s history with the Board; David Huckvale on James Bernard (2018): an appreciation of the renowned composer, Steve Chibnall on Val Guest (2018): a new appreciation of the director, Hammer’s Women (2018): a series of new appreciations of the female players from the films: Mary Merrall, Edwina Carroll, Jan Holden and Yvonne Monlaur; Original theatrical trailers; The Stranglers of Bombay ‘Trailers from Hell’ commentary with Brian Trenchard-Smith (2013), Image Galleries; Illustrated booklets with new essays by Kim Newman, Neil Mitchell, James Oliver and Samm Deighan, archival materials, contemporary reviews, and film credits.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 11, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson