Wednesday, 6 December 2017

POW Double Bill: The Camp on Blood Island (1958) The Secret of Blood Island (1964)

Mention Hammer Films to anyone and the first thing that comes to mind is horror. But Hammer were actually responsible for a variety of film genres and styles and in the late '50s and early '60s they produced two war movies that proved to be as  spine chilling and unflinching as anything they produced featuring Dracula or Frankenstein's Monster. These films were 1958's The Camp On Blood Island, and its 1964 sequel, The Secret of Blood Island.

"Never before  has any film portrayed with such honesty and accuracy, the tormented sufferings, brutality, heroism, and degradation that were the lot of the POW under his demonic slave masters, the Japanese. I believe everyone in the so-called civilised world should see this magnificent picture, absorb and digest it, and realise that this could happen again. For the animal minds of our former captors will never change and all ex-POWs know this"

So wrote the journalist Leo Rawlings on the release of Hammer's hit 1958 movie, The Camp on Blood Island. Strong words, but perhaps understandably so given his own experiences as a POW in Singapore.

Unfortunately there hasn't been any mainstream or widespread ability to take Rawlings' advice and see, absorb and digest the film for thirty-eight years now. Despite The Camp On Blood Island being televised in Britain on a handful of occasions throughout the 1970s, the film that was one of the most popular hits in British cinema in 1958, has effectively been banned from our screens since 1979, presumably (and at the risk of sounding like an uber twunt Farage-a-like here) on the grounds of political correctness. Granted, it's trying and deeply regrettable to see so many white British actors (Ronald Radd, Lee Montague and, perhaps least convincing of all, Michael Ripper!) don offensive make-up and accents to play Japanese soldiers but, given that so many of the films of this era indulged in such dubious casting and still manage to get broadcast today, one is left to wonder if the real bone of contention is in fact the light in which the Japanese are portrayed in the film. Hammer certainly live up to their reputation for X rated filmmaking here, depicting the cold blooded executions and brutal torture of British POWs at the hands of their captors in an unflinching manner (along with the same lashings of 'Kensington gore' they indulged in for their horror output), but the film's truth - it's wholly unempathetic and hardline depiction of the Japanese forces - isn't in any way different from any number of Japanese POW films, from the recent Unbroken and The Railway Man right the way back to this film's more contemporary stablemate, David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is rightly regarded as a classic. Perhaps there's another reason then why this rattlingly good film, an ostensible Hammer 'B movie', hasn't seen the light of day for almost forty years - snobbery?

The film was said to have been based on a true story that Hammer's Anthony Nelson Keys had heard from someone who had been a Japanese POW. Seeing the potential for a movie, Keys took the story to Michael Carreras who commissioned a script from John Manchip White. The film went into production in the summer of 1957 with Val Guest as director and boasts an impressive cast, including André Morell (who also starred in Lean's POW epic) as the senior British officer, Carl Möhner, Barbara Shelley and the perpetually pained looking Richard Wordsworth, the star of Hammer's The Quatermass Xperiment, as a deeply convincing near-starved and heroic prisoner.

Unfortunately, whilst The Camp on Blood Island proved to be a neglected gem, its sequel, The Secret of Blood Island, most emphatically isn't.

This belated offering from Hammer came some six years after the success of their first foray to Blood Island and has proved to be equally little seen since its release; indeed, I can't find any transmission details for this one at all on BBC Genome (though it may have appeared on ITV as some reviewers on IMDB recall watching it on TV at least once in the '70s) Unlike its predecessor, it has not been released to DVD, making it all the more scarce, but it is available to watch online. Rather than a sequel, which would have been difficult given The Camp on Blood Island is set as the war ends, The Secret of Blood Island is, in fact, a prequel set around a year earlier. Filmed in colour, it stars a handful of actors from the original film but, confusingly, they are playing completely different characters. Those returning included Barbara Shelley, Edwin Richfield, Lee Montague and Michael Ripper.

Unfortunately, the whole film is simply ill advised. The original film was said to have been based on a true story related to the production team at Hammer by a former POW and, whilst the veracity of such a claim could be doubted, what wasn't in any doubt was the intentions behind such a film; The Camp On Blood Island may have been, to quote one critic, the examination of an open wound in Post War Britain,  but it was one that was perhaps required. This film may have toned the brutality down a little, but there's no denying its exploitative credentials as it is clearly a cash-in with so little to say as evinced by the unconvincing and dumb narrative from screenwriter John Gilling.

Barbara Shelley takes centre stage as an SOE agent shot down over Malaya and discovered by a work party of British POWs who agree to hide her in the camp until she's able to continue on with her mission. Quite how Shelley is meant to evade recognition by their Japanese captors with the sole disguise of an elfin cut and side-parting care of the camp barber is beyond me! Nevertheless, it's up to the likes of Jack Hedley, Charles Tingwell and Bill 'Compo' Owen, along with the aforementioned returnees Richfield and Montague, to ensure the game isn't up. Presiding over them is the camp commandant played  by Patrick Wymark - and if you thought Ronald Radd's heavily made up turn in the previous film was offensive and unbelievable, just wait until you see Wymark - and Michael Ripper as his sadistic lieutenant. Quite why Ripper was 'promoted' when his turn as a Japanese soldier was so laughably unconvincing in the first film is beyond me, but to his credit he has improved a little with this more central role and is leaps ahead of Wymark.

The film was directed by Quentin Lawrence, who has none of the skill of The Camp On Blood Island's helmer, Val Guest in the same way that Gilling has none of that earlier film's author Jon Manchip White's flair for telling such a story. I'd also quibble over the decision to place the end of the film at the front in the form of a pre-credit sequence, which adds nothing and effectively gives away everything. Unlike it's predecessor, this film failed to make much of an impact with audiences and so its retreat into relative obscurity is no real loss.

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