Sunday, May 8, 2011

YESTERDAY'S ENEMY (Val Guest, 1959)

A group of British soldiers slog through the swamp, their morality strangled by the thick jungle and the unfortunes of war. Val Guest directs this gritty and brutal story of a British Captain and his maddening dilemma, a man who decides that there is no justification in war…only means to an end.

Val Guest captures the stinking and sweating morass of the Burmese jungle like some fatal disease oozing from the very pores of the weary soldiers, fear of death etched upon their weary visages. Though obviously filmed on a soundstage, the believable acting and omnipresent jungle sounds weigh heavily upon the visual veracity of the tale. Guest eschews a musical soundtrack to heighten tension and allows the chirping of birds and inhuman howl of monkeys to imbue the film with an almost documentary style. A wonderful tracking shot through the swamp introduces us to the tired soldiers as they stumble upon a seemingly innocuous village. But they are soon ambushed by a Japanese patrol and innocent villagers are cut down in the crossfire. As the British bury the bodies of the dead there is no acknowledgment of responsibility: this is war. It soon becomes obvious that this is a bleak tale with no facile answers to easy questions.

Captain Langford discovers an important coded map and must make a captured Japanese sympathizer talk, but he can’t execute this man who may be able to decipher the code. Instead, he orders the execution of two civilians in order to convince the enemy to cooperate. The film doesn’t shy away from his decision with a melodramatic last minute reprieve or miracle: Langford has them murdered. Is this a war crime? The arguments are for and against are mouthed by the Priest, a newspaper correspondent, and the grunts under his command. Langford gets the information he needs from the sympathizer then has him executed to protect this important secret: the map shows the date, time, and exact places of a massive sneak attack on the British defenses in Burma. Langford’s questionable actions could save thousands of British lives.

The captain sends a small detachment into the jungle with the map to attempt to reach British command. He remains behind with a contingent to defend the village and buy time so the radio transmitter can be repaired. But Guest shows the audience a scene that Langford is unaware: the map never makes it to its destination because the soldiers are ambushed and killed. With the hope that he can radio the map coordinates, Langford and his men desperately defend the village but are captured and the survivors interrogated.

The Japanese commander is shown without prejudice, a soldier who must extract information from Langford in the same way Langford had to interrogate the sympathizer. Here all soldiers are faced with unfortunes decisions and are portrayed as neither monsters nor martyrs. The fear is palpable and suffocating and the outcome predetermined. These are men who realize that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or their own.

Final Grade: (A)

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