Saturday, May 18, 2013


During World War II, on an island off the coast of Malaysia, the Japanese have established two prison camps, one for men and one for women. Commander Yamamitsu and his assistant Sakamura run the men's camp in a brutal fashion, torturing and killing men for trying to escape, and taking hostages whom they threaten to kill when they want information. If the Japanese win the war, Yamamitsu says he will let the prisoners establish new lives in Japan, but if they lose, he will burn down both camps and slaughter all the inmates. As it happens, the Japanese have already surrendered, but because the camp radio is out of commission, Yamamitsu doesn’t know this yet. However, the prisoners, led by Col. Lambert, do know, thanks to a secret radio in possession of a Dutch prisoner (nicknamed, of course, "Dutch"). They're trying to keep the Japanese from finding out, hoping they'll get liberated by the Allies first, but eventually a diplomat named Beattie, who rarely agrees with Lambert's leadership, cracks and tries to spill the beans.

This film has a reputation for a couple of reasons. When it came out, it was seen as a much-needed antidote to the general whitewashing of the behavior of the Japanese army during the war. It opens with a claim that it's based on a true story, but even with all the powers of the Internet, I could not verify that—though a novelization of the movie became a bestseller. The other big selling point of the movie was its graphic depictions of gore and torture. In terms of explicitness, from today's vantage point, it would barely garner a PG rating, but at least two scenes are fairly brutal in tone: the opening in which Peters, a captured escapee, is forced to dig his own grave before he is shot and falls dead into it; and a later scene involving a beheading. An effective non-graphic scene has Sakamura answer the doctor's plea for fresh bandages by throwing the bloody bandages that had been wrapped around Peters' torso on the ground and saying, "He doesn’t need these anymore." Andre Morell is a little too low-key as Lambert; theoretically, there's a plot-point reason for this—he is keeping news of the surrender from the men—but the performance could have used a bit more fire. Hammer horror icon Barbara Shelley plays a female prisoner who makes a daring escape near the end with an American (Phil Brown) who arrives on the island. All of the three major Japanese roles are played by Anglo actors; the best is Marne Maitland as the martinet Sakamura, the villain you love to hate. [TCM]

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