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The British World War II drama Yesterday's Enemy (1959) was tagged in its home country as "the most controversial...ever filmed," largely because it took the unprecedented step of suggesting the British were not always honorable in combat. A brigade, cut off from its main division in the Burmese jungle in 1942, comes upon a small force of Japanese holed up in a remote village. The British troops defeat their enemy, discovering an important top-secret map on the body of a slain Japanese commander. Suspecting one of the villagers secretly knows more about the map than he will tell, the brigade commander begins to execute innocent villagers to force a confession from the person in question, an act that draws horrified condemnation from the brigade's chaplain and a war correspondent embedded with the British troops. When the commander and his men get the information and try to return it to headquarters, they are captured by Japanese soldiers, and suffer the same treatment as the villagers.
Yesterday's Enemy was nominated for four British Academy (BAFTA) Awards, including two for director Val Guest for Best British Film and Best Film from Any Source. Stanley Baker received a BAFTA Best Actor nomination for his performance as the brigade leader, as did Gordon Jackson as Sgt. MacKenzie. Breaking with the screen tradition of stiff-upper-lip gentlemen officers, Baker's Captain Langford is willing to commit war crimes for the success of his mission, and although he is often cruel to his own men and unwavering in his unpleasant and unpopular decisions, he will also risk his life to save his troops.
The film captures jungle warfare with remarkable realism considering it was shot entirely in the Shepperton and Bray studios in England. The confining production realities, however, serve to heighten the tension and create a claustrophobic atmosphere. Credit for that goes not only to Guest but to Arthur Grant, who not long after this became one of the most prolific cinematographers in the burgeoning British horror film industry of the late 50s through the early 70s; he was a contract artist at Hammer Films (which produced countless genre movies starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee).
According to a news item appearing in The Hollywood Reporter in March 1959, Yesterday's Enemy was part of a deal between Hammer and Hollywood's Columbia Pictures that stipulated Hammer would co-produce five films per year for Columbia over a period of five years. Columbia had previously acquired a 49 percent interest in Hammer's Bray Studios and under this new arrangement was to provide 50 percent of the financing for the co-productions.
Yesterday's Enemy also features Korean-American actor Philip Ahn as a Japanese officer. Ahn played hundreds of Chinese and Japanese characters during a busy career that stretched from 1934 until his death at 73 in 1978. Late in life, he found a whole new audience on American television as Master Kan in 38 episodes of the popular series Kung Fu. Ahn was the first Asian-American actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The authorship of the screenplay is credited to Peter R. Newman. Some sources, such as The Hollywood Reporter and the review in Variety, said Newman adapted the script from his own stage or television play, but others claim it was an original story and screenplay.
Director: Val Guest
Producer: Michael Carreras
Screenplay: Peter R. Newman
Cinematography: Arthur Grant
Editing: Alfred Cox, James Needs
Production Design: Bernard Robinson
Cast: Stanley Baker (Langford), Guy Rolfe (Padre), Leo McKern (Max), Gordon Jackson (MacKenzie), David Oxley (Doctor).
by Rob Nixon