The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Yesterday's Enemy

War movies can be categorized into a wide variety of sub-genres, but two really stick with me the more I think about.  I'm struggling to come up with one that doesn't fit into one or the other in some way, anti-war and then a more heroic look at war.  Anti-war will typically get better critical reviews, think Platoon, Paths of Glory, Born on the 4th of July, Full Metal Jacket, and many, many more.  One that has been almost completely forgotten because of its controversial story is 1959's Yesterday's Enemy, a movie years ahead of its time that still packs a punch over 50 years later.

Anti-war movies typically have to tread that fine line between powerful and moving emotionally and just being preachy.  'Enemy' is just too honest, too forthright with the realities of war to be preachy.  It drags you into this story and quickly dispatches any notions you have about war movies you've seen in the past.  Sure, there's some genre characters, but they don't act like characters you've seen before.  These are soldiers fighting a hopeless mission where chances of survival range from slim to none, but they continue on because it's what they do, they fight.  Later after the plot review, I'm going to give major plot points away so be forewarned as you continue reading.

After a surprise Japanese attack, the ragtag remnants of a British battalion trudge through the Burmese jungle hoping to hook up with the main line of defense or at least find other wandering units.  Commanded by the highest ranking surviving officer, Capt. Langford (Stanley Baker), the survivors -- totaling between 40 and 50 men -- stumble across an isolated village where they find information about an upcoming Japanese offensive.  It's news that could save the lives of hundreds and maybe thousands of men if it reaches headquarters.  The radio is out though, forcing Langford to send a small squad forward with the news led by his right hand man, Sgt. McKenzie (Gordon Jackson), hoping the news reaches HQ.  With the Japanese not far behind, Langford stays behind in the village with the rest of the men, trying to buy as much time as possible while maybe, just maybe, surviving the coming firefight against impossible odds.

With WWII, there is and was a perception that the Allies were all heroic soldiers while the Axis were all demonized murderers intent on mass slaughter.  War crimes were committed on both sides of the war in Europe and the Pacific no matter what people believe.  That's part of what sets this movie apart from others.  In 1959 just 14 years since the end of WWII, 'Enemy' shows British and Japanese troops committing acts that would have been prime grounds for a war crime trial.  But in the context of the movie, it's necessary.  Baker's Langford is going to do whatever it takes to protect his men. A war correspondent (Leo McKern) asks though at what point does it become an atrocity? Two innocent people killed? 10? 100? Thousands? Topping this off though, director Val Guest doesn't answer that question. It's up to the individual to decide. If one person dies, is it worth the 10 that were saved?

It's rare you see a war movie, especially a pre-Vietnam war movie, that is so brutally honest.  Baker orders the execution of two Burmese villagers to get a Japanese informant to spill his guts.  Later, a Japanese officer (Philip Ahn) puts Langford in a similar situation, demanding he tell him everything he knows or his men will be killed.  Neither man does this because they relish killing in cold blood.  They do it because if they want to do their job and win the war people have to die, often in horrific, blood curdling situations. The whole movie delivers a powerful message, but it really hits home in the end.  Not knowing that McKenzie's squad has been ambushed and killed, Langford and a handful of survivors stand fast till the bitter end.  It is an unknown futile effort, but maybe it is more courageous because of that.  They don't know their stubbornness is wasted, their bravery unnecessary.  It is their duty and they intend to live up to it.

Known most for his performances in Zulu and The Guns of Navarone, Baker delivers a career-best performance as Capt. Langford.  He's not a raging, homicidal maniac, he's an officer who thinks things out in detail.  Forced to make extremely difficult decisions that will knowingly cause death in his own ranks, Langford commands this battalion remnant with a bigger picture in mind.  This isn't a hero or a villain, it's one man in an uncompromising situation who has to make decisions that could have horrific consequences and then has to live with it.  The conscience of the movie comes in three characters, a priest (Guy Rolfe), McKern's correspondent, and a medical officer (David Oxley), all questioning the humanity of what they're doing, Rolfe and McKern especially delivering strong performances.  Along with Jackson's Sgt. character, rounding out the unit among many others is Percy Herbert, David Lodge, and Richard Pasco as Lt. Hastings, the young officer dealing with the inner demons that tell him survival is a better option than blind courage. 

Filmed mostly on an indoor set, 'Enemy' still manages to give the feeling of being in the humid, sweaty Burmese jungle with a claustrophobic surrounding that gives the perception of being closed in with nowhere to go.  Guest films in black and white -- adding to the stark feeling -- and makes his soldiers look like soldiers who've been jungle fighting for months.  They're sweaty, wear unkempt beards, and their uniforms are in tatters.  Like everything else in this forgotten war movie, it all rings true.  Forgotten because of it's controversial subject matter and portrayal of Allied soldiers, Yesterday's Enemy is one of the best war movies I've ever seen. Honest, brutal, incredibly realistic, and a must see movie.

Yesterday's Enemy <---TCM trailer (1959): ****/****

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