Burma, 1942, and a brigade of British troops desperately make their way through the sprawling jungle in a bid to escape the Japanese army. Swamps and wounded men slow their progress when, at the point of exhaustion, they discover an enemy occupied village. A brief fight occurs and all the Japanese soldiers are killed. Among the dead is a high-ranking colonel carrying a map covered with coded markings. The brigade’s leader, Captain Langford, suspects the map to be of vital importance and when a potential informer is captured Langford’s desire to save Allied lives forces the British Captain to contemplate terrible actions.
‘Yesterday’s Enemy’ (1959) gets straight to the heart of its issue — what is justified in Total War? When does killing become murder? Can you have murder when war is cruelty and death? This is made all the more shocking by the fact that, early on, it is the British who commit the war crimes, who break the Geneva Convention. A war correspondent embedded with the troops and the company’s padre raise the moral objections to the Captain’s actions but things are muddied even further when it seems that the Captain might’ve been right all along. Nothing is given easy answers here, possibly because there aren’t any.
Not that ‘Yesterday’s Enemy’ is simply a smartly written, well acted think-piece discussing ethics and morals as all this plays out whilst the British soldiers evade Japanese patrols, frantically attempt to contact base or engage in fierce fighting to stop the enemy discovering their plans might have been captured. With director Val Guest making ingenious use of limited sets to evoke the oppressive Burmese jungle the atmosphere of the movie is one of overwhelming claustrophobia and imminent death.
The acting is phenomenal from the entire cast and it’s a great one too. Leo McKern, Gordon Jackson, Guy Rolfe, Brian Forbes, Philip Ahn all bring weight and believability to their roles but it is Stanley Baker as the morally tortured Captain Langford who provides the powerhouse performance, reminding us once again of just how good an actor he was.
‘Yesterday’s Enemy’ is an excellent film and one of the smartest and most interesting British war movies made. Incredibly tense, very well shot and desperately brutal it gets right to the issue of combat and doesn’t flinch away from it, looking it straight in the eyes and asking questions. The only question left, along with all the dead bodies, being are there any answers?