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Once notorious, now surprisingly tasteful
on 25 October 2011
One of Hammer's biggest hits in the late 50s when the studio was reinventing itself as one of Britain's most successful independent producers, The Camp on Blood Island has become something of a rarity in the subsequent decades: too violent for TV in the 60s, too politically incorrect today (it's not been seen on UK TV since 1979) and too downmarket for revival houses, its UK DVD release is the first opportunity many will have had to see what all the fuss was about. Despite looking to all intents and purposes like a quickie low-budget Bridge on the River Kwai knockoff - it even stars Andre Morell from Lean's film to lend it some gravitas - Hammer had submitted the script to the censors a year before its bigger budgeted rival and got a surprisingly soft ride for a script about atrocities in a Japanese P.O.W. camp. This may have possibly been because of its roots in a true story about prisoners faced with a massacre by their captors trying to keep the news from them that the war is over, but it didn't stop the UK critics tearing it to shreds as tasteless and racist exploitation or audiences flocking to it en mass, making it a huge box-office success.
While the film certainly has its fill of sadism and casual killing, it's surprisingly tasteful, the black and white photography downplaying the blood and the beheadings kept off camera and director Val Guest and cinematographer Jack Asher doing a surprisingly good job of hiding his low budget and British locations. Unfortunately there's no hiding some dismal miscasting of the Japanese roles. While the extras were played by Chinese waiters, predominantly in long shot, the more substantial roles went to the likes of Marne Maitland, Ronald Radd, Lee Montague, St Bruno tobacco ad man Milton Reid and, looking more like a Moomin than a sentry in possibly the most ridiculous role of his career, Hammer favorite Michael Ripper ("Hey, Tommy, you likee cigarette?"): forget political incorrectness, it's the atrocious makeup and dismal accents that make them so hard to watch, consequently undermining much of the grim, fatalistic mood the first two thirds of the film manage to conjure up. Those cast as the prisoners fare much better, with strong turns from Morell and the magnificent Barbara Shelley and a more than respectable supporting cast including Carl Mohner (not really mastering the Dutch accent), Walter Fitzgerald, Michael Goodliffe, Michael Gwynn and Richard Wordsworth. At around 80 minutes the film holds up surprisingly well for the first two-thirds before the war movie heroics and plot contrivances take over as soon as a hidden crate of hand grenades make their appearance and payback is added to the menu.
It's not a film you can recommend unconditionally, but if you can make allowances for the miscasting and the ending it's a pretty decent effort even if it isn't one of Hammer's classics, and Sony's UK DVD offers a fine 2.35:1 widescreen transfer with an excellent booklet with very detailed background information by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn.