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Tuesday Morning Foreign Region DVD Report: "The Camp on Blood Island" (Val Guest, 1958)

If Andrew Sarris had been British, and had endeavored to write a book called The British Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929 to 1968 (I know, I know, but bear with me), where might he have placed the journeyman director Val Guest? Guest's career as a writer and director produced a variety of films in all manner of genres, both reputable and not so much, but who really hit his stride in the 1950s and early 60s, working largely for Hammer. At that studio he made several dynamic, absorbing sci-fi, horror, suspense and war films, two in the popular "Quatermass" series and at least one, 1961's apocalyptic The Day The Earth Caught Fire a bonafide B classic. But would one call him an auteur? Classify his work as "Lightly Likable?" His output is sufficiently unpretentious that one couldn't say he presents "Less Than Meets The Eye." How about "Expressive Esoterica?"

It's an interesting question, but one ultimately without an answer. Which doesn't mean that a dip into Guest's work isn't a wonderful experience for a certain type of cinephile, a cinephile who understands the conventions and strictures of the B picture and doesn't get too worked up over them. In 1958's The Camp on Blood Island, for instance, a pretty searing tale of a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp whose inmates are painfully aware that its psychotic commander will massacre his charges once he discovers the news that Japan has lost the war, the Japanese characters are largely played by British character actors. And a lot of the time it's pretty obvious that this is the case. If you're really bothered by that sort of thing—and my point is that the type of cinephile we're talking about is the type of cinephile who, well, isn't—then this picture is not going to work for you. If, on the other hand...

Sony's recent domestic release of a six-film set titled Hammer Icons of Suspense, and featuring Losey's great These Are The Damned and no Guest pictures (UPDATE: Correction, it contains Guest's Stop Me Before I Kill, as a below commenter noted; the process by which I made this mistake is too laborious to recount, but I apologize), nonetheless occasioned a sidebar discussion of Guest in the comments section of Dave Kehr's blog. One commenter, Colin R., cites a Sight and Sound DVD review (which I haven't been able to track down, alas) that characterizes Blood Island as "a termite art version of The Bridge on the River Kwai." One doesn't have to see Kwai as a white elephant film in order to agree with that assessment.

The hallmarks of Guest's best storytelling are here: a briskness, a confidence in establishing a sense of place and situation, a lack of sentimentality. Also noteworthy is Guest's sense of time, or I should say pacing. In a picture less than an hour and twenty minutes long, he doesn't drop the big reveal—the fact that the war is over, and that this information has been driving the seemingly illogical actions of the film's British hero, Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell, who also happens to be in Kwai)—until 26 whole minutes into the picture. This shows his priorities—building suspense, showing behavior, letting us know precisely what's at stake in the story.

Once the reveal is made, the action moves on a number of planes that is, again, mildly surprising to see in such a small-scaled picture. A plot involving participation from a nearby woman's prisoner camp; the gung-ho attitude of the new prisoner, an American officer who won't give up info to his captors (Phil Brown's character almost seems a thank-you from British cinema for all the American WWII films portraying stoic, non-talking Brits), and the will-he-or-won't-he situation involving an older prisoner, the self-styled would-be negotiator Beattie (Walter Fitzgerald).

"I'm a trained diplomat, I know how to deal with the Japanese," Beattie protests at one point. He sounds rather like...well, Dr. Carrington in Christian Nyby's 1951 The Thing From Another World. That sap. In any event, "I know how to deal with the Japanese" sort of qualifies as famous last words in this context, but if you think you know what's gonna happen, you are actually likely wrong—Beattie's eventual fate is another one of the picture's surprises. And yes, the Japanese characters here are given about as much depth as James Arness' intellectual carrot in the prior Hawks-produced science fiction film. Not just the villains, they represent an entirely malevolent Other, which represents another convention that's not likely to be appreciated by certain sniffy humanist types. Well, I was never one for nice World War II pictures myself. And one can certainly find more balanced portrayals of the Japanese in other films—Kon Ichikawa's, for instance! In the meantime, this is what it is, and what it is is pretty exciting and dark and so fast-paced and ruthless that it places pretty much its sole moment of reflection underneath its end credits. The Sony Region 2 PAL UK disc boasts a really superb widescreen transfer and has a nifty, well-designed booklet featuring lots of ace archival photos and a solid historical essay by Marcus Hearn. Recommended.

The “termite art” comment (mine!) appears in the March 2010 S&S. (I like “Kwai” too.) It’s not as lucidly structured as Sarris’s book, but Ray Durgnat’s “A Mirror for England” almost fits the bill of “The British Cinema, Directors and Directions, 1929 to 1968”. Well, 1945–59, with some excursions into the 1930s, some into the 1960s. (He provided a few updates in the 1970s, in Film Comment.) And he does have some snazzy labels a la Sarris — who was/is(?) a fan. Though it’s dotted about the place, there’s a fair old bit on “the cinema of Val Guest” in there too. Some of it under the very Durgnat subheading “Gangrene – British Style”.
Sony’s recent Icons of Suspense collection does in fact contain one Guest film: the wonderfully titled Stop Me Before I Kill (released in the UK as The Full Treatment). It’s a typically solid effort by Guest, though viewers who know their Hammer thrillers will be expecting the twist toward the end. At any rate, kudos to Sony for calling Guest “renowned” on the packaging. As for Blood Island, I saw it on TV about 20 years ago, and I’ve never forgotten it. Here’s hoping Sony releases it and makes it better known in R1 land!

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