Yesterday’s Enemy (1959)


Yesterday’s Enemy is a 1959 Hammer Films British war film in MegaScope directed by Val Guest and starring Stanley Baker, Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Gordon Jackson set in the Burma Campaign during World War II. It is based on a 1958 BBC teleplay by Peter R. Newman, who turned it into a three-act play in 1960. Gordon Jackson repeated his role from the BBC teleplay as Sgt. Ian Mackenzie. Columbia Pictures co-produced the film with Hammer Films in an agreement for five co-productions a year with Columbia providing half the finance. The film was shot on indoor sets in black and white and Megascope. The film has no musical score. Director Val Guest later said that Yesterday’s Enemy was one of his films of which he was the most proud. In 2013, film magazine Total Film included Yesterday’s Enemy in their list of 50 Amazing Films You’ve Probably Never Seen.

The lost remnants of a British Army Brigade headquarters make their way through the Burmese jungle, retreating from the Japanese. The group, numbering over thirty, is led by Captain Langford because the most senior officer, the Brigadier, is one of several who are wounded. The group arrives at a small village which is enemy-occupied. After a short but costly battle, the small detachment of Japanese in the village is wiped out.

Among the Japanese dead is a colonel, an unusually high-ranking officer to be with such a small group. The dead officer possesses a map with unknown markings. A Burmese man is caught trying to flee and he is revealed to be an informer employed by the Japanese. Langford interrogates the man about the dead Colonel and the map and when he refuses to talk, Langford selects two adult males from amongst the villagers, saying he will have them both executed if the informer does not co-operate. The villagers plead for mercy and the Doctor, a civilian correspondent named Max and the Padre angrily protest at Langford’s decision but the Captain is un-moved. The two hostages are killed by Langford’s men, prompting the informer to begin devulging what he knows. The map contains plans for a major Japanese flanking attack which aims to cut off the British army from its supply lines and leave it surrounded. Langford is anxious to send a warning back to British lines but the group’s radio has been damaged.

Langford orders Sgt McKenzie to execute the informer and then announces that the British wounded are to be left behind so as not to impede the group’s progress back to Allied territory. The Doctor, along with Max and the Padre, are enraged by the decision but the dying Brigadier and the other wounded agree to remain in the village. The group’s presence in the village is discovered by enemy scouts so Langford decides to send Sgt Mckenzie, the Doctor and two others back to British HQ to raise the alarm, thinking a smaller group will have a better chance of getting through whilst the remainder of the group will remain to defend the village and delay the enemy as long as possible. Langford offers Max and the Padre the chance to go with them but the latter both refuse, suggesting that another two men go in their place. Mckenzie’s group leave the village but they are soon ambushed and all are killed.

Langford takes a party of men out to ambush the approaching Japanese, leaving Lt Hastings and the others to defend the village. The surviving Burmese evacuate, an English-speaking woman remarking bitterly to Hastings, ‘Japanese, British- all the same’. After a bloody engagement, Langford’s group are all killed or captured. The enemy, using the POWs as a human shield, approach the village but Langford shouts at Hastings to open fire. Just before the village falls, the radio operators manage to send out a weak signal from the repaired set to alert HQ of the enemy’s plans, although it is not clear if the message gets through. The handful of surviving British are now all POWs. The Japanese commander, Major Yamazaki, who speaks English, demands to know about the missing Colonel and the map, suspecting that Langford knows about the attack plans.

Yamazaki lines up all of the prisoners in front of a firing squad and informs Langford that unless he agrees to talk, the Major will order his troops to shoot them. Given just two minutes to make his choice, Langford bolts towards the transmitter in an attempt to signal HQ but he is shot dead. Impressed by Langford’s courage, Yamazaki bows to his corpse, saying ‘I would have done the same’ whilst outside, the Padre calmly leads the other prisoners in the Lord’s Prayer as they await their execution. The final image is a silent shot of the Btitish war memorial in Burma.