Thursday, February 21, 2013


Britain's Hammer Films is of course best known for the several Gothic horror pictures that were produced by the company from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. But Hammer made various other types of pictures as well, including murder mysteries, pirate adventures, crime thrillers, and war movies. Some of these less renowned non-horrors are actually more entertaining, and more interesting, than the company's monster movies. One of Hammer's most famous (and infamous) productions has recently been released on DVD-R by Sony's Choice Collection. It's the WWII POW melodrama THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND.

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is one of the few Hammer movies I had never seen. I was well aware of it's reputation as being one of Hammer's most exploitative stories. It was released to theaters in 1958 under a huge amount of controversy in the U. K. A number of British critics felt that CAMP was just an exercise in making money off of wartime atrocities. They also felt that this was a story that shouldn't have been told in the first place--World War II had only ended a dozen years ago, and Hammer was opening up old wounds. As you can see by the poster above, Hammer went all out in the publicity, and CAMP made a lot of money (the controversy over the film more than likely helped).

I've seen just about every Hammer movie ever made, so it's not very often now that I get to see one for the first time. CAMP is almost never shown on American TV--probably because it's a Hammer film that isn't a monster movie, and also because it doesn't feature Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee. Another reason for it never being on TV is because there's a politically incorrect aspect to CAMP--but if you know anything about how the Japanese treated POWs, the movie is probably too tame.

As the story begins, the British inmates of the Malayan Blood Island POW camp are close to the breaking point. The senior officer in charge, Col. Lambert (Andre Morell) finds out through a secret radio that Japan has surrendered a few days ago. Lambert also knows that the Japanese camp commander has vowed to kill all the prisoners, and all the women and children of another nearby camp, if Japan is defeated. Lambert has to try to delay the truth about the war from getting out, while at the same time figure out a way to get help from outside the camp.

CAMP may have been notorious when it was first released, but now it plays as a standard WWII POW tale. Most of the "atrocities" happen off-screen. Director Val Guest gives the film a bleak atmosphere, and he's helped by Cinematographer Jack Asher's stark black & white photography. The actual camp was built right outside Bray Studios, located near Windsor. If you look real close during a burial scene in the early part of the film, you can see part of nearby Oakley Court, an edifice used dozens of times by numerous British horror films. Another well-known Hammer stomping ground, the forest at Black Park (located next to Pinewood Studios), was also used for some exteriors.

The cast is filled with various Hammer veterans or veterans-to-be. Andre Morell's Col. Lambert is a man of steely determination. Lambert tries to be as unemotional as possible, in order to hold his men together. Morell does his usual fine job. If Cushing & Lee were Hammer's Karloff & Lugosi, then Andre Morell was Hammer's Claude Rains. Among the faces familiar to Hammer fans are Richard Wordsworth, Michael Gwynn, Marne Maitland (an Anglo-Indian actor who played a number of "foreign bad guys" for Hammer), and Milton Reid (the British equivalent to Tor Johnson). There's also Michael Ripper, who probably made more Hammer films than any other actor. Usually in a Hammer film Ripper was in front of a bar or behind CAMP he plays a Japanese soldier. Seeing the friendly-faced Ripper as an Oriental villain is a bit disconcerting, to say the least.

Milton Reid
Mention must be made of the appearance of Barbara Shelley, one of Hammer's most famous leading ladies. It's ironic that the gorgeous Shelley's first major role for the company was in such an unglamorous part. And playing an American pilot is none other than Phil Brown, who will forever be known as Owen Lars, Luke Skywalker's uncle in STAR WARS. (The original STAR WARS has several connections to Hammer Films.)

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is certainly not as notorious as it's history has made it out to be. It's a well-done, above average WWII thriller...but it's certainly not on the level, of, say THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (a movie which may have inspired Hammer to make CAMP). What really makes CAMP interesting is Val Guest's crisp, efficient direction. Despite the low budget and the exploitative story angle, Guest brings a understated realism to the production, like he would to all the movies he directed for Hammer. Guest would go on to direct another WWII drama for Hammer, the superior YESTERDAY'S ENEMY.

THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND is certainly a worthy addition to any Hammer fan's DVD collection. WWII buffs may also be interested in checking out this somewhat rare movie. My reaction on seeing it for the first time? It's a typical Hammer's more interesting than other big-budget films with the same premise, and another example of how Hammer could do more with a little than most studios did with a lot.

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