Hammer and the horrors of war

HammerHammer didn’t just make gothic horror; some of its lurid horror was closer to real experiences.

Hammer Films was based in studios in a converted house in Bray, Berkshire – see the opening sequence to the Hammer House of Horror TV show from the 1980s. It churned out B movies galore and was most famous for its Dracula, Frankenstein, Werewolf and Mummy horror movies from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that kept teenage kids up until all hours of the morning.

Camp on Blood Island was the company’s second war feature after The Steel Bayonet. It was, according to the shooting script ‘dedicated to the thousands of men and women who, in the last war, suffered unspeakable atrocities in the Far East. This is not just a story – it is based on the brutal truth.’

Jack McNaughton
Jack McNaughton – second from Right as First Prisoner

While Camp on Blood Island was in production another POW movie Bridge over the River Kwai was awaiting release.

The film told the story of a POW camp in Malaya in which the brutal commandant Colonel Yamamitsu (Ronald Radd) and sadistic second in command Captain Sakamura (Marne Maitland) hold sway over the POWs. Yamamitsu had ordered the prisoners to be killed should Japan lose the war, knowing that he would be condemned for war crimes.

The prisoners’ CO Colonel Lambert (Andre Morell) learns of the Japanese surrender and desperately tries to keep the news from their Japanese captors. Hammer’s most prolific actor, Michael Ripper plays a Japanese driver who gets his comeuppance in a notorious throttling scene.

Directed by Val Guest, the movie would perhaps be considered controversial these days – and perhaps risible in terms of realism – not because of its brutality but because the main Japanese roles are played by Western actors with taped eyes and makeup – including poor old Michael Ripper.

More brutal was the opening scene in which a POW is forced to dig his own grave before being executed by firing squad. Later, to punish an escape attempt a group of prisoners is singled out and taken hostage and later executed by sword, a scene that features in the promotional posters for the movie.

Camp on Blood Island

Prisoner Number One was played by Jack McNaughton. His part in the film was perhaps ironic because he had been a prisoner of the Japanese himself, surviving many privations before eventual liberation in August 1945. The expression on his face as one of the prisoners is executed is perhaps more from real experience than it is acting.

Camp on Blood Island

Interesting, because Camp on Blood Island, according to the viewing notes in its Columbia Pictures DVD release say that at the time of its release its producers were accused of exploitation of atrocities for entertainment value. There were also accusations that the film fermented racial hatred.

I doubt Jack could have been accused of exploitation. Moreover, I think he may have found the experience cathartic as he came to terms with his own experiences at the hands of the Japanese.

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