You'd be forgiven for imagining Dr. Moreau-type grotesqueries upon discovering the title of this film, but The Camp on Blood Island, Hammer's 1958 film is a story of real-life horror - the plight of British soldiers held captive by the Japanese as prisoners of war in the jungles of Southeast Asia during the Second World War. Made a year after Bridge on the River Kwai, Camp on Blood Island was an altogether grittier affair than David Lean's film and seen today after years of obscurity, it emerges as one of the Hammer's finest films of the '50's.
Set during the final days of the Pacific War, Blood Island POW camp is on the verge of disintegration. When Col. Lambert, leader of the prisoners learns of Japan's defeat by way of a smuggled radio, he puts together a plan to alert allies of the camp's existence before Commandant Yamamitsu's liquidation of the camp and its remaining prisoners. When an American navy pilot successfully escapes from the camp, matters come to a head and Lambert and his men are forced to overthrow their Japanese oppressors by any means necessary... Directed with customary skill by Val Guest, Camp on Blood Island was considerably strong meat for audiences back in 1958 with scenes of British prisoners being routinely humiliated, punished and executed, like the arresting opening sequence showing a British officer machine-gunned into a freshly dug grave. Not surprisingly the film was mired in controversy on its release, but the tough stance taken by Hammer was endorsed by the BBFC who gave Jon Manchip White's screenplay a relatively easy passage from page to screen, eliminating just a few instances of coarse language and grisly violence.
Despite Hammer's considerable success with The Curse of Frankenstein the studio was still some months away from signing a lucrative distribution deal with Columbia and financing for Camp on Blood Island was often perilous. Nevertheless Hammer's art department managed to turn a corner of the Bray back lot into a convincing stand-in for Malaysia with some cleverly placed palm trees, not to mention a well-oiled cast to conjure up a suitably sweaty atmosphere. Val Guest's lively, muscular direction and cameraman Jack Asher's expertly shot black & white 'scope photography lends the film an immediacy and a genuine sense of scale that belies it's humble budget. The film is well acted too, with a perfectly cast André Morell taking the lead as Lambert and joined by a roster of fine English character actors and familiar Hammer faces, including Michael Gwynn (from The Revenge of Frankenstein), Marne Maitland (The Reptile), Richard Wordsworth (The Quatermass Xperiment) and a fresh-faced Barbara Shelley in her first significant appearance for the studio.
Given the era it was made, it would be ungracious to criticize the film for being a simple, routine actioner but seeing it today, the caricaturing of the Japanese as monstrous brutes is regrettable. The Japanese were particularly cruel in their treatment of prisoners of war (considered beneath contempt for allowing themselves to be captured), but the Japanese could be equally brutal disciplining their own soldiers, and of course not all guards were sadistic monsters - as JG Ballard recalled in his semi-fictional memoir Empire of the Sun, Japanese soldiers could also be kind and humane. Worse still, all the principle Japanese characters were played by British actors, including an embarrassing turn by the otherwise marvellous Michael Ripper, japanified with some silly eye makeup and a cringe worthy accent - thankfully his appearance is confined to just two short dialogue scenes. Also, and this is a minor complaint, the cast is far too healthy looking to pass for genuine prisoners except for the perpetually emaciated Richard Wordsworth whose scarecrow frame looks the part.
Sony's 2009 UK DVD of The Camp on Blood Island is a mostly bare bones affair but nonetheless is very welcome, this being the first ever home video release of the film. The 2.35 anamorphic transfer is generally excellent, aside from some haziness in long shots, the b/w image looks very smooth and impressively detailed. The audio track sounds robust too, even if some of the dialogue can be hard to catch (most likely due to the technical limitations of the day), but thankfully Sony have provided English subtitles to fill in the blanks (worth noting, the subtitles do not translate the few instances of Japanese dialogue). The only extra offered is a throwaway stills gallery, but the DVD comes with an excellent scene-setting booklet by Hammer historian Marcus Hearn. The inferior prequel The Secret of Blood Island followed in 1965 and has yet to surface on DVD.