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A troop of British soldiers are out in the jungle to record jungle noises and troop noises in the jungle so that the recordings can be played back by other troops to divert the enemy to their whereabouts. As they progress to what they think is closer to the base camp they find themselves farther and farther from radio range until the only channel they can get clearly is that of a Japanese broadcast. They now realize they are probably only 10 to 15 miles from a Japanese camp! The tension is added to by rowdy and openly admitted "non-hero" Private Bamforth who has nothing good to say about anyone and especially Corporal Johnstone (who holds an equal dislike for Bamforth). When a Japanese soldier is taken as their prisoner, the true colors of each man comes to the surface ... Written by
The title "The Long and the Short and the Tall" is taken from the lyrics of "Bless 'Em All", a rather nonsensical soldiers' song from the First World War which enjoyed fresh popularity during the Second. It would appear that the song is not well-known across the Atlantic, as it was released as "Jungle Fighters" in both the USA and Canada.
The action takes place during the Burmese Campaign of 1942. Seven British soldiers on patrol in the jungle capture a Japanese prisoner whom they nickname "Tojo". Much of the action revolves around their arguments over what to do with him. Their commander, Sergeant Mitchem wants to take the prisoner back to headquarters for interrogation. Several others, especially Mitchem's second-in-command Corporal Johnstone, want to kill him, but one man, Private Bamforth, argues strongly that they should spare his life and that killing a prisoner would be a war crime.
The film was based on a stage play by Willis Hall. In the play Bamforth had been played by Peter O'Toole, and the director Leslie Norman (father of the well-known critic Barry) wanted to cast O'Toole in the film as well. The producers, however, wanted to go for a "big name"- apparently O'Toole did not count as such in 1961- and insisted upon Laurence Harvey. This proved to be a mistake, and not only because Harvey quarrelled not only with Norman but also with his co-stars Richard Todd and Richard Harris. Harvey's performance is the main reason why I disliked the film.
In the opening scenes Harvey is not too bad, if you can overlook his rather dodgy Cockney accent. Bamforth is, to put it mildly, a difficult customer. He is the sort of barrack-room lawyer who knows the King's Regulations inside-out except the parts which state that insubordination and disobedience to orders are offences against military discipline. He takes a great delight in baiting his superiors Mitchem and Johnstone, but he does not just have a problem with authority. He has a problem with the rest of the human race, and dislikes his fellow privates as much as he dislikes the NCOs. He makes no effort to conceal his prejudices against people from other parts of Britain- he himself is a Londoner- and his constant taunting of his colleagues Lance-Corporal Macleish (a Scot), Private Evans (a Welshman) and Private Whitaker (a Northerner) is mean-spirited stuff, not mere friendly banter.
The trouble is, Harvey works so hard to establish his character in the audience's mind as a complete bastard that we do not believe him when Bamforth suddenly and unexpectedly emerges as the conscience of the detachment, especially as he originally tries to humiliate Tojo by addressing him in a patronising pidgin English. ("Flingers on Blonce!"- this being how Bamforth imagines the Japanese would pronounce "Fingers on Bonce!" He is evidently unaware that the Japanese have difficulty with pronouncing the letter "L", which does not exist in their language, and certainly would not try to insert it into English words where it does not belong). Now Hall, Norman and Harvey probably intended us to accept Bamforth's attempts to do the decent thing as quite sincerely meant, but I was left with the impression that this was only part of his ongoing campaign against authority and that if the rest of the detachment had wanted to spare Tojo, Bamforth would have voted to kill him.
Of the other actors, the best is probably Harris as Johnstone, a man who finds it difficult to keep his violent emotions under control. Todd was something of a specialist in war films (as were some other British actors of the period, such as John Mills and Kenneth More), but he makes Mitchem a rather anonymous figure and this is not his best performance.
Norman would have preferred to shoot the film on location, but during this period the British film industry rarely had the financial resources to travel abroad for filming, and the jungles of South-East Asia were definitely off-limits. ("Bridge on the River Kwai", although many of its stars were British, was actually an American film). The film, therefore, had to be made in a studio, and it shows. The budget for creating realistic scenery was obviously limited.
Both play and film were controversial when they came out. They were particularly unpopular among British veterans who had fought in Burma, partly because of the implication that British soldiers might kill an unarmed prisoner, but also because the patrol are portrayed as an incompetent and undisciplined rabble. The play was at one time popular as a set text for English Literature O-Levels, although (as with many set texts) this may be a reflection not of its literary merits but of the fact that it is an easy work to write an essay about. I have never seen the play on stage, but then it is rarely performed these days. As for the film, it comes across as very dated today. Its main point of interest is that it represents a move away from the gung-ho, patriotic war films of the fifties towards the more questioning, sceptical world view of the sixties, but it does not represent a very interesting treatment of its theme. 4/10
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