Yesterday's Enemy

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Yesterday's Enemy
Original American release film poster
Directed by Val Guest
Produced by Michael Carreras
Written by Peter R. Newman
Starring Stanley Baker
Gordon Jackson
Music by None
Cinematography Arthur Grant
Distributed by Columbia Pictures
Hammer Films
Release dates 1959
Running time 95 min
Country United Kingdom
Language English

Yesterday's Enemy is a 1959 Hammer Films British war film directed by Val Guest and starring Stanley Baker, Guy Rolfe, Leo McKern and Gordon Jackson set in the Burma Campaign during World War II.[1] 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.[2] Columbia Pictures co-produced the film with Hammer Films in an agreement for five co-productions a year with Columbia providing half the finance.[3] 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.[4] In 2013, film magazine Total Film included Yesterday's Enemy in their list of 50 Amazing Films You've Probably Never Seen.[5]

The TV play was reportedly based on a war crime perpetrated by a British army captain in Burma in 1942.[6]


The lost remnants of a British Army Brigade headquarters make their way through the Burmese jungle, retreating from the Japanese. The most senior officer, the Brigadier, is badly wounded and the group is being led by Captain Langford, a tough, determined soldier. Amongst the small motley group are a civilian war correspondent named Max and an army Padre. The exhausted group comes across a village and an attempt to enter it is met by gunfire. After a short battle, a squad of Japanese infantry in the village is wiped out, including a full Colonel, an un-usually high-ranking officer to be with such a small group. The dead officer possesses a map with unknown markings. Amongst the Burmese villagers, the patrol discover a man who does not belong there and who is an informer working for the Japanese. Langford interrogates the man about the dead Colonel and the map and when the latter refuses to talk, he selects two adult males from amongst the villagers and says he will have them both executed if the informer does not co-operate. Max and the Padre are horrified by Langford's decision and strongly protest but the Captain is un-moved. The two hostages are killed by Langford's men, prompting the informant to begin devulging what he knows. The dead Colonel was carrying a map on which are marked 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.

Langford orders the informer to be executed 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. Max and the Padre are enraged by the decision but the dying Brigadier and the other wounded agree to remain in the village. However, a large force of enemy troops are sighted nearby and Langford changes his mind, deciding to stay in the village with most of his men whilst despatching Sgt Mckenzie and two others to head back to British HQ to raise the alarm, thinking a smaller group will have a better chance of getting through. Langford offers Max and the Padre the chance to go with them but the latter both refuse, electing to remain with the wounded. Mckenzie and his two men depart but they later run into a Japanese patrol and are killed. Back at the village, Langford desperately tries to repair their damaged transmitter to signal HQ but word arrives of a large enemy force approaching. Langford takes his remaining un-injured men out to intercept and delay them but the result is a disaster and all of Langford's men are killed or captured. The Japanese commander, Major Yamazaki, who speaks English and who was a friend of the dead Colonel, suspects that Langford, now a POW, knows about the plan, otherwise why else would he have remained in the village without escaping.

Yamazaki lines up all of the surviving British in front of a firing squad and informs Langford that unless he agrees to talk, the Major will order his troops to open fire. Given just two minutes to make his choice, Langford bolts towards the newly-repaired transmitter in an attempt to signal HQ but he is shot dead. Impressed by Langford's courage, Yamazaki salutes his corpse, saying 'I would have done the same' whilst outside, the Padre leads the British in a song as they calmly await their execution. The final image is of the Btitish war memorial in Burma.

Other information[edit]

The film ends with the Kohima epitaph:

The verse is attributed to John Maxwell Edmonds (1875–1958), and is thought to have been inspired by the epitaph written by Simonides to honour the Spartans who fell at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC.[7]


Critical Response[edit]

Terence Pettigrew (writing in 1982) wrote "Yesterday's Enemy was criticised at the time for its depiction of British Army cruelty to the natives in a progressively desperate fight to survive. Nothing is done to soften the harshness of armed conflict on all concerned. and the film delivers its strong anti-war message without flinching from the task."[8]

Andrew Spicer (writing in 2001) wrote '(Stanley) Baker's officer hero Langford in Yesterday's Enemy is no gentleman. Langford's dilemma is that he feels he must break the Geneva Convention and kill civilians in order to obtain the information that may save many lives. Langford's men dislike him, the padre and the liberal war correspondent denounce him, but they all know he is their only chance of survival.'[9]

Julian Upton, reviewing the film's 2009 DVD release, singled out Baker's performance. 'The film is worth seeing for Baker's performance alone. A kind of proto Peckinpah anti-hero, he'll commit war crime for the greater good of the operation.....but he'll risk his life to save men he's never civil to.'[10]


  1. ^ "BFI | Film & TV Database | YESTERDAY'S ENEMY (1959)". 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2013-06-25. 
  2. ^ "BFI | Film & TV Database | YESTERDAY'S ENEMY (1958)". 2009-04-16. Retrieved 2013-06-25. 
  3. ^ "Yesterday's Enemy (1959) - Overview". Retrieved 2013-06-25. 
  4. ^ McFarlane, Brian. The Cinema of Britain & Ireland. Wallflower Press, UK. 2005. p-135
  5. ^
  6. ^ Marcus Hearn, The Hammer Vault, Titan Books, 2011 p. 28
  7. ^ Imperial War Museum. "What is the Kohima Epitaph?". Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  8. ^ Pettigrew, Terrence. British Film Character Actors. David & Charles Ltd. 1982. p-58
  9. ^ Spicer, Andrew. Typical Men: The Representation of Masculinity in Popular British Cinema I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd, 2001. p-74.
  10. ^

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