1964, Quentin Lawrence

Hammer Film Productions produced a handful of war movies that quietly coexisted alongside their more boisterous horror output. These films were a strange lot. The two most easily available efforts are The Camp on Blood Island (1958) and Yesterday’s Enemy (1959). Despite both being directed by Val Guest, they are worlds apart in execution. The Camp on Blood Island is one of Hammer’s most offensive films. It’s racist and violent, with the Japanese – played by white actors – represented as cackling stereotypes and nasty attention to brutality. Yesterday’s Enemy, on the other hand, is a sensitive war film and one of the best British films of the 50s. The Secret of Blood Island leans towards the style of The Camp on Blood Island, but doesn’t quite reach its lurid heights. It’s a hard film to find – as far as I know, its only release is an Australian video titled P.O.W.. Perhaps its failure to go the whole hog in its exploitative elements led to the scarcity of its release. It may meander in a nervous middle-ground, but it’s still an interesting watch for Hammer fans. The Secret of Blood Island – like The Camp on Blood Island – is set in a Japanese camp of war in Malaysia. Elaine (Barbara Shelley) – a British spy – has her aircraft shot down while flying over the camp. She evades capture and is hidden in the camp, disguised as a man, by the prisoners. The Japanese attempt to seek her out by torturing and killing prisoners, but British soldier Crewe (Jack Hedley) and Major Dryden (Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell) won’t allow her to give herself up.

The tropical setting of Blood Island

I first became aware of the existence of The Secret of Blood Island when I stumbled across its Australian daybill poster at a junk shop. I bought the poster, assuming it was an Australian retitling of The Camp on Blood Island. When I got it home, I noticed the name “Charles Tingwell” loudly printed across the poster and realised it was a Hammer film I’d yet to see. I’m sure that Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell’s appearance is the reason Australian viewers would have interest in seeing this – and I was no exception. Finally tracking down a badly duped copy, I settled down to see one of Australia’s finest actors acting alongside Hammer regulars. While The Secret of Blood Island lacks the excitement of The Camp on Blood Island and the class of Yesterday’s Enemy, its cast is certainly a worthy draw card. Tingwell receives far more screen time than he would in Hammer’s Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), and he excels in his authoritative role. Barbara Shelley – who would co-star with Tingwell again in Dracula: Prince of Darkness – is also a welcome member of the cast and her performance is, as expected, excellent. Jack Hedley does well as the hero, but – sadly, for mostly the wrong reasons – it’s the villains that steal the show.

A young Charles 'Bud' Tingwell

The Secret of Blood Island repeats the offensive casting of Caucasians in the villainous Japanese roles. The villains are not quite as cartoonish when compared to The Camp on Blood Island, but they come close. The Japanese are led by Major Jocomo, who is played by British actor Patrick Wymark. Wymark’s performance is ridiculous to say the least. He puts on a squeaky voice filled with all the classic erroneous qualities that we’d expect from a Japanese caricature. Michael Ripper, the ultimate Hammer actor, plays Lieutenant Tojoko; somewhat of a sidekick to Jocomo. Ripper, his second time in yellow-face (he also appeared in The Camp on Blood Island), fails to hide his cockney accent, but actually fares a lot better when placed next to Wymark. Ripper is at least threatening in his role and restrains from reaching the level of absurdity that Wymark aims at. But even Wymark is outdone by the outrageous Japanese impersonation from David Saire in the small role of the chief of the secret police. Watch below to see all three actors hamming it up something rotten:

I don’t think anyone could argue that The Secret of Blood Island is one of Hammer’s crowning achievements, but it’s a shame that it has been cursed to forever lie in obscurity. The story is engaging enough, and the central concept of a woman being hid in a prison camp is reasonably exciting. Despite its predictability, the film is never dull. And as silly as the villains are and as stilted as some of the dialogue is (Michael Ripped smugly spitting out “British cigarette” made me laugh), the protagonists are likeable enough. The Secret of Blood Island is a bit light on the action, but the ending – which we also see part of in the film’s introduction – supplies a few gunshots and explosions making for a decent conclusion. The Secret of Blood Island will hardly bowl over your average viewer, but I can highly recommend this to those interested in Hammer’s take on World War II. It’s also fascinating to watch as an Australian for the appearance of the late, great Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell. Look past the racism – or have a good laugh at it – and be mildly entertained by The Secret of Blood Island.

Hammer's Michael Ripper in yellow-face