The Camp on Blood Island was a brutal film which polarised critics when it was released in April 1958: at the London Pavilion, where the film premiered on the 18th, a group of ex-Japanese POWs were invited to watch the film, amongst them comics strip artist Leo Rawlings, who had been forced to work on the Burma death railway for eighteen months and who considered the film to be "the most accurate and sincere portrayal of a Japanese POW camp that I’ve ever seen." Whilst this view was also held by Lord Russell of Liverpool, other reviewers, like that of the Observer found the film "an abomination", claiming that it opened old wounds. The veracity of the film was questioned by Shiro Kido, Chairman of the Motion Picture Association of Japan, who wanted the film banned in America.
The film had already had a short but interesting history even up to that point. The story was suggested to Hammer’s Anthony Nelson Keys by ex-BBC story editor and novelist Jon Manchip White, whose novel Mask of Dust had been adapted by Hammer (a.k.a. Race for Life in the USA). White had joined Hammer in 1956 as a scenario editor, and the story so excited Keys that White was commissioned to write a screenplay. He teamed with director Val Guest, who also had a hand in the finished script. Guest was a one-time aspiring actor in the early 1930s who went to Hollywood where he became a gossip columnist for The Hollywood Reporter, returning to England in 1935 where he was hired by Gainsborough Films as a comedy writer, working with J. O. C. Orton and Marriott Edgar amongst others. He co-wrote films for The Crazy Gang, Arthur Askey and, most notably, for Will Hay for whom he wrote 8 scripts, including Windbag the Sailor (1936), Oh, Mr Porter (1937) and Where’s That Fire? (1939). He first began directing in 1942, his work including Just William, based on Richmal Crompton's schoolboy adventures, and films starring Arthur Askey, Bebe Daniels, Ben Lyon, Frankie Howerd and Peter Sellers. He tried his hands at thrillers, his earliest success being Break the Circle (1954).
Camp on Blood Island was filmed during a period of high success for Guest, whose Quatermass 2 was released on June 17, 1957, six weeks before Camp began shooting. The movie was already being heralded as a milestone, since it was Hammer’s 50th full-feature. Shot mostly on location in Black Park, just outside Pinewood Studios, and in a sand quarry, the film then had to find a distributor; Hammer’s co-founder James Carreras set up a deal in September with Columbia, who were feting Hammer after the huge success of The Curse of Frankenstein, and Camp became part of a three-film deal whereby Columbia secured the distribution rights to a Frankenstein sequel if they also took two other movies.
The Camp on Blood Island featured a good cast of character actors, ranging from Austrian Carl Mohner, who had starred in Rififi (1955) and He Who Must Die (1956), and British war film veterans including Andre Morell (The Bridge on the River Kwai) and Michael Goodliffe (The Wooden Horse, The Battle of the River Plate). Richard Wordsworth (The Quatermass Xperiment) played Dr. Keiller, executed by guards whilst trying to make contact with his wife who is in the women’s camp. The wife was played by Barbara Shelley, who was later to appear in the little-known The Secret of Blood Island (1964) where she played an agent who parachutes into Malaya during WW2 and accidentally ends up landing in a POW camp.
The movie was a tremendous success, and led Hammer to film Yesterday’s Enemy. It also led to a book deal with Hamilton & Co., who published a novelisation of Camp (Panther Books 805) in January 1958. Since the book featured on the movie poster, it became an instant best-seller, going through eight editions in 1958 and a further three in 1959.
Harry Assael, Panther’s co-founder, recalled that it was one of the most successful tie-ins in the company’s history:
Apart from having a New York agent and getting over The Hollywood Reporter, we also subscribed to any outlets that might give us any information about films that were in the pipeline, and I think it was Hammer who told us they were doing this film, Camp on Blood Island. They sent us the script and we did a deal with them whereby we would do the Book of the Film; they sent us some stills and we used one of these stills [as a basis] for our cover.Everyone, it seems, was celebrating... everyone, that is, except the authors of the tie-in. For Gordon Thomas and Arthur Kent, the book was a sore point. At the time, both were writing for the Daily Express and, as Arthur recalls, had to resort to a little subterfuge to get it finished in time: "We pretended we were doing a big job for the editor so we wouldn't be disturbed."
__The author concerned was given two weeks to produce the 40 or 50,000 words we published at, and I think we did the usual 25,000 copies. The cover we used, even though it was a still from the film company was so stark that when the film had its premier at the London Pavilion they used an enlargement of our cover on hoardings all around the cinema. I think that book must have sold over three quarters of a million copies.
"[Joe] Pacey (Harry Assael's partner) approached Gordon Thomas and produced this film script, a Hammer story. He wanted it turned into a novel in two weeks, so Gordon brought me in and we did it in about ten days, with me doing the first draft and Gordon polishing it. Gordon thought we’d save a few bob by not using an agent—it was a colossal mistake. It sold about a million copies here and a quarter of a million in the States."
At the payment rate of £1 a thousand words, the book earned its two authors somewhere in the region of £50, and a single foreign rights sale by the publishers would usually more than cover that initial outlay.
"When I later got wind of this I threatened Pacey with legal action, but Gordon wouldn't back me on it," recalls Arthur. "We settled out of court for another couple of hundred each, or so, plus our legal costs."
The book went through 22 editions in Panther alone, and was later published by Mayflower Books in 1972. It was still in print ten years later, by which time the book must have easily clocked up British sales of between one and a half and two million. "It saved them, The Camp on Blood Island," says Arthur. ‘‘They were going bust; he [Assael] told a friend of mine. They were going bust and that book saved him. Incredible, isn't it?"
(* Originally published in PBO #8, February 1998, and on Bear Alley, 6 December 2009. Background information on the making of the movie was derived from The Hammer Story by Marcus Hearn & Alan Barnes, London, Titan, 1997, and The House That Hammer Built #2, edited by Wayne Kinsey, April 1997.)