Surrender? Hell, Judge Daryl Loomis gives it up before the contest even starts.
A thousand bolo knives at his back!
Based on Philip Harkins's book, Blackburn's Headhunters, which itself is loosely based on the true-life story of Lt. Donald Blackburn, who evaded Japanese capture after the fall of Bataan during WWII, Surrender—Hell! turns a story of courage, survival, and ingenuity into an anti-Japanese piece of propaganda about turning savages into civilized military men. Is it possible to forget about this and give it a great review based on the greatness of the title alone?
Facts of the Case
In spite of his long record of obedient service, Lt. Douglas Blackburn (Keith Anders, Clash By Night) cannot abide the thought of surrender, no matter who gives the order. That's why, when his commander places the call to give up the hill at Bataan and submit themselves to the will of the Japanese forces, Blackburn heads into the jungle. Braving disease and starvation, he finally crosses paths with a group of Filipino natives who hate the Japanese as much as he does. He enlists their help and trains them to fight before unleashing the screaming horde to send the enemy home once and for all.
If Surrender—Hell! tried only to be the survivalist adventure that it starts out as, it probably would have been a lot better, serving as an innocuous low-budget actioner. Unfortunately, the real intent of the films isn't to portray a man surviving the wild, but to show an American rallying the savages to take down the crafty, but ultimately inferior, Japanese forces. It's not like I expect fairness from a Cold War-era WWII film, but they go overboard with the dirty Japanese talk.
From the point at which Blackburn hears about the surrender order, it's clear how this is going to go. While he doesn't explicitly say the title (which I was really hoping for), Surrender—Hell! is the attitude he takes and, with nothing but his standard-issue gear, he ventures off into the great unknown of the jungle. Anders narrates the action, talking about the importance of freedom and how wresting the Japanese of their power in the Philippines is a great and noble cause, while we watch him slash through the jungle with nothing really happening. Just when it gets too boring for words, Blackburn meets a native girl (because no action film is complete without a tacked-on romantic subplot). Thank goodness, too, because he's just contracted malaria and she's conveniently available to nurse him back to health. While he starts to fall in love with her, too, he's already happily married to freedom, so must set off again to save the Filipinos from the Japanese.
The plot, up to this point, is just kind of silly, but it's when Blackburn recruits the army that the story becomes obnoxious. Based around the premise that this one American soldier is better and more ably trained than the entire force of Filipinos, Blackburn takes a bunch of "headhunters"—though there's little indication that they're anything but local townspeople—and constructs a tiny army that can take out an entire Japanese battalion. They battle the enemy using guerrilla tactics, but how Blackburn learned this way is a mystery. The natives only learn from him; it's never the other way around, though it's the Filipino warriors who would be familiar with such tactics. After all the fighting's done, the Filipino army is lionized and Blackburn makes sure they're officially recognized as part of the American forces. We learn that, yes, Filipinos can be good American soldiers, too. This adds one more final jingoistic tone to what is, primarily, a cheap piece of propaganda.
The production doesn't do the film any favors, either. The jungle scenes are on cheap soundstages, shot in narrow focus and with limited action. The big battle scenes are almost entirely stock footage; montages of guns blazing, explosions, and people falling in battle may look exciting at first, but it's just really cheap. Keith Andes is as stiff a hero as you can find, rarely moving more than a couple of feet at a time. Instead, he stands around making anti-Japanese speeches about freedom, making an already artificial-sounding script the most boring part of the movie.
For its first time ever on video, Surrender—Hell! looks decent. Presented by VCI in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 ratio, it sports a nice transfer from a fairly damaged print. They clearly did some work to clean up the dirt and scratches, but parts of the film make it look every one of its 50 years. The mono sound is adequate, though a little tinny. It is easy to hear all the badly affected accents, so no need to worry about that. For extras, we have three war documentaries that are of high interest to military buffs. John Ford's "This Is Korea!," the only color documentary from the Korean war, features amazingly shot battle footage and is the best of the three. John Huston's nearly equal "The Battle of San Pietro," about the famous WWII battlefield, was held back on its original release because of its realistic portrayals of death and violence. Finally, and taking a big step down in quality, is "The Stilwell Road," narrated by Ronald Reagan. In the dullest of fashions, Uncle Ronnie tells us all about rebuilding the Burmese supply line during WWII.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As bad as this movie is, it does have a great title. So great, in fact, that my friends are all thrilled that I've written this review, since it means I'm going to say it a little less. It rolls off the tongue so nicely, though, and allows you to yell when someone asks what you're watching. Try saying it out loud. I prefer something like, "Surrender? Hell!" in a thick Texas accent. Awesome, isn't it?
A great title does not make a great movie, unfortunately. Surrender—Hell! is terrible, but I'm not going to forget seeing it if for the most shallow of reasons.
Guilty? Hell! I've rarely seen a guiltier one.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
• This Is Korea! directed by John Ford
Review content copyright © 2008 Daryl Loomis; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.