“The Long and the Short and the Tall” was entitled “Jungle Fighters” in the U.S. I guess because Americans were not familiar with the British WWI song “Bless ‘Em All”. It is based on the play by Willis Hall. The play was not called “Jungle Fighters”. Leslie Norman (“Dunkirk”) directed it. It was nominated for a BAFTA for Best British Film and Best Film from any Source. It was a hit in Great Britain.
The movie opens with the song over the credits. There’s a nice tracking shot through the jungle. Well, both movie titles have now been covered. The movie is set in the Malayan Campaign in 1942. A unit of familiar British faces is conducing sonic warfare. Well, that’s different. What’s not different is that this will be a small-unit dynamics movie. There is plenty of dysfunction among the men. Cpl. Johnstone (Richard Harris) and Private Bamforth (Laurence Harvey) hate each other. Actually, no one seems to like anyone. This is not a 1940’s British picture. Sgt. Mitchem (Richard Todd) is in command and in need of redemption because he lost an earlier patrol. When they capture a Japanese (“Nippo”), they call him Tojo (Kenji Takaki, who was 66 years old at the time). This just adds to the awkwardness as there is a debate whether to kill him. This conundrum takes up the first half of the movie (and probably the whole play). The second half has the unit on the run from the Japanese. It morphs from a debate to a survival trek. For a sonic detection unit with the worst noise discipline, don’t expect most to make it back to friendly lines.
You can see the fact that it was a play by the projection of the lines as though they were aiming for the cheap seats. This might explain the noisiness, but why don’t they ever leave a guard. For those reasons, it’s not a realistic look at a secretive unit behind enemy lines. It’s not an elite unit because it appears the worst malcontents were all dumped in this unit. A unit commanded by a disgraced commander. The cast is a good one, but the characters are underdeveloped. Laurence Harvey scores in the meatiest role. His Bamforth goes from asshole to humanitarian too easily. His bonding with Tojo is perplexing. It’s a bizarre performance since the usually unsmiling actor is asked to provide comic relief before things get serious. Ironically, it was Harvey’s casting that caused dysfunction amongst the actors. Peter O’Toole had played the role on stage (Takaki was the only stage performer who was cast in the movie) and Norman and Todd expected him to be tabbed. The studio wanted a big star! Todd and Harris despised Harvey and didn’t care much for each other. (Ironically, most critics felt Harvey was miscast.) It must have been a fun shoot. At least, they weren’t in an actual jungle.
For a screen-bound play, the dialogue is not special. The “trial” of Tojo could have been better written. And its resolution is flat-out ridiculous. But I give credit for the movie trying to have some weight beyond just being a lost patrol movie. It just seems that maybe the movie should have stuck to one plot. The soundstage nature of the production detracts from the jungle warfare scenes.
“The Long and the Short and the Tall” is acclaimed by some, but to me it seems to be a hybrid military justice / lost patrol movie that just does not work. It may have seemed gritty at the time. However, today it looks like an actors’ movie in which the actors were given characters that did not match their talents. And the decision to give some homage to sonic detection units and then portray them as noise-challenged is aggravating to this war movie lover.
GRADE = C