“The Long the Short and the Tall” is a play set in the Second World War, 1942, in the humid Malayan tropical jungle. Most of the action takes place in a small, wooden hut, where a British Patrol, consisting of one sergeant, two corporals and four privates, who have been cut off from their base camp because of advancing Japanese soldiers, are trying to make contact with base, which is fifteen miles away, using a radio transmitter/ receiver.
A Japanese soldier, who has slipped away from his platoon for a cigarette becomes interested in the hut after seeing the radio transmitter/receiver on the table through the glassless window. As the Japanese soldier advances towards the entrance to the hut, the British Patrol inside prepare to attack him as soon as he walks in. As the soldier marches in, he is pounced on by Johnstone, who restrains him and turns the Japanese soldier into a P. O. W. The British Patrol, have the option of killing the non-English speaking soldier or taking him back with them to base as he could give information about the enemy when interrogated.
This is where the resources of the British Patrol are tested as some want to give the Japanese soldier his human rights and follow the laws of the Geneva Convention but others want to break these laws and kill the soldier in cold blood, as they believe he is just an ordinary soldier and there is no need to take him back by risking their own lives. This brings out the character of each of the soldiers as the heated argument of life and death carries on and the tension grows. In my opinion the prisoner has a huge significance in the play and has a large effect on all of the characters.
All of the characters approach the prisoner in different ways and have conflicting views about him. Private Bamforth is probably one of the most important characters in the book. He is intensely sceptical about war and about the British army. He challenges its authority at every opportunity and mocks his superiors with his knowledge of all the army rules and regulations. He constantly defies other members of the patrol and makes himself more estranged from the rest of the group as the play advances.
He is the one who realises that the Japanese soldier is a human being, that he has a wife and children and he sees him as not just as an enemy P. O. W. At first Bamforth was totally the opposite. He was aggressive towards the Japanese prisoner and was willing to kill him along with Johnstone, using the bayonet. Sergeant Mitchem orders Bamforth to stay with the prisoner, keeping an eye on him so that he doesn’t escape. His relationship with the prisoner changes after he is offered a cigarette by him and is shown pictures of his wife and kids. These two simple actions by the prisoner make Bamforth see him as a human being and not as a P. O. W; this being proven when Bamforth says ‘He’s almost a human this one.
Bamforth defends the prisoner during the two arguments about the cigarettes and the case and says that he gave him the cigarettes after the prisoner is accused of the stealing them from a British soldier. When Mitchem makes the decision that they will have to kill the prisoner, Bamforth defends the prisoner orally but when things get serious he is willing to risk his life by positioning himself between the prisoner and Johnstone and Macleish, who both want to kill the prisoner. He tries to get the other men on his side and asks Smith to help him. Smith tells him to leave him out of it and that he takes orders and simply plods on.
Bamforth replies by saying, ‘the plodding on has stopped. Right here. Right here you stop and make a stand. He’s got a wife and kids. ‘ But still Smith refuses and defends his Sergeant. Then Bamforth pleads To Whittaker and Evans who also refuse and go against him. Bamforth is an example, showing us how when a soldier gets to know his enemy he is mentally unable to kill him, as he recognises their humanity. Sergeant Mitchem is motivated by profession and the army is the most important thing to him, this being proven by his rank. He is the leader of the British Patrol but second only in experience to Johnstone, who is the veteran of the group.
He has natural authority which is first shown when he discovers Macleish and Bamforth about to fight and he restores order swiftly. He is the type of person who knows all the army rules off by heart and tries to back all of his orders by referring to them. At the beginning Mitchem sees the Japanese prisoner as a source of information, meaning if they took him back, they could interrogate him and gain valuable intelligence about the Japanese army positioning and other facts such as their weaponry and the number of soldiers they had in the region.
The prisoner is kept alive for the majority of the play because of this reason by Mitchem. As time passes, Mitchem sees the prisoner as an expendable object, believing that the prisoner needs to be ‘gotten ridden off. ‘ It is important for Mitchem not to see the Japanese soldier as human but as the enemy. This is because it would make it very difficult for him to make an unbiased decision. Lance Corporal Macleish is fairly a young member of the patrol. He tries to treat the prisoner like a human as he wants to follow the Geneva Convention and protect the prisoners’ rights.
He is influenced by his brother, who he believes is a P. O. W and wants to treat the prisoner the same way he hopes his brother is being taken care of by the Japanese. However, after the discoveries of the British issued cigarettes and case he has a change of heart, probably because he thinks that the prisoner may have looted them from a dead British soldier, meaning there was a slight possibility that same soldier may just be his brother; ‘My brother’s only 19… for all I know he’s dead! ‘ “I’ll kill him.
This shows that he is quite hypocritical; he preaches to others about rules and regulations but when it suits him, he ignores them without any thought. It is obvious that Corporal Johnstone wants the prisoner dead right from the very start; the main reason for this being that he rather see one enemy soldier dead than all of his patrol killed by Japanese hands and he believes that taking the prisoner back would be imprudent and futile. He is a racist character and despises all of his enemies including the Japanese.
It seems to me he has no hesitation to kill a living person, just for the thrill of it. Because of these reasons there is a possibility that he may be a psychopath as he wants to see the prisoner being murdered in front of his eyes. He is violent, vicious, with no compassion and is willing to kill in cold blood with no hesitation. My comments about him are backed up by this quote, which Johnstone said to Evans while he was pinning down the prisoner after his capture, “Get him! Quick! … Evans! Do for him! …. Come on, lad! Use your bayonet! In his guts! … You want it between his ribs!
Throughout the whole play Johnstone is cruel to the Japanese prisoner doing several things like destroying the prisoner’s wallet, which contained his personal photos of his wife and children and refusing to give him water. This simply shows the pitiless attitude towards the prisoner by Johnstone. The Corporal seems to only have one thing on his mind, to see the prisoner dead. Privates Evans and Smith simply follow orders and want to get back to base, and home in one piece. This is proven when Bamforth is trying to get Smith on his side and Smith replies by saying, ‘I just take orders.
Just do as I’m told. I just plod on. ‘ Smith is an ordinary soldier who does whatever he is told to so. Evan is one of the youngest in the patrol and doesn’t want to be in the situation he is in. They are the sort of soldiers who didn’t want to fight in the war but were forced to do so. Both of them don’t really take part in the scene between Bamforth and the soldier. They both just want to do what they have to, to get back to base in one piece. Private Whitaker is probably the most significant character in the play. He is the new recruit to the patrol squad and is the youngest out of the eight.
He was not trained to army standards and cannot handle the radio transmitter appropriately. It is most likely this is the first time he has gone abroad because of his young age. Whitaker was the person who killed the prisoner at the end out of fear and pressure and then got himself and five members of his patrol shot by the Japanese. It is ironic in a way that it is Whitaker who kills as he was the person who was least likely to even kill anyone. Whitaker is a young, vulnerable, inexperienced soldier who shouldn’t be taking part in the war.
He is the type of person who freezes easily when in heated action because of his inexperience. Whitaker is an example of all the young men in the war who went off to fight and to return as heroes, underrating the horrors of war. He never gives a view or an opinion probably because of his low confidence and he simply does what he is told. At the end of the play, Corporal Johnstone is the only surviving member of the squadron and was probably taken captive by the Japanese. The play was written by Willis Hall who was a pacifist. In his play we see how he disagrees with the idea of war.
He tries to show the readers the pointlessness and meaninglessness of war and how it normally ends in tragedy. Also he is trying to show his audience how war is just about one human being killed another one and that it is waste of precious life. The play shows that each character is an individual and is a real person who has a family anxiously waiting for them back at home. Even the prisoner is a real person who has a wife and kids waiting for his return. The play reveals that every soldier has a life behind the war and is not just a number on a list.
Each of the men has an identity and a family back home. It is a shock when the characters and prisoner are killed off as the audience gets to know them and then they are suddenly shot instantly at the end without any warning. Also the play establishes a relationship between the audience and the characters that is unique and intimate. So when they are killed it is a shock and we feel sympathy for them. It is clear that Hall has written the play to emphasise that war is a futile tragedy and it is not heroic to be involved in war.