The Long and the Short and the Tall
In what ways, and for what reasons do the attitudes of Bamforth and Maclesish change towards the prisoner of war during the course of the play? How are these attitudes shown through language and action, and how might they be brought out in a production through stage action and gesture? The Long and the Short and the Tall, written by Willis Hall, is a play set in Malaya during the Second World War (1939 – 1945). At this time, the Japanese forces poured down the Malayan peninsula to attack the British from behind. The patrol in the play had been sent to discover the movements and strength of the Japanese.
Willis Hall was himself part of the professional army at the age of 17 and his service took him to the Far East for many years. This is where he acquired most of the inspiration needed for writing this play. Hall raises many issues in the play that were present and needed to be dealt with. The main issue is the treatment of a prisoner of war and linking to this are other issues like loyalty, companionship and innocence. These issues are raised by Hall through the actions and sayings of the characters in the play. Each character has a different opinion and attitude towards war and Hall shows this on how they react to the prisoner of war.
I will be specifically looking at the characters of Bamforth and Macleish as these characters change the most during and after the capture of the prisoner of war. Bamforth is a private and Macleish is an L/Corporal. Bamforth’s character is shown clearly at the very beginning of the play as a disobedient and arrogant character with an unprofessional attitude towards war. Bamforth’s first lines ‘You want me, Corp’, ‘What’s up? ‘ and ‘You going to inspect us, Corp? ‘ are replies to Corporal Johnston. They suggest to us that he has a laid back attitude and is not afraid to question anyone with higher authority than himself.
Talking in this way suggests that he is somewhat cheeky as well. By acting this way, he also provides a sense of comic relief and humour that develops a relationship between him and the audience. Hall also introduces Bamforth’s first stage direction, ‘Bamforth shrugs off his pack, places it as a pillow on the form, and makes himself comfortable’. This describes Bamforth’s casual, careless and selfish attitude as he is making himself at home rather than showing awareness for the hospitality of his fellow comrades. This shows his lack of companionship in war.
When Mitchem and Johnstone leave the hut, Bamforth slanders them and Evans warns Bamforth to stop. Bamforth reacts to this by expressing a range of insults like ‘Flipping toe rag’ and causing trouble for the patrol once again. Next, when Macleish and Smith try to settle the situation, Bamforth starts to lose his temper and makes the problem worse. He uses insults like, ‘you Scotch haggis… toe-rag’ which suggest that he does not care about building a relationship with the patrol and has no respect for them. He then gets into a physical brawl with Evans and in this way, Bamfroth is portrayed as a bully to the audience.
Hall uses question and exclamation marks before the fight to lead up to a climax, ‘You and who else?… All right! You asked for it! ‘. The tempo of the play is then increased as Bamforth ‘flings’ Evans to the floor and twists his ankle. This tension rises further as Whitaker interrupts by informing the patrol about radio signals coming through. Here, Hall achieves producing a powerful piece of dramatic action and showing the audience of what Bamforth is capable of doing. This is why the audience can have very few sympathies with him.
In this phase of the play, we also see Bamforth as being intelligent and having a depth of knowledge of the rules of the army; He uses this knowledge to his advantage over other members of the patrol. He also uses cruel wit to mock the weak personalities, Evans and Whitaker mainly. To the patrol, he is nothing but an outsider who causes major disruption and trouble for them. In this way, he can represent the voice of any other newly conscripted soldier. When the prisoner is captured, Bamforth is not concerned at all and it scarcely affects him.
When Johnstone holds the prisoner up, none of the patrol is prepared to kill him except for Bamforth who ‘crosses and snatches the bayonet from Evans’ to show that he isn’t reluctant to kill the prisoner. He dehumanises the prisoner by saying, ‘It’s only the same as carving up a pig’. This strong comparison shows that Bamforth considers the prisoner as no more than an animal. Bamforth is just about to kill the prisoner when Mitchem orders him to stop. If Mitchem had not stopped him, Bamforth would have gone on to kill the prisoner and this shows Bamforth’s strong instinctive aggression.
Willis Hall raises the issue here of killing the enemy in cold blood. This shocks the audience as Bamforth ‘hesitates, then moves away’. Bamforth continues to dehumanise the prisoner by playfully threatening him by the throat with the bayonet as he says ‘Boo! ‘ In this way Bamforth discovers his first amusement from the prisoner, something which he has not been able to do with anyone else in the troop. Bamforth is then told to be in charge of the prisoner and this is where Bamforth’s attitude starts to change. He orders and insults the prisoner, knowing that the prisoner can’t understand, ‘Down, Shortarse’.
Bamforth then experiments with ordering the prisoner to put his hands on his head for his amusement. This humiliation raises another issue in war, is an enemy human? Willis Hall raises this question to the audience as dignity and humanity are major themes of the play. Bamforth is astonished when the prisoner complies with his orders, ‘Hey, Taff! See that, did you? He did it like I said! ‘. Bamforth is not used to people doing as he says and so this starts an unusual relationship between the two men. Bamforth is now interested to know more about the prisoner who answers to him.
This goes against the general attitude of Bamforth before the prisoner was captured and so we see that he has started to change. Though Bamforth might still treat the prisoner as an animal, he now treats him as a pet that he is proud of and shows to impress the rest of the troop. The relationship of Bamforth and the prisoner improves further when the prisoner’s photos are discovered. As Bamforth hands the prisoner’s wallet to him, the prisoner opens it and reveals two photographs of which he gives one to Bamforth.
After inspecting it, Bamforth is surprised and responds affectionately, ‘It’s a photo!… Very good… Good old Tojo’. This optimistic remark is once again showing how Bamforth treats the prisoner as a loyal pet. This attitude contrasts Bamforth’s previous attitude where we saw him not interested at all in the life of others. In this conversation, Bamforth and the prisoner are able to communicate through sign language while discussing the photographs. For example, Bamforth observes two children of the prisoner, but the prisoner uses sign language to indicate an expected baby.
Willis Hall uses stage directions here to indicate this. At the end of this conversation, Bamforth says, ‘he’s almost human this one’. This is an important sign of Bamforth’s change in attitude as in the past we have seen him being a bully who has abused everyone. This relationship of communication through sign language has developed an affinity between him and the prisoner. Bamforth starts to allow humanity to the prisoner because of this affinity as he notices a similarity between him and another man, something which he has not seen in anyone in the patrol so far.
As the relationship of Bamforth and the prisoner becomes stronger, Bamforth becomes protective of the prisoner and separates more from the patrol he was always an outsider in. We see this when there is an argument about cigarettes and Bamforth defends the prisoner. The patrol start to accuse the prisoner of theft however Bamforth defends the prisoner by moving into the action. We see this through stage direction, ‘Bamforth crossing to join the group around the prisoner… positions himself between the prisoner and the members of the patrol’. Hall uses this movement in two parts for dramatic action effect.
Bamforth stays loyal with the prisoner by using his intelligence to get the prisoner out of trouble. He does this by using Whitaker as a culprit to reverse the blame on the prisoner, ‘Who’s collected more Jap swag than any regiment?… Private Winnie Whitaker’ Willis Hall raises another issue to the audience here that no matter who the enemy is or where he comes from, he is still a human being. He relates in this way to show the British audience, who were afraid of the Japanese in World War Two and the 1950s, that they were also just human beings.
Bamforth uses a weak Whitaker as a weapon in his passionate defence of the prisoner and in this way separates himself from the patrol further. His intelligence and aggression demonstrate a clarity of thought lacking in others. Here Willis Hall raises the issue of morality in war as Whitaker is unable to defend himself, ‘They’re only souviniers… I swooped some things from them’. He is forced to confess and is trapped by the words of Bamforth. At this point in the play, the audience can see that Bamforth now talks as the voice of good and reason among the patrol.
By the end of the play, Bamforth discovers that Mitchem has dreadful consequences in store for the prisoner. Bamforth is traumatized at this and so argues pleading, ‘For Christ’s sake!… He’s a man! ‘ This phrase completely contrasts the attitude of Bamforth previously. Before we saw his relish to kill and how he compared killing the prisoner to ‘carving up a pig’. Human dignity is now accounted for the prisoner. This complete change of attitude to war questions the audience if it is just to kill in war and shows the psychological battle faced by soldiers during war between morals as a human and duties as a soldier.
Private Macleish is shown as an average man fighting in war. He represents people who have been moved from their normal daily lives to a position in war where they have to adapt to different moral dilemmas as well the physical aspect of war. Macleish is a relatively simple character in comparison to the outspoken Bamforth and mentally strong Mitchem. This means that the audience can relate and emphasise with him as they have a strong affinity with him and so can imagine how they might react to situations and dilemmas that Macleish is put into.
At the beginning of the play Macleish acts as a newly recruited soldier as Lance Corporal. We see this as he is hesitant and insecure of his duties and responsibilities. When Mitchem and Johnstone leave the hut, Macleish is put in charge of the rest of the patrol. Although Macleish has a problem immediately as Bamforth and Evans get into dispute. Also, Macleish’s efforts to control the situation are futile and only make the situation worse. Bamforth insults him and Macleish is unable to use his authority against Bamforth, ‘Are you looking for trouble, Bamforth?…
Ah shut up, you Scotch haggis! ‘ Not only Bamforth, but Smith is able to tell Macleish that he is not acting in the right way, ‘Drop it, Mac. He didn’t mean no harm. We see that Macleish’s first responsibility in charge is failing as he is ironically being controlled by the people who he should control. In this way we see that Macleish is not a strong man by nature and he does not know how to act in war. He represents all the conscripted soldiers in the war that had been thrown in with duties and moral choices that they were unsure of.
This reluctance and uncertainty would have been going through the minds of the audience who could empathise with Macleish’s emotions. When the prisoner is first captured, Macleish is reluctant to kill him with the bayonet, ‘Not me! ‘ Macleish defends the prisoner when Johnstone argues that the prisoner should have been killed, ‘He was a prisoner of war… There’s such a thing as the Geneva Convention! ‘ This shows that Macleish is idealistic and believes that war should be fought according to the rules, a point which most of the audience would agree to.
This argument also raises the issue of killing a prisoner of war in cold blood. Macleish treats the prisoner as any other human, ‘He’s not exactly what you’d call a handsome bloke’. This shows that he does give the respect of a ‘bloke’ to him. In spite of this, we learn how Macleish is concerned about his brother who has been caught by the Japanese. We realize this as he constantly changes his attitude and emotions in his actions. Macleish is in hope that if he treats the prisoner well, then equally his brother will be treated well. We see that this is surely not the case and that this is a naive and ineffectual act.
When Macleish and Mitchem discuss the prioner, Macleish discovers Mitchem’s plans to kill the priosoner. At this point, Macleish’s respectful attitude towards the prisoner is at its maximum and we see this as he pleads, ‘You can’t kill him… that man’s a prisoner of war! ‘ Willis Hall shows how Macleish’s morality as a conscripted soldier contrasts to a trained soldier with war ethics in difficult scenarios. We see here how Macliesh goes against Mitchem’s authority to stand for his civilian idealism. Although later on in the act when cigarettes are discovered, Macleish’s attitude towards the prisoner changes drastically.
Macleish is now ready to kill the prisoner, ‘I’ll ram it down his rotten throat… I’ll make him eat the rotten thing… I’ll kill him! ‘ Here, Macleish is emotionally extreme and charged as he lets out feelings of anger and rage that the audience has previously not seen to be in his nature. Stage directions are also used here by Hall to increase dramatic tension as Macleish is ‘snatching the cigarette’ and how Johnstone is ‘raising a fist’. Macleish acts this way as he now realises that his fears for his brother could probably be true and that there is little hope for his brother being alive.
Although when Bamforth defends the prisoner for the cigarettes, Macleish is defeated by his words, ‘(searching for words) How was I to know? … mean, he gave one of them to me … I’d lit it up’. This apology in broken phrases and the use of these ellipses by Hall indicates Macleish’s confused and emotionally damaged mind. Macleish’s attitude has fluctuated in the presence of the prisoner. This shows how emotionally fragile he is and it raises the issue to the audience to think about the emotions associated with war and the problems that one has to go through in war.
Nearing the end of the play, Macleish wants nothing to do with the prisoner and Bamforth’s efforts to fight for the prisoner’s life. We can see this when he turns away from the prisoner and says, ‘Och, what’s it matter anyway’. Macleish is worn out and has been emotionally destroyed as even when Bamforth appeals, ‘Macleish does not move’. This is a sign of Macleish’s defeat of hope because the prisoner holds no imperative value as his brother is probably dead. Even though Macleish could represent the audience, at this stage of the play it is clear that he is a weak man.
This makes the audience think that who knows how people would react in this kind of scenario. Macleish’s part in the play ends in confusion and chaos as he simply does not know what to do and so does nothing. Willis Hall ends Macleish this way to help the audience to understand the emotional trauma and the dilemmas of war. To conclude, Willis Hall has written the play mainly to make people aware of the moral situation of conscripted soldiers in World War Two. He does this by showing different attitudes to war of different characters in the play and he uses the Japanese prisoner to revolve the issues around.
Bamforth and Macleish are two characters that have oscillating attitudes towards the prisoner. At first, we see Bamforth as a barrack room lawyer and therefore he is someone who has learned the rules of war and the army and uses his knowledge and his wit to his advantage over other members of the patrol. He is also not afraid to test the authority of people in command especially Johnstone. Bamforth can be classed as a bully as he uses his cruel wit, physical strength and intelligence to mock mentally weak soldiers in the patrol for example, Evans and Whitaker. In this way, he is a character who the audience have difficulty sympathising with.
When the prisoner is first captured, Bamforth is the only person willing to kill him showing that he has a strong mental capacity. Then when put in charge of the prisoner, Bamforth is quick to torment the prisoner for his personal pleasure by giving him pet like tasks. However once Bamforth finds out about the prisoner’s family, a relationship starts with him. After this point, we see the other side of Bamforth which contrasts with our first impression of him. This relationship between the two develops on such a high scale that Bamforth defends the prisoner when everyone else is against him.
By the end of the play, Bamforth doesn’t distinguish between the prisoner and the other members of the patrol. Macleish is more of an idealistic working class man who most of the audience can relate to. As he is conscripted, he does not have the military intelligence of Mitchem and Johnstone and so although he is hard working, he finds it difficult to carry out his duties as an NCO. We see this when he is unable to control the patrol when left in charge. When the prisoner is captured, he is one of the few that are unwilling to kill the prisoner.
As Macleish represents most of the audience, he shows the terror in having to kill a human being in cold blood. Like Bamforth, he too believes that war should be fought by the rules as he is an idealist. His attitude towards the prisoner changes according to the hope he has of his brother who he believes has been captured by the Japanese. He treats the prisoner as he would like the Japanese to treat his brother. Although Mitchem’s plans to kill the prisoner and his own changing behaviour to the prisoner cause confusion and leave Macleish in a helpless situation. Macleish’s scenario represents the moral dilemmas of war.