“The Long, the Short and the Tall” is a play written by Willis Hall in 1958. They play tells the story of a patrol of volunteer soldiers in the British army, fighting in the Malayan jungle. The soldiers are of very different backgrounds but somehow come together in the patrol and unite. They are willing and ready to fight for their country at first, until they experience true wartime life when they come across a lone Japanese soldier wandering in the woods. The Japanese soldier is captured and, through no fault of his own as he can do nothing, is the patrol’s eventual downfall.
The author, Willis Hall, tries to show the effects of war on the average person whilst also arguing a case for the use of war, as a last resort. He also shows how inexperience in wars, by drafting in volunteers who are deemed expendable, can and often does lead to disaster. Throughout the play Hall develops the characters of the soldiers strongly in unexpected and sometimes surprising ways. The development is thorough however and it strengthens the argue that anyone personality can change drastically in time of war.
Sergeant Mitchem is the patrol leader and in the opening scenes seems to have a strong and resilient character. He is open-minded to ideas from others and fair and equal to his whole patrol, keeping the morale up whilst maintaining focus amongst the troops. He tries to keep trouble at bay by solving problems diplomatically. It seems the men look up to him, in particular Private Whitaker, who takes to Mitchem as a fatherly figure. This overview of his character seems to change as the play goes on, with each major incident revealing more about him. Although he seems to be a strong and professional leader during the opening scenes, his leadership qualities whither as major incidents pass by. A weakness that is clearly shown is his lack of judgement. This point is stoutly backed up when he gives Whitaker, the least able and most weak-minded member of the patrol, orders to hold a gun to the Japanese soldier whilst under immense strain and pressure which eventually leads to the troops’ downfall and peril. This shows that, whilst Mitchem is an excellent leader during calm and periods of little stress, he is liable to crack under pressure.
Private Bamforth feels he is suited to being in the army. He is the patrol’s “hard man” and is not afraid to let his feelings be known by the rest of the men, often making sure they all do. He is loud and energetic and willing to fight for what he believes in. He holds strong discriminatory and even racist views and is quite happy to be racist in front of the others. He is up for trouble with anyone and is often the source of problems. It is as though he is trying to be a hero or feels the world is against him, often getting involved in things that do not concern him, always making himself out to be the under-dog and the lone-warrior. This becomes evident when he feels it is his duty to protect the Japanese soldier when the rest are more concerned in getting back to camp safely, even if this means the man must die.
Bamforth is shrouded in controversy which adds a mysterious, even eerie, sense to his presence. At some points he is calm, steady, willing to be involved and encouraging, more humane than the rest of the patrol. The audience feel natural sympathy towards such a difficult man during these times. At others though, he is the complete opposite; aggressive, snappy, racist and argumentative. He even resorts to violence against his own allies to get his own way. The audience find it near-impossible to find sympathy for him when this attitude occurs. He clearly holds no respect for the hierarchy of the British Army, regularly cursing those who are ranked higher than him and showing resentment to his and other’s ranking stripes.
Towards the final few scenes Bamforth seems to change dramatically, become arguably the most likeable member of the patrol. This change in character seems sudden to the audience but in actual fact Willis Hall subtly builds it up as the play wears on. As he tries to protect an enemy of his own country, a country he is very proud to be an inhabitant of, the audience feel for him and finally understand him properly. He knows the hardship the man’s family would be going through if he was killed, especially after seeing the photographs. Bamforth’s personality clearly changes dramatically by the time his death comes about; sadly he has little time to make a significant impact on the world around him, despite having newfound potential to do so.
Private Whitaker does not seem suited to army life at all. It is evident that he missed home and is struggling to really fit in with the other men and with the routines of the army in wartime. A shy and quiet man, he is often on the receiving end of the banter. It is also apparent that he has a sensitive character. Whitaker sorely misses his girlfriend at home and looks to Mitchem as a father figure. He is opposed to the execution of the Japanese soldier. His weak personality is brought into full view towards the end of the play, when he lacks the mettle to stand against the rest of his patrol alongside Bamforth and protect the prisoner, even though he knows in his heart it is morally right. When ordered to cover the prisoner with his gun as Mitchem and Johnstone attempt to overpower Bamforth, he panics. It proves to be a fatal decision on Mitchem’s part, as Whitaker shoots the prisoner at the slightest movement, alerting Japanese soldiers nearby. This decisive twist is the clearest evidence that Whitaker has a passive personality and a liability in the field of war. Hall uses dramatic incident to its full effect to show this.
Willis Hall uses many different situations and scenarios to reveal the characteristics and strengths/weaknesses of the troops. Each member of the patrol portrays their full features when faced with difficulty or a challenge; often a matter of life or death. Each troop has a completely different personality, and so when all these contrasting types of people are thrown in together, reactions will inevitably be different. Mitchem is the strong and imposing figure, the man who’s one priority is to bring his fellow troops to safety. He is courageous and just, even when dealing with the enemy. Whitaker on the hand is the complete opposite of this. He is nervous and quiet and lacks any authority amongst the patrol. When finally given some responsibility, he ends up costing the men their lives.
Similarly, MacLeish and Bamforth have contrasting personalities. MacLeish has a good heart, but his authority amongst the men when left in charge for a short while is not strong enough. Bamforth seems to be an argumentative and arrogant soldier, willing to pick a fight with anyone. Through Hall’s dramatic incident, he is later seen as the most humane member of the patrol, even risking his life to spare an “innocent” man. The main focus in the revelations of personalities in all the men is the arrival of the Japanese prisoner. Willis Hall allows this one change to the structure of the patrol to expose all the men’s contrasting characteristics.