the KNIFE : based on a true story

This film is held by the Imperial War Museum (ID: COI 694).


Propaganda film encouraging Malayans to inform on Communist Terrorists (CTs) in return for cash rewards.

Narration over dramatic incident. Malayan home guard parade is addressed by the regional governor who honours two guard members responsible for the death of some terrorists. Flashback to Che Mansur and Che Osman setting off on a hunting expedition - both carry 12 gauge shotguns and Mansur has a knife. They shoot a pigeon, and while attempting to retrieve the bird, are captured by "communist bandits who live in the jungle and prey on innocent Malayans". Stripped of their guns the two men are marched deeper into the jungle for "disposal". However, the three guerrillas encounter a stream bridged only by logs, and while two of them are preoccupied with the problem of crossing, Mansur stabs his guard and the two villagers escape. Reaching a police station they alert the authorities, and a Gurkha patrol sets out to track the guerrillas. Encumbered by their wounded companion the terrorists are overtaken and promptly despatched - they are in fact unceremoniously shot in the back. Cut to parade - Osman and Mansur's prompt action is "appreciated by the authorities", and a cash reward from the Malayan government is granted within 24 hours of the terrorists' death. Although of many races, the people of Malaya are united against the communist terrorists who threaten peace and security.



The Knife, which was released to Malayan cinemas in November 1952, promoted a government reward scheme which offered substantial cash rewards in return for the capture of ‘Communist terrorists’. The use of rewards for information had been adopted in earlier imperial campaigns – for example the Boer War – and ‘passed through three distinct phases’ in Malaya (Ramakrishna, War In History, 334). The first followed the arrival of Hugh Carleton Greene (later Director General of the BBC) in Malaya in September 1950, who set up and headed the Emergency Information Services. Greene proposed that the only emotion ‘stronger than fear among a terrorised population with very little civic consciousness is greed’. Thus, in December 1950, he secured large increases in the ‘scale of rewards for information leading to the capture or killing of terrorists’. In the first half of 1951, the Government paid out $500,000 under this scheme and by June 1952, almost $2 million had been paid out in rewards (Ramakrishna, 2002, 116-117, Straits Times, 24 June 1952, 4).

The arrival of Sir Gerald Templer as the new High Commissioner General in February 1952 saw a further increase in rewards, as Templer used the reward scheme to target the leading figures of the Malayan Communist Party. For example, the reward for information or action leading to the capture of Chin Peng was raised from $80,000 to $250,000 (and $125,000 if he was brought in dead). However, in January 1953, the reward scheme was revised once again. Amidst concern that the high, publicly promoted rewards were actually serving to enhance the prestige of those terrorists who evaded capture, establishing them as figures of ‘hero worship’, Templer quietly reduced, and stopped publicising, the amounts on offer (Ramakrishna, 2002, 156-157).

Regardless of its effectiveness, the reward scheme was the subject of much criticism during the Emergency. Soldiers complained that ‘terrorists who were caught were treated like murderers, while those who surrendered were “treated like Kings”’, while others questioned the morality of a system that not only allowed terrorists to walk out of the jungle and return to society, but actually rewarded such behaviour. Historian Kumar Ramakrishna argued that ‘while dubious at one level, [the use of rewards] was certainly less problematic than other strategies used to bring wars to an end’, particularly as such a policy was motivated by a desire to reach a resolution as soon as possible (Ramakrishna, War in History, 352).

The Knife was presented to the press at a screening in Kuala Lumpur in November 1952. The recently appointed head of the Government Films Division, Tom Hodge, explained that the Malayan Film Unit had been reorganised and ‘efforts had been specially directed towards producing film in English, Malay, Chinese and Tamil’ (as The Knife was). He also noted that the system of distribution was being overhauled, but despite these apparent changes, The Straits Timesstrongly criticised the Unit’s output after a further press screening in December. The only picture ‘with an ounce of inspiration behind it’, the writer argued, was The Knife, ‘which was shown to the general public in Singapore two or three weeks ago, anyway!’ (Straits Times, 27 November 1952, 5, and 7 December 1952, 13).

The Knife may even have been released slightly earlier under another title. A film entitled “Tuah Bermatong Kerpada Chapat (‘It Pays to be Quick on the Draw’) was entered into the Edinburgh Festival in 1952. In describing the film, The Straits Times said that it ‘tells the tale of two Malays who are captured by the bandits while pidgeon [sic] hunting and who eventually turn the tables on them with the aid of the Gurkhas’ (Straits Times, 27 July 1952, 3). This film, along with My New Home and From Darkness into Light (also known as ‘The Way Out’), which addressed, respectively, Chinese resettlement and bandit surrender, were directed by O.W. Kheng Law, who would later replace Hodge as the head of the MFU (Straits Times, 27 January 1952, 9). Kheng Law was one of 30 Chinese within the MFU in 1953, working alongside 70 Malays, 22 Indians, 9 Eurasians and 4 Europeans (Catalogue of Films, 1953, 13).



The Knife was produced in 1952, when the Government was at its most active in promoting its reward scheme. The formal structure of the film, which is framed by the public ceremony for the two men, emphasises and prioritises the ‘promptly acknowledged’ rewards for their actions. While the film does highlight the ‘cash reward’, playing on a widely held Government assumption that the rural Chinese were primarily motivated by material incentives, the film does not mention the specific sums on offer, and ultimately still suggests that these actions are prompted by a civic and moral responsibility, rather than by money: ‘Though the people of Malaya are of many races, they are united in their determination to rid their country of communist terrorists who threaten peace and security’. This concluding sentiment endorses existing Government propaganda in presenting a multi-racial Malaya united against the Communists (‘the men of Malaya have banded together’), and also illustrates a recent shift in Government terminology. From May 1952, the ‘bandits’ were often referred to as ‘Communist terrorists’, primarily to underline to those outside of Malaya the severity of this threat. Film was a central part of these efforts – The Knife was trade shown in London in early 1954 (Beckett, 2001, 101, The Straits Times, 2 February 1954, 6).

The film avoids some of the more controversial aspects of the reward system. For example, the two heroes are not ‘terrorists’ or informants themselves, but instead simply stumble across the bandits. The film also emphasises widely held fears around the ‘jungle’, as it presents the edge of the jungle as a clearly delineated area between the safe and unsafe spaces. The two men cross over into this ‘unsafe’ space while pigeon hunting (which they do for recreation, the film suggests, rather than food) and are immediately endangered. The ‘communist terrorists’ are presented as disorganised and at odds with one another (predictably there is no attempt to explain their motives) and are said to ‘prey on innocent Malayans’. Significantly though, the ‘Communist terrorists’ are killed within the film. The reward scheme placed a higher premium on the capture of terrorists ‘alive’, yet communist propaganda would seek to deter surrenders by suggesting that more money was on offer for action leading to kills rather than captures. In this respect, the film thus fails to correct, and inadvertently enhances, communist propaganda.

Tom Rice (February 2010)


Works Cited

Beckett, I.F. Modern Insurgencies and Counter-Insurgencies. Guerrillas and their Opponents since 1750 (London: Routledge, 2001).

Catalogue of Films Made by the Malayan Film Unit (Kuala Lumpur: Department of Information, 1953).

Ramakrishna , Kumar, ‘“Bribing the Reds to Give Up”: Rewards Policy in the Malayan Emergency’, War in History, Vol. 9, No. 3 (2002), 332-363.

Ramakrishna, Kumar, Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1958 (Richmond: Curzon Press. 2002).

‘Negri Sees an Anti-Red Film made in Negri’, The Straits Times, 27 January 1952, 9.

‘$800,000 is Paid to Anti-Red Whisperers in 6 Months’, The Straits Times, 24 June 1952, 4.

‘2 Malayan Films for the Festival’, The Straits Times, 27 July 1952, 3.

‘Expert is Coming to Train Malayan Film Unit Staff’, The Straits Times, 27 November 1952, 5.

‘This is Your Film Star, Mr Hodge’, The Straits Times, 7 December 1952, 13.

‘London Log’, The Straits Times, 2 February 1954, 6.



  • the KNIFE : based on a true story

Technical Data

Running Time:
9 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
788 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Production company
Malayan Film Unit





Production Organisations