Production company: A Sovereign Pictures release, Village Roadshow Pictures presents, A Charles Waterstreet and Siege production; tail credit ‘made with the participation of Australian Film Corporation Pty Limited' - copyrights to Blood Oath Productions Pty. Limited and the Australian Film Finance Corporation Pty Limited; script developed with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission; special thanks to the Queensland Film Development Office.
Budget: Budget $7.3 million (co-producer Denis Whitburn, DVD commentary); Murray’s Australian Film puts it at $7 million; David Stratton in The Avocado Plantation suggests a budget of $10 million, and it did start out at $12 million, but producers always inflated budgets a little to make them sound impressive. Whitburn spends a fair amount of time in the DVD commentary noting the effect of the reduced budget on the filming.
Locations: tail credit “filmed at the Warner Roadshow Studios Queensland, Australia.” See this site’s ‘about the film’ section for more details.
Filmed: in the commentary track, Denis Whitburn says the film was shot “at the end of 1989”. Cinema Papers’ production survey shows it in production in the September 1989 edition and in post-production in the January 1990 issue. Russell Crowe in his Ray Martin interview says he was on set for ten weeks.
Australian distributor: Village Roadshow
Theatrical release: the film was released wide in Village cinemas in Sydney and Melbourne 26th July 1990
Video release: Premiere - the film was first released on tape in June 1991.
35mm Kodak Eastmancolor
Lenses and Panaflex camera by Panavision ®
Dolby stereo in selected theatres
Running time: 105 mins (Roadshow distributor timing); 108 mins (Murray’s Australian Film, Canberra Times’ video review); 109 mins (NY Times, LA Times)
DVD time: 1’43’47 (excluding head audio commentary title, and tail ScreenSound and Roadshow animated logos)
Considering the size of its budget, the film did indifferent business in the domestic market. The Film Victoria report on Australian box office listed returns of $707,194, equivalent to $1,152,726.
It was noted in the press that the film dropped from fourth to fifth place in its second week (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taken $1,946,899 in its first week to head the pack, with Pretty Woman also still on the rise), “with ticket sales plummeting by 41 per cent in only its second week of release.” (The Canberra Times, 11th August, 1990).
A sharp drop like this is usually attributed to poor word of mouth rather than negative reviews (in any case the film had mixed to positive reviews outside specialist film magazines, which tended to be unhappy with the show).
The film did much worse in the US market.
Box Office Mojo here, records a total domestic gross of US$52,654 following the July 19th 1991 release, with the widest release 6 theatres, and the opening weekend in four theatres producing $14,296. The film lasted only for two weeks and closed August 22nd.
The film also faced difficulties in its Japanese release - Toho reneged on a deal to screen it - but the producers claim that after finding a new distributor, the film did its best business in Japan.
The film did muted European and UK business, though it had a presence in Germany.
The film picked up 9 nominations at the 1990 AFI Awards, but scored only two wins.
Winner, Best Achievement in Sound (Ben Osmo, Gethin Creagh, Roger Savage) (Flirting, Golden Braid and The Big Steal missed out)
Winner, Best Achievement in Costume Design (Roger Kirk) (Hunting, Two Brohers Running and Weekend with Kate missed out)
Nominated, Best Feature Film (Charles Waterstreet, Denis Whitburn, Brian Williams) (Terry Hayes, Doug Mitchell and George Miller won for Flirting)
Nominated, Qantas Award for Best Achievement in Direction (Stephen Wallace) (Ray Argall won for Return Home)
Nominated, Cinesure Award for Best Original Screenplay (Denis Whitburn, Brian Williams) (David Parker won for The Big Steal)
Nominated, Samuelson Award for Best Achievement in Cinematography (Russell Boyd) (Jeff Darling won for The Crossing)
Nominated, Best Achievement in Production Design (Bernard Hides) (Roger Ford won for Flirting)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (John Polson) (Steve Bisley won for The Big Steal)
Nominated, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Toshi Shioya) (Steve Bisley won for The Big Steal)
Russell Boyd won the Best Cinematography award at the 1991 Film Critics Circle of Australia awards
The DVD-Rom lists an award by the international committee of the Red Cross and the Russian Directors Guild in relation to a screening at a 1999 International Human-Rights Film Festival.
In the Blood Oath DVD commentary track, co-producer Denis Whitburn notes film reviewer David Stratton’s outrage at Bryan Brown not being nominated in the Best Actor category at the AFI awards and claims it was one of Brown’s strongest screen performances. (Max von Sydow won for Father, Frankie J. Holden was nominated for Return Home, Ben Mendelsohn for The Big Steal and Russell Crowe for The Crossing).
Whitburn claims a “real resentment” against the film, as it won only two technical awards out of its 9 nominations.
Whitburn complains of a backlash or a resentment, and co-producer/co-writer Williams suggests it wasn’t seen as contemporary.
Whitburn continues that there was a sense or a feeling that “we shouldn’t be spending this kind of money on Australian films … it’s just this kind of second class ethos we Australians seem to have that we’re not good enough in a lot of ways…we should only be spending a couple of million dollars …not seven million dollars.”
Whitburn claims that there were awards for talents and films given out on the night that have been forgotten since then. Presumably he’s referring to the likes of Flirting, Return Home and The Big Steal.
It could of course have been simply that AFI voters decided that the film was not good enough compared to its opposition.
Brian Williams also complains about the treatment of the film, suggesting that the film received better reviews internationally (especially in Japan, where he claims Time gave it eight pages of coverage) than it did domestically, and citing one reviewer who wrote a negative review, only to later say that he got it wrong.
Williams also mentions that the film wasn’t officially invited to the Venice Film Festival, but that the local Communist party newspaper gave the film an unofficial Golden Lion ...
For a sample of domestic and international reviews, see this site's reviews section.
The film stayed in print during the VHS years, and then it became an early (2002) release for Roadshow in the golden years of DVD, using a ScreenSound/NFSA restored print. This was subsequently re-packaged by Reel, and remains available. The film can also be found on streaming services.
The image was correctly formatted, relatively clean, with good colour and sound and better than average standard def sharpness. There is a detailed and positive review of this 2002 release at Michael’s DVD here.
The film also came with a swag of extras:
The Film’s Journey: a 4:3 27’28” making of with plenty of informative material. This is a series of mainly stills, narrated by co-writer and producer Brian Williams, tracking the film from his original inspiration though its development, production and release in Japan, and concluding with scenes from his father’s funeral. At the end, there is footage from the ABC of his father at the film’s release in Japan. It makes very clear what a personal journey it was for Williams and his father, and is a good extra;
Behind the Scenes: a 4:3 17’04” making of, which shows the shooting of various scenes and has a commentary track by director Stephen Wallace. The image is muddied and soft - Wallace mentions it had mould growing on it before being discovered and saved - but it still will interest movie and war history buffs. This was after all the second movie shot at Roadshow’s Gold Coast studio, and there’s footage of the studios, then surrounded by bush, and of some of the scenes being shot, including handheld coverage of the Ambonese trying to assault the Japanese prisoners and a rehearsal of a trial scene. Wallace identifies some of the crew - we even get to see the crew photo being taken - a big crew for an Australian film - and he recalls getting a video split half way through the shoot. Wallace confesses this was because he annoyed the camera crew intensely by shooting on his video camera so that he didn’t have to keep looking through the lens. The film ends with the Japanese cast and Bryan Brown singing Waltzing Matilda with and for George Takei. Another good extra, thanks to Wallace narrating and explaining the footage;
Ambon POWs Remember: a 4:3 11’38” interview with Australian POWs Tom Pledger and Bob Allen, who ended up in Tantoey POW camp and at Laha. POWs Vernon Ball and Jack Serant are also interviewed. The sound isn’t the best in places (for Ball and Serant in particular) but for Australian war history buffs, this makes the disc better value than a simple streaming of the movie. Survivor Tom Pledger tells a grim joke about a plague of rats at the time they arrived disappearing ... because they ate all the rats. Just like chicken, he reckons. Snails also supplemented the cup of rice in the morning and the afternoon. They were terrible, just like eating soil, he notes, but they were good for protein. Dysentery was the worst, but he also had beriberi five times (the shots showing details of the disease are graphic). Other matters are discussed, such as the bombing of the island by American bombers and the prisoners post-war attitude to Japanese people;
Director’s Commentary with Stephen Wallace: Wallace’s commentary track is more to the point and more practical and interesting than the one involving the producers/writers team. For example, he spends time on the production and costume design, and on the way the placement of the camera conveys a sub-textural message to the audience (500 mm lenses were used on the large studio set);
Producer/Writer Commentary with writer/producers Brian Williams, Denis Whitburn and co-producer Annie Bleakley: A couple of internal references to the year 2001 suggest this was the time the Whitburn/Williams/Bleakley commentary track was done, making it a vintage early outing in the golden years of DVD.
The result is diffuse and inclined to meander, with much time spent on the development of the project and the financing of it, which is likely mainly to interest film historians, involving as it does the second FFC-funded film, after Roadshow had first received funding for The Delinquents, another early commercial misfire for the company.
Some of the commentary discussion is misleading - Whitburn asserts for example that there had been a silence about Australians at war before ‘Breaker’ Morant, Gallipoli and his television mini-series The Last Bastion, thereby wiping from the record the likes of the 1971-73 television series Spyforce, which dedicated some 42 hour long episodes to behind enemy lines operations, all the more problematic because the comment comes not long after a remark about the importance of not forgetting the past and all the more notable because elsewhere in the commentary Whitburn recalls that his father experienced Tobruk but later participated in Z force (which also became the subject of Tim Burstall’s indifferent 1980 Attack Force Z):
Ray Martin Live Interview with Russell Crowe and Bryan Brown: a 3’41” 16:9 interview with the pair by Ray Martin. A light-hearted piece of commercial TV fluff, with much joking about Crowe's character being a pencil sharpener for Brown’s character. Brown talks about becoming a star and honesty, and jokes that on set there wasn’t a more honest pencil sharpener than Crowe;
Music Video “Memorial Day” - 30 Odd Feet of Grunts: a 5’14” 16:9 oddity from the days when Rusty fancied himself as a singer. The song’s a tribute to Crowe’s grandfather, Stanley Williams, who was a photographer in the second world war. Crowe’s not much of a singer, and the music video awkwardly insists on juxtaposing war footage with thinly veiled, sometimes almost nude sylphs who turn out to be nurses who end up dead. The style is poor person’s Hunters & Collectors …The Grunts were still online at time of writing here;
DVD-Rom feature: see this site’s ‘covers’ gallery for images of the first pages of the material available in this feature. It is of course quaint to see a DVD-Rom in action, but there is plenty of documentation to hand for those who are interested.
The documents include a study guide, contemporary documents, original trial correspondence, a John Williams eulogy by his son, the Geneva convention relative to the treatment of prisoners of war, original trial documents in relation to Hideo Katayama (the inspiration for Lt Tanaka) and others, historical analysis, original mass trial documents, original sketch material (maps), an honour roll, web links (some are long out of date but can be found on the Wayback Machine) and recommended reading and viewing for further research. For anyone interested in the film or the events in Ambon, this is another major plus for the release;
Theatrical trailer: in 4:3, with American-accented narrator (and a special appearance by Jason Donovan). There’s a bit of crackle on the soundtrack at the end, and the image is tape soft, but it’s not a bad pitch for the show.
Subtitles: like most Roadshow releases, there was a useful set of subtitles for the hearing impaired.
As for the film itself, there’s a fierce contest between Deborah Unger, Jason Donovan and John Clarke as to who has the most dramatically useless and irrelevant role, and in the end the prize has to go to Donovan, but the others don’t go down without a fight - Unger keeps popping up until she says farewell, and Clarke is always on hand to offer a beer. That said, attempts to wangle Donovan into the narrative sometimes verge on the heroic. (John Bach also has a hard time playing an officer who for no discernible reason tries to make the job of Bryan Brown's Captain Cooper harder, and while Russell Crowe's name will attract attention, Brown was right to joke about the 'pencil sharpening' nature of the characer. Still, Crowe does a solid job as a pencil sharpener, while other minor characters also work hard for the money).
There’s also a fierce contest between who can offer the most sneering examples of a melodramatic flourish - and here there’s more than a quartet of key contenders from whom to choose. There’s George Takei's Vice-admiral baron, and there’s Captain Ikeuchi who both do a dab line in sneering, and then there’s Nicholas Eadie's Sgt Keenan constantly getting agitated about the Japanese savages, while for variation there’s John Poulson’s over the top evocation of a dying Australian soldier.
Nor should Terry O'Quinn's Major Beckett's sneering, snide unquiet Amercian be forgotten.
It’s a competitive field, but surely the prize for melodrama has to go to Polson. None of this is necessarily the fault of the actors - scriptwriters and director, as usual, should really collect the gong, but it means the result - in comparison say to the tautly directed and scripted ‘Breaker’ Morant - never quite makes it.
All these actors deliver good work, but usually some moment comes along where a melodramatic flourish - or "dramatic license" - undercuts the impact.
The tech credits are all good, the film looks handsome, but while Bryan Brown delivers a strong performance, the key Japanese cast emerge with ensemble honours.
For any Australian student of the second world war, the Ambon material is highly significant, but the film can’t quite handle the demons it unleashes. In some self-reflective moments in the DVD release, director Stephen Wallace has suggested that the truth was more interesting than the film’s evocation of what happened.
It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s the way it turned out. At the end, when rosary beads turn up in the hands of the Japanese war criminal and he’s shot and carried away by stretcher bearers following the shooting party, some viewers might find it hard to feel much for him - he did after all decapitate four Australian airmen, whatever the truth of the excuse offered that he thought he was following legitimate orders. Being a Christian should in this context count for no more than being a zen Buddhist.
Beresford managed to generate considerable sympathy for a man who is accepted, by most modern accounts, as having been a butcher of the Boers, but Blood Oath the film doesn’t quite manage the same emotional impact regarding the existential notion of war as completely pointless carnage.
The debate over Deborah Unger’s character and the role played by Jason Donovan suggests some of the tensions at work in the production. Roadshow clearly wanted a commercial hit, and probably would have been ecstatic if Unger had gone to bed with Bryan Brown.
But the result is neither dramatic fish nor historically accurate fowl, and Roadshow didn’t get what it wanted, and in the process the film manages to do a few unfortunate things to history.
It’s also a pity that the contextualising issues of Nagasaki and the bombing of Japanese cities involving the deaths of thousands of civilians - arguably murder on a mass scale - had to be dropped for budgetary reasons, as it might have made the ethical dilemmas more complex than they appear in the finished film.
In the end,the result fictionalises too much to have a good connection to the real story - perhaps that’s why there’s no end titles telling the audience what happened to the other accused Japanese soldiers seen in the trial, or to the other characters, even though at the start much is made about the many Japanese prisoners on trial, whittled down to one suicide and one firing squad verdict.
There’s too many melodramatic moments for the film to work as a drama, perhaps the most egregious being the distortion which sees the character based on co-writer Brian Williams’ father go the biff with a Japanese prisoner in a way that feels false. What’s left then are patches of good story-telling, mingling with patches of distractions and unresolved questions.
The handsome DVD package does however offer plenty of material with which to right the balance in relation to the real story - this was the work of Brian Williams and Paul Coolahan and it is clearly a labour of love, much superior to standard extras packages.
Such is the significance of the events that, even with all its flaws, the film remains relevant to modern viewers (and not just school students, even if students can be tortured by the usual study guide, which again is better than usual and refracts the issues through events in East Timor).
For those who want a shorthand taster, the ASO has 3 clips from the film here, with notes by curator Lynden Barber.
Students of Australian film reviewing will be pleased to contrast Barber’s soft treatment for the ASO site with his original dismissal of the film for the Sydney Morning Herald on its domestic release as a “brave attempt” with "something missing". (See this site’s review section).
Back then, according to Barber, Bryan Brown “(over)acted in two keys, either glowering exaggeratedly or looking downcast”, but over the years, it seems his performance has come to be “especially admirable”, “his fierce determination as Captain Cooper palpable but never over the top.”
Ah well, it’s fine to have a change of heart and mind, though far too late to help the film’s poor performance at the box office.
There is a remarkable amount of information, by way of discussion and documentation, in the DVD release of the film regarding the develoment and scripting of the film.
Suffice to say that the idea for the film came from Brian Williams’ discovery - while still a child - of his father's documents, records and photographs of his involvement in the trial of Japanese soldiers (mainly navy) who had run the prison camps on Ambon, and in the process killed over 300 Australians (while treating those who'd survived with remarkable cruelty).
Promoted to Captain, John Myles Williams QC acted as prosecutor for the Australian War Crimes Tribunal, and later became a judge and eventually did an MA in history, while maintaining a particular interest in Japan (the DVD contains Williams’ funeral eulogy for his father).
Williams joined up with Denis Whitburn and they co-wrote the screenplay, though John Clarke was involved in extensive re-writing of the screenplay during the shoot. Keith Connelly wrote this footnote for his coverage of the film in Murray’s 1995 survey Australian Film:
“It is alleged that John Clarke did significant rewriting of the screenplay on location (Clarke was one of the cast). He is credited on the film as ‘Script Editor’”.
Director Stephen Wallace, in his DVD commentary track, confirms that there was re-writing and that Clarke was involved in it.
Being a generalist site, this site will only detail some screenplay matters that are mentioned in the DVD’s commentary tracks.
Denis Whitburn says it was a five year journey from inception to the cameras rolling on the first shot. Brian Williams then adds that it was some twenty years before that when he first discovered the original material of his father’s (including graphic photographs) on which the film was based.
Whitburn had previously worked with David Williamson on the television mini-series The Last Bastion (a mini-series about the second world war - Williamson later used a war mini-series for satirical purposes in Emerald City).
Whitburn claims he met Brian Williams at an AWG conference at Katoomba, at a time, November 1984, that The Last Bastion was about to go to air, “and the first words he said to me were, ‘I have the sequel to The Last Bastion.’”
Williams’ father, who had become a judge, gave them the okay to proceed with exploring the material and shaping it into a feature film - Williams' one condition was that he wouldn't comment on the screenplay or the film until it was completed.
Whitburn says they faced the same problems as he and Williamson had faced on The Last Bastion - how to take boxes and boxes of files, court transcripts, first hand accounts, and bring them down into a cohesive hundred minute story.
Whitburn says they originally had in mind a telemovie or mini-series, and they approached the ABC with the title Pacific Judgement (echoes of Judgement at Nuremberg). But then it evolved over the next year as an extended 80 page treatment for a feature film, with the opening (the discovery of the graves) and the closing (the execution) already in place.
With the extended treatment in place, they approached Bryan Brown at the time he was shooting Gorillas in the Mist in Africa with Sigourney Weaver and he quickly responded.
Brown’s character name of Cooper reflected the way Whitburn and Williams drew on the Gary Cooper character in High Noon as a role model. One man standing alone almost, against the forces that want to compromise him, the pair suggest in the DVD commentary.
The treatment also led to first draft funding from the AFC, but Whitburn notes that the AFC weren’t happy with the first draft, suggesting that he and Williams weren’t familiar enough with Japanese culture to successfully create Japanese characters on the page.
Whitburn says that even by the time of the third draft, the Japanese characters hadn’t changed that much, and when Japanese actors started to audition for the key roles, the word got around in actors’ circles in Tokyo that the writers had captured their culture and characters, resulting in Toshi Shioya wanting to do the film:
“… so we found it rather ironic that a couple of years previous we were being judged by our culture that we were getting this other culture wrong, but the other culture that we’d supposedly got wrong, were congratulating us for actually capturing their culture …”
Whitburn notes that once the finance was in place they began receiving weird and wonderful memos from assorted executives supervising the production, suggesting ways that the script might be changed. He notes one classic was a suggestion that all the Australian soldiers, the guards in the camp, be shown walking around wearing Chesty Bond singlets so that lots of bronzed Aussie bodies could be featured.
The script was structured, according to Williams, so that Private Jimmy Fenton’s (John Polson) recall of events would turn up after Takahashi’s acquittal (if it had happened earlier it would have complicated the acquittal).
Williams claims that there was a historical basis for this amnesia, arising from suffering of the prisoners. He also notes that one of the chief witnesses in the trial was a Dutchman, but the creative team chose to have an Australian as the chief witness for the film.
According to Wallace, the initial speech by the defence counsel to the Japanese prisoners, filmed at night, was rewritten by the Japanese actors because they thought what was in the script wasn’t appropriate. They rang Tokyo and got a proper speech for what he would have said to the soldiers.
Whitburn notes that in the beginning they had a much more epic aspect to the film - the original draft brought in Nagasaki as a physical reality, and the script cut between Nagasaki and the Ambon trial, as well as following a much more personal narrative on the Japanese character Hideo Tanaka. There was more material about his sweetheart, his love life and other details which might have allowed the viewer to feel more for him (though Annie Bleakly claims that the film already provides enough material to generate enough empathy for Tanaka).
Where in the final cut, Tanaka’s Christianity is initially suggested only by a close up of the cross that he’s wearing as he arrives by truck for the trial, the original plan was to set all this up with the Nagasaki material. One shot, based on a cover of Life magazine, c. 1945-46, for which rights had been secured, would have shown the stone head of Christ in the foreground, severed from the stone figure of Christ at the top of the church, and this would have been the basis for all the Nagasaki scenes not used.
There is no record of this photo turning up on a Life magazine cover, but this photo by Bernard Hofmann, featured “the head of a statue of Christ, severed by the bomb blast at Nagasaki, lies before the ruins of a Roman Catholic cathedral,” appeared in Life, October 20 1945:
According to Whitburn, the Nagasaki scenes were sacrificed simply for budgetary reasons. The production looked into models and glass effects, as a way of giving the film a more epic quality, and Whitburn recalls fights, blood on the carpet, “creative differences” at the time, but it just came down to the money.
The DVD release provides much more documentation about the film and its origins. More can be found out about the DVD release itself by reverting to the Wayback Machine here while a fan site about Russell Crowe also features Williams here.
Williams wrote a film tie-in which was released at the time of the film’s release.
For more details of this 1990 release within the Australian library system, see Trove here.
(Below: the film tie-in written by Brian Williams).
As a court room drama which looked at events involving many people in real life, a big cast was assembled for the film.
According to Stephen Wallace, there was a long workshop before the production began, including two or three weeks of rehearsal, a novelty for the Japanese cast. The workshop included a talk with Brian Williams’ father, screenings of any relevant movies that could be found, written information was passed around (the Japanese actors contacted Tokyo universities) and so on.
Bryan Brown: Brown spent time with Williams’ father, but didn’t set out to replicate him on screen. While Brown was cast before director Stephen Wallace worked on the project, Brown had worked with director Stephen Wallace on a number of films - Wallace had notably given Brown his screen break in the short feature Love Letters from Teralba Road and worked on the prison drama STIR.
In his DVD commentary, Wallace discusses Brown’s tendency to sometimes sound flat or wooden and he attributes it to insecurity. His method of dealing with it was to say to Brown “you know Bryan, the thing you do … you’re doing that thing”, which is to say being dead, rather than being alive.
Brown has a relatively detailed wiki here.
Russell Crowe: This was the first big screen outing for Russell Crowe - the writer/producer DVD commentary track has a number of jokes about Crowe’s ‘initiative’ in getting himself noticed by the camera, heading off almost every day to director Stephen Wallace with “suggestions”, while working out every day. Crowe did an audition video which contained, as well as the usual material, a sequence where he delivered his lines while at the same time it looked as if he was bowling in a game of cricket, as a way of being noticed. He was noticed.
According to director Wallace, Crowe already had another role, in the teen pic The Crossing, which he was waiting to do, and so they knew he would be fairly big. (The project had been delayed, and so Crowe treated his time working with Bryan Brown as a kind of apprenticeship).
Crowe initially tried out for the role that later went to Jason Donovan, and Wallace jokes about the audition with Crowe where he asked if he could read out letters he’d written for his character, writing back home to Sydney to Ambon.
According to Wallace, the letters amounted to some fifty pages, and he hastily told Crowe that a couple of pages would do for the casting session … but it left its mark and they gave him the biggest part they could find for him …
Wallace credits casting agent Faith Martin for discovering Crowe and sending Crowe over to him with the note that he was going to be big - Wallace thought it was just Faith going on again - but now the film’s releases have Crowe heavily featured as a selling point, even though he’s in a relatively minor role, whereas at the time the producers and the Village Roadshow team thought Jason Donovan was all the go. Wallace describes Crowe as being dedicated and relentless.
Deborah Unger: This was Deborah Unger’s first major feature film (she had previously appeared in the TV miniseries Bangkok Hilton). According to Wallace, Unger was a Canadian straight out of NIDA, who had to work very hard on her Australian accent.
Unger did some research of her own for the role, and according to co-producer Annie Bleakley dug up the original letter, which her character subsequently read to the dying Private Jimmy Fenton (John Polson). Village Roadshow had wanted a relationship to develop between Unger’s character and Captain Cooper (Bryan Brown), and Unger herself was keen for the characters to go further, but Stephen Wallace ruled against it. Unger has a wiki here.
Jason Donovan: well known at the time for the soap Neighbours, the actor was keen to play a role in the film, and returned from London to appear in it. Much was made of this by Roadshow in publicity but in the finished form, Donovan has little to do, with only a couple of lines and just a couple of scenes in which he’s in the foreground (in the firing squad and showing sympathy to Toshi Shioya’s character.
Director Wallace jokes that he made a deal with producer Charlie Waterstreet, whereby he’d give him two actors for publicity and he’d cast the rest for ability. The implication in the air is that one of the actors he gave for publicity was Jason Donovan, the other was George Takei, and he got the chance to cast the rest, though this shouldn’t be construed as a slur on Takei, because elsewhere in his DVD commentary, Wallace is effusive about working with Takei.
Donovan has a wiki here.
John Clarke: Clarke at this time was trying to develop a career as an actor, apart from his career as satirist, and appeared in films such as Death in Brunswick. As noted elsewhere, and according to director Wallace, John Clarke, as well as playing a journalist, acted as script editor, and did a lot of work helping structuring and re-writing the script, even after shooting began. He contributed to new scenes as required and added a few lines of comic material to leaven the mood. One line Wallace attributes to Clarke is Bryan Brown talking of the dead Australian flyers he’s found as “Phantoms Frank, 1 to 4”.
Clarke was also involved in re-writing the scene involving the evidence led by the American at the trial about signals. Wallace wasn’t happy with the scene as written, and kept getting fresh information from Sydney about what had happened, and the re-writing continued until the day before the scene was shot.
Clarke has a wiki here.
John Polson: according to Brian Williams, John Polson went on a diet of oranges to get himself into the shape of a POW being fed starvation rations by the Japanese. Brian Williams recalls him wrapping himself in glad wrap as his “personal sauna bath.” Polson has a wiki here.
John Bach: John Bach was a New Zealand actor, who according to Wallace was reluctant to play his role, which is unsurprising, because there is no real explanation in the film as to why he should make life so difficult for Captain Cooper (Brown) in the conduct of the trial. Bach has a short wiki listing here, and he bobs up in various films at NZ On Screen here.
The American contingent:
The two American imports were well known.
George Takei was known from Star Trek.
Terry O’Quinn, a reliable character actor, had made his name in the horror show The Stepfather.
Wallace says Takei got on with everybody in a way better than any actor he’s ever known and created a wonderful atmosphere on set. (Wallace refers viewers to the behind the scenes tape on the disc to see why).
Takei has a wiki here, and a presence on many Star Trek fan sites. He has also been a considerable social media presence in later years.
Terry O’Quinn has a wiki here.
The Japanese contingent:
Wallace flew to Japan to cast the Japanese contingent, and did that casting in a week.
Of the Japanese actors who came from Japan, Whitburn says that only Toshi Shioya could speak English well - the others learnt it as they went - and much of the material in the script in relation to Japanese war crimes, etc was new to them.
Toshi Shioya volunteered an actual photo of his wife as his character’s wife, and he contacted the Reverend Ryoich Katoh who had been on Ambon and who knew the real Hideo Tanaka well (by this time the reverend was 90 - there is more information about him and many other Japanese characters in the pdfs on the DVD release). Unfortunately Shioya died at age 56 in 2013, as noted here.
Tetsu Watanabe however turned out to be one of Japan’s leading Shakespearian actors, with some 32 productions behind him.
Director Wallace notes that every word spoken by Sokyu Fujita in his scenes was learnt the night before by rote. He arrived to play the Japanese defence counsel arrived unable to speak English and then performed this remarkable feat. Some of Fujita's other roles are listed here.
Tetsu Watanabe was another actor who spoke limited English and had to learn his lines by rote, but Wallace notes that in contrast to reserved Japanese actors, he was exuberant, arriving in the Gold Coast in Hawaian shirt and shorts, and throwing his arms around Wallace with a “Stephen”. He also developed a taste for Australian Rules. At the moment, Watanabe's wiki here is brief, and more films are listed at asianwiki here.
Another exception in terms of being able to speak English was Kazhuhiro Muroyama who had come from Japan to build his career in Australia and according to Stephen Wallace stayed after filming.
Another English-speaking exception was Yuichiro Senga, seen briefly, who was living in Sydney and answered a newspaper advertisement calling for Japanese actors.
According to Wallace, the Japanese actors were very committed, and wanted to show the truth of what happened, but also that the Japanese soldiers had dignity. “And that’s what we tried to get throughout the film. Be truthful but show the dignity of the Japanese as well.”
According to Whitburn, the original budget done for the film was close to A$12 million, which in 1986/87 terms was an enormously high budget and hard to raise. However they attracted the interest of the newly opened branch of American company New World Pictures.
Whitburn notes that once they received New World’s contract, “half the size of a telephone book,” things started to go wobbly.
Williams recalls one executive telling them that if the three men had lived at the end of ‘Breaker’ Morant, it “could well have been a blockbuster.” It was suggested that the ‘cavalry’ arrive waving a piece of paper saying that the Japanese soldier was reprieved. Whitburn notes they were dealing with the heritage of people on both sides, and it wasn’t something to be dealt with lightly for commercial demands, so that was that. (The carpet baggers at New World ended up making only one picture in Australia, The Punisher).
Then Ernst Goldschmidt of Sovereign Pictures (formerly with Orion, later Pandora and Shine) got involved and the producing team pitched the show to Village Roadshow, with Graham Burke at first passing on the material - thinking World War 2 was too difficult and having been in the different head space of The Delinquents rather than a war crimes trial.
Greg Coote, who had worked with Ten during Whitburn's The Last Bastion days, had returned to Roadshow, having already passed on the project in his Columbia days.
Persistence and passion paid off with both Burke and Coote, though no doubt Roadshow was also tempted by the prospect of having a property - a ‘show piece’ according to Whitburn - which could be filmed in the tropical surrounds of the new Gold Coast Roadshow studios. Whitburn estimates it took them four years to the point where Roadshow finally greenlit their involvement in the project. And then it was another year until the cameras rolled on the project.
Elsewhere in the commentary track, Williams recalls that the Commonwealth Bank underwriters pulled out of the deal, and so it was left to the FFC to underwrite the film’s full budget.
Most of the film was shot within the studio. There were two court rooms built, one inside the studio, and one used for exteriors.
The exterior court room set was built away from the Gold Coast Roadshow studio, beside a river at Cabbage Tree Point. This is where the exteriors around the court room were filmed.
The doors were closed early on in the film during the exterior shoot, so that the remaining court room scenes could be shot on the interior set.
- The opening jungle scenes were shot in the tropical forest mountains up behind the Gold Coast studio. Later scenes of executions etc were also shot up on these mountains;
- The hospital interior was a set, filmed in the studio;
- The scene with the DC3 was shot at Coolangatta airport. Trucks were used to block out Coolangatta and the modern airport;
- For the final execution by firing squad of Tanaka, the production found a palm tree farm near the studio and used that to track his path to the execution scene. It took all day to shoot the scene.
Bryan Brown had given up smoking, but accepted that smoking was very much part of the period and the character, and went with it for the duration of the filming;
The opening shot of a volcanic island is not actually of Ambon island, but according to director Wallace is a stock shot. “It’s wonderful, but I don’t think Ambon island looks anything like that. I think it’s flat, quite flat, and much more Australian-looking”;
Wallace was disappointed in the main title’s look - he wanted it to be much more powerful, but says they ran out of time;
Wallace says the digging up of the bodies was difficult to shoot - first the bodies had to be buried in the hard soil, and then dug up again, and it took 2 or 3 days to shoot the sequence. He was worried about trying to make it convincing that these were actual bones, actual Japanese soldiers, and actual feelings of the Australians responding to the situation. The bones were all made up by the art department, with the prosthetics bone-maker taking the images from original photographs;
The Japanese extras were students, travellers and tourists in the Gold Coast area. Wallace reports the most difficult thing was to get them to shave their heads, as Japanese soldiers had done in the war, and they had to pay extra to get them to do it;
The Ambonese extras were also from around the Gold Coast area, but a lot of them were actually of Ambonese origin and able to shout out at the Japanese prisoners in Indonesian;
About eight and a bit minutes into the DVD version (beginning with Mel Gibson’s brother Donal pinning a dead soldier’s photo to the wall amongst many others), Wallace notes a scene that runs on and on for three or four minutes as a single take with no cuts. Originally there had been three or four scenes, but they got behind in the schedule and they had to make up a day. The only way he could think to make up a day was to shoot all 3 or 4 scenes in one shot. He got DOP Russell Boyd to light all the offices and they worked out a tracking scene and they rehearsed the scene all morning, while Boyd took until 3 pm to light it. Then they shot some 11 takes and ended up using the second one, “so we could all have gone home at four o’clock.” (laughs) It was followed by another exterior single shot;
Wallace notes the difficulty of getting actors to look as thin as Australian POWs. If they’d been that thin, they’d have been sick, and so the actors generally looked a little too healthy rather than looking like they’d been through hell, and this was concerning, as everyone had seen the photographs of what had happened. Wallace notes it was also hard to get the stoicism in performances, because none of the actors had been through anything like what the POWs endured;
The production asked the owners of the featured DC3 to paint it military green and then they couldn’t get the paint off, and the production had to pay a lot of money to get it removed. The plane was available for two days and did flyovers above the set with different characters posed beneath, and these were dotted through the film;
The creative team aimed for a unity of colour, using different shades of khaki and green, with very naturalistic lighting. They wanted to emphasise Bryan Brown’s ‘blazing eyes’;
While the court room and Japanese prisoners were almost exact replicas of photos of the original courtroom, Wallace says the the prisoners didn’t have the kamikaze head bands - that was a dramatic device added for the film bythe costume designer. They did however sit in lines to be indicted;
According to Wallace, Ray Barrett’s speech was exactly the same as the original speech spoken by the head of the court at Ambon;
None of the Japanese spoke English at the actual trials and everything had to be translated. The film used dramatic license to allow some of the Japanese to speak English, with the one exception of the Vice-Admiral (one inspiration for the fictional role had been to Oxford);
Wallace notes that some of the financiers wanted Deborah Unger to appear in a bathing costume somewhere in the film, even though there was no nearby beach to justify this apparition. He and she hated the idea and Wallace pins the blame on Greg Coote, who kept pitching the idea until Unger flatly said she wasn’t going to do it and that was that;
On the other hand, according to Wallace, Unger always wanted to do a love scene with Bryan Brown, and asked him time after time if this was possible. Wallace used the excuse of not being able to change the script at a late stage, deeming it not appropriate for there to be a love scene between the pair. The best they could do was the handshake and exchange of smiles at the end. Wallace claims that Unger used to come around to his flat late at night with ideas for new scenes which might improve her part;
Stephen Wallace recalls that all the palm trees were brought to the exterior location and planted, at a thousand dollars a tree. He remembers because this meant he could only have a limited number;
Wallace recalls that with everyone excited about the filming of the harakiri scene, producer Charlie Waterstreet stood up at the rushes screening and said he was terribly disappointed and that the material didn’t work. Editor Nick Beauman then stood up and told Charlie that it was all there, he’d cut it that night and show it to him in the morning. After viewing the cut, Charlie then came up to Wallace and told him it was fine, and they didn’t have to shoot anything more …
Warner Bros Japan picked up Japanese rights to the film as a way of helping finance it - Warner Bros was in partnership with Village Roadshow on the Gold Coast studio, a partnership which has continued in the area of film production for subsequent decades.
According to Denis Whitburn, the film had to go through a very circuitous path to get a release in Japan. Warners had an output deal with Toho, but once Toho saw the film, they refused to show it. But media reporting about the decision, Toshi Shioya’s campaigning with Warner Bros Japan, and Japanese veterans endorsing the film helped turn the tide.
Williams adds that a left-wing commentator wrote a helpful critical piece, and then the Gulf War happened, which focussed attention on the constitutional position of Japan in relation to the military serving overseas, and caused an enormous debate in parliament, the media and people in general. The film was then previewing and was grabbed by the media as the case against.
Then Shioya got Ambon veterans to attend a screening in March 1991 (which Williams also attended) and they emerged saying, despite some problems with the film, that they thought it a very fair representation of events on Ambon, and that all Japanese should see the film. Williams says he was shocked, not expecting former defendants to come to bat for the film.
Whitburn claims that once it screened, it attracted a very young audience, who had no knowledge of the things shown in the film happening, and were consequently moved by what they saw. The producers claim the film then did its best business of any territory in Japan.
According to co-producer Annie Bleakley in the DVD commentary, the title in Japan (in Japanese) was The Secrets of Ambon Island, Only the Trees Know, but Williams corrects her, citing the Japanese and saying it was What Was Judged at Ambon, with a little Japanese kanji saying Only the Palm Trees Saw the Truth ...
The film was released by Skouras as Prisoners of the Sun in the United States. Whitburn suggests it was because it was felt Blood Oath was too Australian, while Williams says it also had a horror connotation.
Brian Williams in the DVD commentary blames the decision by Skouras to follow Bryan Brown’s success in FX 2 and release the film in the summer, only to score a dismal result.
Box Office Mojo here, records a total domestic gross of US$52,654 following the July 19th 1991 release, with the widest release 6 theatres, and the opening weekend in four theatres producing $14,296. The film lasted only for two weeks and closed August 22nd.
Williams claims great US reviews and peddles the notion that Academy members felt, in contradistinction to what happened at the AFI awards, that the film had Academy potential for the likes of Bryan Brown.
In reality the reviews were mixed - see this site’s section on reviews.
The film also had a limited presence in the UK and Europe, and considered relative to the high budget (for Australian productions), it was a poor commercial performer. Business in Australia started well but dropped off quickly after the second week.
The Film Victoria report on Australian box office listed returns of $707,194, equivalent to $1,152,726.
It was noted in the press that the film dropped from fourth to fifth place in its second week (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had taken $1,946,899 in its first week to head the pack, with Pretty Woman also still on the rise), “with ticket sales plummeting by 41 per cent in only its second week of release.” (The Canberra Times, 11th August, 1990). A sharp drop like this is usually attributed to poor word of mouth rather than negative reviews (in any case the film had mixed to positive reviews outside specialist film magazines which tended to be unhappy).
Stephen Wallace mentions that composer Stewart D’Arrietta had sent him a tape as part of a pitch to do the film’s score, but only a little of his music survived in the final mix. There is more on D’Arietta at his eponymous website here. There was also a story about him at Fairfax here.
Instead American composer David McHugh was hired. For other details of the film’s music, see this site’s pdf listing.
Whitburn at first approached NZ director Geoff Murphy on the basis of Utu, about the Maori wars. Whitburn in the DVD commentary track says he was startled to meet Murphy at the airport, and discover that he looked like somebody who had just come out of Woodstock. Whitburn responded positively to the chain-smoking Pacific war afficianado Murphy’s approach to the material, and he became part of the original package taken to Village Roadshow.
However, because they needed finance from the FFC (this was the second film for the FFC after The Delinquents), it took them a year to put together the finance, and in that time they lost Murphy to other commitments, resulting in Stephen Wallace coming on board. (Wallace had previously worked with Bryan Brown on STIR, and it no doubt helped get Australian government finance with an Australian, rather than NZ, director as part of the package).
In his DVD commentary, Wallace says he was first approached about the film by Williams at the Sydney Film Festival, and then didn’t hear any more about it until Charles Waterstreet - colourful Sydney identity, lawyer and role model for the ABC TV series Rake - approached him.
Wallace had these points to make about his approach to directing the film in his DVD commentary track. In no particular order:
Why make the film:
'One thing I had right through was to get the feeling of the Australian soldiers, the exact feeling they would have had at that time. When I spoke to Charlie Waterstreet the producer before we shot the film, Charlie and I sat down together and said, ‘why do we want to make this film?’ and it’s the very question I asked myself when I first read the script. I said, ‘this script isn’t perfect, but there’s something about it that makes me want to make it.’ And Charlie Waterstreet and I had exactly the same reason for wanting to make it - we both had grown up at the end of the war, and we’d met a lot of men who’d come back from the war, and we knew the feeling against the Japanese … because of the prisoners of war. Not because of the fighting against the Japanese, but the treatment of the prisoners of war…and we both wanted to make the film to express how we thought Australians felt about Australians prisoner of war treatment at the hands of the Japanese …We felt it had never really been expressed and that’s what we wanted to do in the film, and we wanted to be fair about it, but we did want to express it …and I think that basically permeates the whole film and it’s the reason why I made it.”
The large studio set allowed Wallace and Boyd to use long - 500 mm lenses - in the court room scenes inside the very big studio. Because of the size of the studio, the camera could move outside the courtroom set, go some 80 metres away from the cast, and capture them with a 300 or 500 mm lens. Wallace in his DVD commentary explains that’s how they could “pack all the people up” in the frame behind the key cast, with lots of out of focus cast and extras in the background. Wallace jokes that he thought this gave the visuals a kind of ‘Australian army strength’.
To give life to the stationary courtroom drama, Wallace varied his lens selection, packed the shots up, crowded the foregrounds and also moved the camera, using tracking shots extensively. Wallace kept the camera angles low - he claims he was attacked by critics for using this device to show the Japanese as evil - but he notes he also applied low camera angles to Bryan Brown and other Australian cast. He says he went low on everybody as a way of making the shots look interesting. The creative team also used mist extensively, even within the courtroom set. The film opens in mist as Australian soldiers and Japanese prisoners go to dig up the bodies of Australian POWs, and it ends in mist, as the Australian soldiers in the firing squad carry the executed Hideo into the distanace.
Looking back, Wallace thinks he could have been more subtle in his placement and use of the camera.
Wallace cites as the key scene in the film the one where Bryan Brown’s Captain Cooper examines the Vice Admiral (George Takei) in the witness box:
“… where basically the Australian army lined up against Takahashi. It was like the ordinary Australians lining up against the big brass of Japan, and I thought Bryan got the indignation, the anger, and sort of accusing glare, that Australia was focussing on Japan at that time. And for me that was symbolic of the whole film and he got that well… and I was surprised nobody ever comment on it, but I always liked it. It felt right to me …it felt like that was the core of the film …yes, what happened to these men …I mean, 300 Australians, all beheaded or bayoneted, you know. One of my original ideas to start the film by lining up 300 men and having them all bayoneted on camera as we tracked down, just to let people know what had actually happened … you know all my life I’ve always … because of people coming back from the war, I’ve always had a horror of what happens to people in war…and you can talk about 300 people being killed but if you actually see it, it’s mind-blowing …it’s horrible … and people seem to forget that ...”
Wallace jokes that he was very influenced in his filming style by Pasolini’s Gospel According to St Matthew - “which looks a bit funny if you’ve ever seen the Gospel According to St Matthew, it’s nothing like this, but I wanted to have clear images with lots of foreground …sort of bit like Paths of Glory in a way with the clear images …but bits of foreground to keep it interesting ...”
Wallace nominates the weakest scene, for him at least is the one where John Polson’s character returns with Brown, Unger and others to the jungle to discover where his brother’s body was buried, and lets out a cry of pain.
Wallace thinks it was a bit over-dramatic, whereas Australians were inclined to be understated and undramatic, “not like the Americans”. He just doesn’t think an Australian would have done the cry of pain, “but we’re trying to make a movie here”. He also thinks the idea of Polson following his brother out to see him executed was a “bit far-fetched … but you know, we had to make the story work … and it could have happened” (he quotes Australian POWS as saying it was feasible).
Wallace pleads dramatic license for some scenes, such as the apocryphal scene where Bryan Brown’s character takes the law into his own hands and beats up the accused Japanese soldier, an appalling thing for a prosecutor to do. “It’s meant to be a metaphorical clash, the way it is in movies.”
Wallace says that as a director “you get caught up in the detail of doing it” (using stunt men, etc) “rather than the meaning of what you’re actually doing.” Wallace didn’t expect audiences to like the scene - it wasn’t the just or Australian way, and he was sure Brian Williams’ father would never have done it. He claims that the way the scene ends, with Russell Crowe’s character saluting Brown in a disapproving way, was a way of saying that the film-makers didn’t approve of the scene either ...
Most terrifying scene:
Wallace cites the most terrifying scene for him as the one where the Japanese soldier reveals the truth about the signals, a complex plot point, the struggle to nail the man which ends in a plot twist.
The Japanese soldier reveals no signals were sent about the court martial about Australian flyers, a critical turning point in the film. Wallace didn’t think the scene was well written, he didn’t know how good the Sydney-based Japanese actor was, and they had to create drama out of a moment where the character admits what had happened, rather than say having it beaten out of him:
“So we had to try and make that moment dramatic. So I came that day very tense, and I decided … as they say in the term ‘shoot the shit out of it’ (nervous chuckle) I was going to shoot every shot I could think of …shot around the court … I drove everyone insane this day …(laughs) … it’s what directors do, you get on to the set and you’re the boss, you can shoot what you like …so they all get very fraught when you actually say ‘I’m going to shoot this shot, this shot …”, with the result that the first AD Chris Webb looked at him in horror this day when he was given the shot list, with Wallace unable to explain that he was nervous about the scene.
Wallace mentions that Bryan Brown’s climactic summing up of the case speech was also re-written up to the night before, and then also covered many times on the day of the shoot, and yet he still thinks they couldn’t get bits of it right.
Wallace says he didn’t flinch from the violence, though he now thinks, being older and wiser, that he should have flinched at the beheading. While he wanted to express in an anti-war way the notion that killing people by way of bullets was hard, he should also have realised that people would end up in a cinema watching the film:
“They can accept certain forms of violence, but some they can’t, and I think if I did the film again, I probably wouldn’t show the beheading. I should probably cut the beheading because I think that’s enough, and why do we have to put up with these things in our lives now … but the reason I tried not to flinch from the violence was I thought people should know what war was like and we shouldn’t hide it. We shouldn’t try and glamorise it… and I certainly don’t think the film glamorises it.”
Wallace tried to make the beheading as realistic as possible - the head was designed and built in Sydney - as he wanted to show people exactly what it was like.
Clash of cultures:
Wallace also contributed his thoughts about Japanese and Australian cultures:
...I became really aware during the filming, even though I’d heard a lot of propaganda against the Japanese from returned prisoners of war, and hatred of them all … stories of the atrocities …I became really aware during the filming that what was clearly the case during the war was that there were two cultures who really didn’t understand each other at all …the Japanese culture, based on the old Japan, Shoguns, you know the traditions of war, Bushido, these guys had all been in China, Manchuria, they were committing all sorts of atrocities, these guys weren’t the educated Japanese, these soldiers, they were ordinary soldiers, they were like western suburbs boys you know, they were the road workers, when you go to Japan you can still see them there … they were road workers, you know, they were men just drilled, drilled in the whole Japanese culture …and they were out here, they’d been drilled in a whole way of thinking, a way of thinking about prisoners of war, a way of thinking about war, and they had no idea who … or where these Australians had come from …all you know basically these ordinary boys from Australia who were completely confused by the Japanese attitudes …
So it was a real clash of cultures …I don’t know, maybe there’s something powerful in the Japanese psyche that’s still there, racists don’t change, but I was aware how much there was a clash of cultures and how the Australians didn’t understand them and they didn’t understand the Australians. Since then I’ve read things by Japanese who’ve said, ‘we’re very like the Australians… the surprising thing is we’re very like them … and we didn’t recognise it then’ but I think now when we all do it objectively, I certainly recognise these Japanese actors were very like me, we were very similar, you know we had a lot of similarities in our nature … it’s surprising and I think that a lot of war is about clash of cultures and a lack of understanding of each other…
There’s actually a letter on the DVD-Rom from a Japanese soldier, saying, talking about this similarity and saying that the Australians and Japanese are actually similar and he specifically said in the fact that they are very reserved, very restrained, on the surface, but the energies underneath bursts out …Australia’s a very reserved nation, a very conservative nation really, it’s our English heritage I think and very reserved, but there’s lots of emotion under there …and it comes out at sports matches and stuff, exactly the same way that it does with the Japanese …certainly I know I admire the actors for that, these Japanese actors when they were there ...
Wallace says they worked very hard to establish that this was an Australian, rather than an American court, and was casual, even in relation to the president of the court. He wanted an Australian casualness about it, and they worked very hard to get it, “formal, but informal”. (As a result, Bryan Brown adopted some casual positions in his playing of the courtroom scenes).
Final scene between Brown and Unger:
Wallace claims he wrote the final scene between Brown and Unger himself. He thought they needed to say goodbye to each other. It wasn’t in the script, nobody wanted to write it, so he wrote it himself and put it in the schedule, and then nobody wanted to shoot it. He put it at the start of one morning’s work and said he was sick and wouldn’t be able to do the day unless he did this single take scene and got it out of the way. “I mean, it’s not much of a scene, but at least it’s a farewell.”
8. History, similarities and variations in the drama:
There was endless discussion at the time about the film’s fictionalising of the history of the Ambon trial, and its use of dramatic license, which was considerable in places, as when the character inspired by Brian Williams’ father resorts to violence with a Japanese prisoner in a way his father would never have done.
The story was in fact extensively fictionalised, such that only one character retained his real name, and even then this confuses and conflates two quite distinct characters (the real Ikeuchi was not a captain in the Japanese military).
The DVD release in fact answers many of these questions with a PDF of piece by Professor Hank Nelson of the ANU, published in the Australian Journal of Historical Studies, 1991, “A Reel History”, which concluded this way:
In spite of its stereotypes, Blood Oath is a strong film with some memorable dialogue and superb particular scenes. I hope a lot of people see it. But it is a troubling film for anyone who has read through some of the transcripts of the Ambon trials, and then reads the reviews and listens to the responses of audiences who think they have been watching ‘history’. Film can so rapidly and profoundly shift public history from reality, particularly when it strikes a major topic in advance of serious writers.
The DVD also contains a pdf copy of a detailed story by D.C.S. Sissons, published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 16th August 1985 about the actual trials, which allows for a compare and contrast of the film with the real events.
There have been subsequent considerations, as with John Kennedy’s piece on 22nd August 2011 on The Historical validity of Blood Oath, which concludes this way but is available in full online here:
The movie, despite its lack of historical accuracy, is of some significance as an indication in the process of War Crimes Trials of that period. The general belief held by the Australian soldiers during the film, that the Japanese are guilty of the crimes, is never doubted. But apart from this conviction in character, what the film provides is a dialogue the day-to-day details of the trials, the denials by the Japanese officers, and the frustrations of the Australian Prosecutors in obtaining living, trial worthy, witnesses. The trials are made more difficult by the worlds of difference between the Australian and the Japanese ways of doing things: the legal precepts, the moral codes, and the conduct of honor.
However, despite being an entertaining and informative depiction of the war crimes trials that took place, and their resolution, the film is not really about the war, but rather about Japanese society and the differences in national priorities that existed. It is a story about a proud nation of ancient traditions and how they both differ and reflect upon modern society. It is a “fictional drama, inspired by a real trial” (Nelson, 1991, p.432), a competent courtroom drama that unfortunately never matches the demands of its historical subject.
Being a generalist site, coverage here must be limited to some of the points made in the film’s DVD commentary tracks.
Director Stephen Wallace in his DVD commentary had this to say about the film’s historical authenticity:
I suppose it’s pretty clear that … the actual information this film came from was a little bit different to how we actually dramatised the film … there was dramatic license taken … the essence of it is true, the essence of it is true, the details are not necessarily true, mainly because nobody actually knew …and it was telescoped a great deal …it was an ‘imaginative interpretation’, as Brian’s father said (chuckles) …that’s all we could do. It would have been long and boring if we’d just followed the exact events exactly as they happened.
As a result, for example, Wallace suggests that the film’s links between Ikeuchi and Tanaka were dramatised, and in reality he doesn’t think there were any links between the two Japanese soldiers.
When talking of fictionalising the story, Williams notes that despite misgivings they didn’t change Ikeuchi’s name, and as a result the Ikeuchi family in Japan were ostracised when the film was released there.
The Ikeuchi character in real life didn’t commit harakiri (seppuku) as shown in the film - in the film it is intended as a dramatic device to put pressure on Hideo Tanaka. In the real world, Ikeuchi was sentenced to death a number of times over, and before he faced the firing squad, made his last request a bottle of Australian beer.
Whitburn claims that the courtroom was an almost exact replica of the courtroom used for the original Ambon trials, though the shutters were put up at one point in the drama, to avoid using too many extras and to allow the rest of the trial to be filmed within the Gold Coast Roadshow studio.
According to Brian Williams, his father remarked that the Australians behaved with much less restrained behaviour in the actual event of the digging up of Australian corpses than is shown in the film.
Williams also suggests that the Russell Crowe character was based on a half-Japanese/half-Dutch interpreter.
According to Williams, the real vice-admiral had in fact in real life attempted to ensure that the prisoners were treated well in the last years of Ambon, but for the film version they had to make a judgement about the rank of the person to be the chief defendant and this was linked to the American policy about post-war Japan which is featured in the film (it should be noted that the American presence by way of Terry O'Quinn's Major, as depicted in the film, was also fictional).
The fight scene between Captain Cooper and Captain Ikeuchi didn’t happen in real life. Williams notes that his father was, with a withered arm, physically incapable of doing what’s shown in the film, as well as being unable emotionally to have done it …This caused angst for Williams, as it shows the character based on his father, crossing a line.
Whitburn notes that such a scene wasn’t in the historical documents, but it was felt it was important for the drama. Whitburn notes that in striving for authenticity, it’s possible to end up with a document that’s historically accurate, but dramatically there’s no peaks and valleys, just a flat line.
Williams jokes that his father met war historian Neil McDonald and when asked what he thought of the scene, his father said “I’ve never really seen anybody perform in a court room like that.” But he says his father realised this was a scene they had to do - he had given them the material on the condition that he wouldn’t comment on the dramatisation.
According to Williams, Bryan Brown’s character in the film tie-in (which Williams wrote) had a brother in Changi prison, and a lot of his anger is due to Changi.
Whitburn attributes to director Wallace a documentary line in his approach to the drama, which meant that some of these sorts of character details didn’t make it into the film, while also noting it was part of compressing and bringing down the scope of the film.
According to Williams, Bryan Brown’s final address to the court was written in a very different style to his father’s “dry legalese”…
Whitburn adds that in the screenplay they also had the summing up from the Japanese side as well,but in the directing and editing process, that was streamlined to concentrate on Hideo Tanaka’s fate.
Director Stephen Wallace isn’t sure but he thinks that rather than the Japanese prisoners digging up the mass graves near the start of the picture, it might have been the Australians, but it was the Indonesians who pointed out the site, having seen the massacre.
Wallace notes that while an objection by the Japanese defence counsel about statements being tendered in court was successful, in reality statements were allowed because of Australian prisoners being too sick to attend, and therefore he’s not sure why that scene was left in the script or the film, except as a good dramatic point.
The real Hideo Tanaka wasn’t executed immediately, as shown in the film. He was executed 18 months later on Rabaul after several appeals ...
The ‘sorry, it’s regulation’ line about putting on the blindfold was however accurate, and the firing squad was re-enacted accurately. Wallace had seen a documentary about the execution of Germans at the end of the war and used it as a model for the impact of the bullets. Williams’ making of’ features the actual Australian soldier who lived out the blindfold moment.
9. Peter Malone Interview:
In a more wide-ranging November 1998 interview covering many of Wallace’s films, available in full at Peter Malone’s essential site here, amplified or repeated some of these points:
Malone: In terms of criticism, Blood Oath and Australian memories of the war?
Wallace: A lot of people criticised it, I think, because it wasn't as accurate as it should have been - and it was a bit melodramatic. I think that was all true in the script. I thought I could overcome some of that, but I couldn't really. In America and in Japan they didn't criticise this at all; in Australia they did. But the people who had actually been there didn't. They said it was an exaggerated version of what really happened.
I grew up at a time when soldiers who had returned from the war were talking about Japan and the hatred of Japanese and what they did. I was happy to make the film, whatever the final result is. I wanted to make a film about the Japanese treatment of our prisoners of war. It wasn't Japanese soldiers fighting - that was fair enough; they fought ruthlessly, but no Australian ever complained about that. That was war. What we complained about was the way they treated their prisoners of war, and we thought that was unfair because they were helpless. You don't treat prisoners of war like this, no matter who you are.
There were criticisms of the accuracy. The original writers brought the script to me after they worked on it a lot. They would have been better to have stuck more to the actual truth. It's much more interesting.
Malone: The character of the Christian Japanese prison was unexpected.
Wallace: Yes, that was true, absolutely true. He came from Nagasaki or Hiroshima. He was executed with the Rosary in his hand. He was a Catholic and did voluntarily give himself up like that, although he was innocent, in exactly those circumstances - although it wasn't radio messages that got him; it was just his confession. He wasn't actually executed until six months later. We had him executed the next morning and it was New Guinea - he was taken to New Guinea and executed. But there were many protests on his behalf, including the priests in Nagasaki. But he was executed along with a lot of other people. The other guy was executed, he didn't commit hara kiri.
Malone: It made it a bit more complex for an Australian audience thinking about Japanese cruelty, and suddenly you've got this theme of Catholicism. How do you reconcile the atrocity and justice?
Wallace: The theme was true and the Australians found it very hard that this guy was actually a Catholic, a Christian, and that he had been told to come and do the execution. He did do the execution. He didn't ask any questions, because he was also told to do it. He wasn't lied to so much as he just didn't ask any questions. He went along and did it. He sort of knew it was wrong and he knew that they were innocent, that they hadn't been tried properly. And he said that. He gave himself because he believed in God, Christianity and justice, and he got punished for it.
When he was blindfolded, all that was absolutely accurate. A priest was there and said to him, "I don't need a blindfold, I'm not afraid of death." "I'm sorry, it's regulations." That's exactly what was said.
Malone: So he becomes almost a Christ-figure in that sense?
Wallace: Yes, he does. I wish we had made more of that. It's an interesting theme.
Malone: The Americans?
Wallace: The Americans were never in the original story about the Ambon trials. I don't think there were any Americans there. The leader of the Japanese did get off like that. In fact I think he's still alive in Japan, a very old man - probably running Mitsubishi or something.
A lot of critics said it was simplistic and, in a way I suppose it was. But the point is it's true. Americans are always doing that. In the Tokyo trials, the Emperor got away and a lot of other people got away. The Americans wanted to run Japan properly and they didn't want to make the mistakes of Germany.
I don't think many people realise how horrifying the killing of the 600 on the airfields was. Basically they were bayoneted to death on the airfields and buried. And the Commander knew about it. And he wouldn't come back and face trial because the Americans were protecting him. So we wanted to dramatise that somehow. In my bloodthirsty way I said, "I'll tell you how we're going to start the film. You're starting is no good. What I'm going to do is have 600 men all lined up on the airfield. I'm going to track down as each one of their heads is cut off, so people realise what we're dealing with there." We found that young Australians weren't very interested. They didn't want to know about the war. They didn't want to know about the Japanese. The film didn't do all that well here but it did very well in Japan. The Japanese soldiers at Ambon came to see it, had a big dinner and they said they were very glad the film had been made. It had been worrying them for years, what happened at Ambon, and they were glad it all came out.
10. Cinema Papers:
Cinema Papers gave the film front cover treatment, beginning with a production report by Andrew L. Urban in the January 1990 edition.
(a) Production Report:
Shortly after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, Japanese troops captured the Australian garrison on the little-known Dutch East Indies Island of Ambon, 650 km north-west of Darwin. The Japanese established a Prisoner of War camp which would be the scene of atrocities and genocide. Six hundred Australians entered Ambon Island POW camp; three years later, one hundred and twenty were barely left alive. After the war, the Australian Army held a war-crimes trial on the island. Blood Oath is the story of that incredible trial, which herded together the ninety-one Japanese officers and men who had controlled and run the POW camp….
In the film, Bryan Brown plays the prosecuting Australian Army lawyer, Captain Robert Cooper. But Cooper was not his real name: it was Captain John Williams, then a junior army lawyer and now a retired judge. Brown, who met and had a long breakfast with Judge John Williams on the set, says he did not attempt to portray the real man, but to create his own vision of the man: “I saw Cooper as something of an intellectual, formal and cerebral. I could relate to what he did, and took it from there.”
Brown’s Captain Cooper is a quintessential ‘Aussie’; decent, irreverent, tough, sensitive, butch and clever all at once. It is the man many Australian males would like to think is their innermost heritage.
It was Judge Williams’ son, Brian, who came across the transcripts of the trial and began the process of bringing it to fruition as a film, after teaming with co-writer Denis Whitburn. Says actor Bryan Brown:
Brian and Denis sent me the script about three years ago. We had a few beers and talked about it. I was very interested in the subject. Maybe it was the power of history, of getting close to something that had only been half revealed. That meant we could examine a certain time in history that was complex and, at the same time, horrendous. You could see it had potential; it is about human beings in extreme situations.
Much the same can be said about filming it. Brown had gruelling monologues that had to be word perfect. The courtroom itself was a reconstruction inside the Warner Queensland Studios, from old photographs out of Judge Williams’ files. The tropical heat had to be manufactured, and director Stephen Wallace wanted “an Aussie informality” about the proceedings. “It took several days to work that out”, says Brown. “But then it became interesting.” (It’s the fourth film on which Wallace and Brown have worked together.)
Brown was fascinated by working with the Japanese actors, who had been cast in Tokyo. Says Brown:
They are trapped by their customs and traditions. They couldn’t just say to the director, ‘Hey Steve …’, as I do. One day, when Stephen and I were just talking away, they told me that they wished they could speak as freely as that. It made me see a bit better why they are as they are.
Both Brown and Wallace have high regard for the Japanese actors, not only for their professional talents but for their great interest in the subject. Says Wallace:
There are no war films shown in Japan, because they don’t believe the characters. There is no good news about the war for them: they lost … Also, there is all this shame about the treatment of prisoners of war. That is our sub-theme. We don’t object to how the Japanese fought, we object to how they treated the POWS. And the Japanese have never apologized for it. But, then, they haven’t really dealt with it themselves. (The DVD pdfs and 'making of' note an apology made at the launch of the film in Japan).
But, as Wallace points out, the film is not only about the war: “It is as much about Japanese society.” Wallace is highly enthused:
My mother had been very affected by the Second World War and I had also wanted to make a film dealing with it. I’m glad I’m doing this: It has a dramatic script and touches on the Australian soldiers’ experiences. I need it, and perhaps Australia needs it.
Originally, I got very involved emotionally; it became a part of me. Now, I’m just trying to make the project work.
The courtroom scenes proved the toughest, challenging Wallace’s inventiveness. With some forty per cent of the film shot in the courtroom, new ideas for angles and treatment were welcome. “We went for the reality”, says Wallace. “It was a very delicate balancing act. Sometimes our sympathy is with the Japanese; at other times we hate them.”
But the other scenes were equally challenging. “Three hundred and fifteen Australian bodies … it’s just a figure. Imagine watching three hundred and fifteen soldiers being bayoneted. Can’t help being affected”, he says. “We bring it down to one execution - it’s enough.”
But how does he direct even one execution, with a group of actors for whom it is merely an idea. “I said, ‘Imagine your worst nightmare’”.
Curiously, Wallace adds, “none of the victims screamed … they simply accepted it, as did many of the soldiers.”
Of all the Japanese characters, there is only one who is not guided by bushido, the code of the Samurai: this is Baron Takahasi, played by George Takei, the American-born Japanese actor (Dr Sulu of Star Trek fame). Takahasi is the commander of the camp, but washes his hands of the routine. Takei:
Takahasi considers himself above all that. He’s an aristocrat and a dilettante, and affects the fashionable aspect of being an English gentleman who loves medals and costumes and the military. He’s dependent on the advisors under him. Ultimately, he’s an unattractive character.
Bushido is a code that still guides many Japanese. But there are signs of a reaction against what many now see as an age of aberrant militarism, according to Judge John Williams: “Pretty well the entire Japanese force on Ambon had not been back home to Japan for near on eight years, an extraordinary thing. They were expendable. That’s part of the militarism.”
With an MA in history and a special interest in Japan, Judge Williams cites the works of writers such as Saburo Ienaga, an academic of some repute, “on the theme that Japan sees its militarism in perspective. But the question is what is being related through the Japanese school system? Is the shame hiding the truth?”
Judge Williams has steadfastly refrained from reading the script, preferring to wait and see the finished film. But he helped wherever he could, mostly because he believes “it is important that something be said about this event. Nothing has been written about it and there are some things the public don’t know about.” For one thing, the Americans pushed hard to curry favour with the anti-Communist administration in Tokyo by being overly keen to forgive and forget. Says Judge Williams “More than 50 per cent were acquitted at the major Ambon trial. That is staggering.”
What is also staggering was the ambit of the trial. Williams:
This was not an ordinary trial; it was a means of exposing through the evidence what in fact happened, hidden from the eyes of the whole world. The hurriedly assembled evidence covered the entire length of the war.
There was a secondary issue: 91 soldiers were tried collectively in just one trial. The reason for this was that if the evidence was to come out, you had to get all the people involved in one big net and trust to luck.
Normally, trials are not vehicles to tell narratives over a period of several years.
Yet this is exactly what the transcripts have triggered; it is an exceptional opportunity for filmmakers, reconstructing untold aspects of a war that changed the world forever, with the help of the man who was central to this particular scenario.
Judge Williams has also kept letters he received following the trial, including one from a Japanese soldier who was convicted. He writes to express his thanks for then Captain Williams’ efforts to save him from one of two death sentences. Says Judge Williams, “You had to have a certain balance, and realize there was more to it than these individuals.” It is a remark that underlines one of the crucial elements of the script: Cooper, and through him the audience, makes a journey that completely by-passes revenge on its way from blind justice to soaring compassion. Says Brown:
The Japanese guys who came over all wanted this film made, but it’s very hard for them. I think it’s also quite confronting for Australians - and the Americans. It’s clearly controversial and we’re all striving to do justice to it, while still making a movie.
Urban also wrote a story about the film for The Sunday Age - see this site’s photo gallery for a jpg of it.
Andrew Urban conducted an interview with Denis Whitburn and Brian Williams for Cinema Papers, January 1990, which began with an introduction:
Brian Williams is the son of Judge Williams, who was the prosecuting lawyer at the Ambon war-crimes trial. Putting that story to film has been for Williams a personal quest. After working in video and book retailing, Williams became a full-time scripwriter. He has written several features, documentary and mini-series projects, and was script consultant on Vanished, now in production in Yugoslavia.
His partner on Blood Oath is Denis Whitburn, a professional writer, whose credits include the Awgie-nominated play The Siege of Frank Sinatra (1980) and the docu-drama Warriors of the Deep (1984). He co-authored and co-produced the mini-series The Last Bastion (1984) and Bodysurfer, which won Best Screenplay for a Mini-series at the 1989 AFI Awards, and wrote the shooting script for the feature Breaking Loose (1988). Recently, he scripted The Sher Mountain Mystery, now in production, and Backstreet General, which begins shooting in January 1990. The following interview begins with Williams’ describing how he first came across his father’s transcripts of the Ambon trial:
Williams: It was late 1965, just after the unilateral declaration of independence in Zimbabwe. I was down playing in the garage - I was 12 at the time - when I found a trunk hidden at the back. I opened it and inside was a large pile of transcripts of what appeared to be the trial of Japanese soldiers after the war. There were also a lot of photographs, including some of the mass graves at Ambon. This was a great surprise to me as my father had never mentioned his involvement to me. It was part of the whole generation of silence that we had to breach. Eventually, he became more forthcoming.
As I grew older, I learnt a bit more about what had happened. That kind of got me going and for a long time I thought it should be told as a book. It wasn’t until the late ‘70s, when I became involved in the film industry, that I decided that the best way to go was film.
Cinema Papers: To what extent was your interest bound up with your father’s being involved?
Williams: Oh, very strongly. It was a whole hidden aspect of his life, an aspect prior to when I knew him. I wanted to find out what sort of man he was and the kind of involvement he had with the trial. At first sight, his role could appear as pure vengeance. At that young age, one can’t really understand what happened back in the war.
Cinema Papers: What most fascinated you about the papers and the photographs?
Williams: The sheer scale of violence that my father was able to enter into and examine. It was beyond belief. You read the transcripts and they gave you the worst nightmares, especially the statements by the prisoners. It was really shocking.
Cinema Papers: So this project has always been with you from the age of twelve?
Williams: Yes, which brings me to the relationship with Denis. When I saw The Last Bastion on television in 1984, I decided immediately to approach the people involved. It was the final catalyst for me to get moving on the project. I then ran into Denis at a Screenwriters’ Conference in Katoomba. I remember saying, “Look, I think I have the sequel to The Last Bastion.”
Cinema Papers: Denis, how did you react to Brian’s coming to you with the project?
Whitburn: It was not only Brian’s coming to me, it was my coming to the subject matter.
Back in 1982, I had been hired to write Warriors of the Deep, a docu-drama for television about the Japanese submarine attack on Sydney Harbour during World War II. That job took me to the National Archives in Washington for a week and also briefly to Japan. The research took about a month, but I developed a strong interest in the period. Soon I started to develop an idea for a play, almost a two-hander on the relationship between General Douglas MacArthur and John Curtin during the war.
At the end of ’82, I still hand’t put it down on paper when David Williamson and I got together to write a treatment for a mini-series of Mary Durack’s Kings and Grass Castles. It was while we were working on the treatment that we began talking about various things in coffee and lunch breaks. Somewhere along the line up came the subject of World War II and Australia. David had a certain interest in the period but had never really delved into it. I mentioned the MacArthur-Curtin idea and we started getting enthused about its dramatic potential. But we had to keep that enthusiasm down while we finished the Kings and Grass Castles treatment. Once that was completed and in the hands of Durack’s agent, we knocked out a treatment for what became The Last Bastion. We then took it off to Matt Carroll at Then, and in a pretty short time we had the funding to develop the six-hour mini-series as writers and producers.
At the time The Last Bastion was about to air in 1984, as Brian said, our paths met at the Screenwriters’ Conference.
Cinema Papers: When Brian approached you, at what stage was the project?
Whitburn: Brian had a certain concept in mind. At that stage, we were actually looking at doing a three-hour tele-feature; we felt we needed that kind of length to make the story work. We had a couple of meetings at the ABC with Michael Carson to explore that. Michael was very keen on the idea.
Cinema Papers: To what extent did the Blood Oath story present itself, full blown and ready, in the transcripts?
Whitburn: It wasn’t based on a transcript, it was based on a box full of transcripts! A daunting task! It would have been easy to walk away!
On the surface, the story we wanted to tell appeared very simple: namely, that of an Australian Army lawyer who was sent to Ambon to prosecute Japanese war criminals. He goes there with certain pre-conceived notions, such as that the Japanese are a brutal race and that the men were all guilty. But, on arriving there, he discovers that things aren’t black and white. In a sense, it is his journey of discovery that is what attracted me to the story.
But faced with a box full of trial transcripts, that simple concept started to become very complex. Brian and I spent two years searching through the material to find a clear and dramatic storyline. Only then could we actually begin writing the treatment.
Williams: That’s why we brought in all the other material to focus the story on a broader context. We had my father’s personal material and the Japanese lawyer’s own account of the trial. It was an extraordinary and brave thing for a man of his calibre to go back to Japan and write a book immediately after the trial in 1946. Also, there was all the political material that Denis had gone into on The Last Bastion, and which I was getting into as well. It was the complexity of all this material that meant we took so long engineering the dimensions of what we ended up with.
Cinema Papers: Were the transcripts a constrictive device in creating a dramatic script?
Whitburn: Very constrictive; that’s why it took so long. We spent two years under the false impression that the answer to the drama lay in the transcripts, whereas in fact it wasn’t until we put them aside that we actually found our story.
Now, maybe we needed those two years of delving into the historical research to be able then to step away from it. But, it was a very frustrating time: every time we thought we had the key, it turned out to be a false lead.
Cinema Papers: Did you intentionally set out to base the dramatic nut of the script on the prosecuting lawyer, who was, in the transcripts, Brian’s father?
Whitburn: Originally, Brian’s father did present a figure with certain dramatic characteristics. But it was only as we developed the story from the treatment stage, through the various drafts, that the character of Robert Cooper (Bryan Brown) took on his own personality.
Cinema Papers: It must have been tempting to constantly idealize the character of Cooper. Do you feel that you have managed to avoid doing that and thus keep him real?
Whitburn: We were writing the drama in retrospect. And it is very difficult to put yourself in that unique situation of saying, “Let’s take ourselves back to 1945-46, forgetting we have experienced anything in the interim, and write the character from that point of view.” I don’t think there is any writer in the world who can do that; there are so many psychological pressures and inputs that influence you.
We had a pretty good knowledge of the political landscape we were dealing with: i.e., the ramifications of what happened at the end of World War II. Obviously, we weren’t talking about American or Australian brutalities, but the Allies had their prejudices.
We always saw Cooper as a man in between, trying at all times to keep himself distanced. As strange as it may seem, the image we had for Cooper, and this is the reason he is called Cooper in the film, was Gary Cooper in High Noon.
Cinema Papers: At what point did Bryan Brown become interested in the project?
Whitburn: When we wrote the treatment in mid ’87, we always had Bryan in mind for the lead role. We thought he had the characteristics we were after for Robert Cooper. We then got the treatment ot June Cann, his agent, who sent it across to Bryan in Africa, where he was filming Gorillas in the Mist. He came back very quickly and said he was interested and that he wanted to meet us when he got back to Sydney. So, he virtually came on board from the treatment stage. And we kept going back to him with each draft for his reaction and input. It was one of those rare occasions where the original actor that the writers had in mind responded right from the start and stayed with the project right through to the end.
Once you have a particular actor in mind for a role, you are writing that role to that actor’s potential, and, to some extent, his or her limitations. Any screenwriter who sits down and says, “I’m going to write this screenplay for Clint Eastwood”, would have a pretty good floorplan from the start.
Cinema Papers: Judge Williams’ life is crucial to the story you are telling. Was he involved in writing the script?
Whitburn: Judge Williams was there if we needed him. He was like the Obi Kanobi character in Star Wars. If we found ourselves painted into a corner, not knowing where to go, Brian would go back to his father, who would then point us in the right direction, emotionally or historically. He was invaluable in that respect. But he didn’t look over our shoulders and say, “Don’t do that, you should be doing this.”
Cinema Papers: Judge Williams’ public attitude to the film is very much one of wait and see. Brian, can you discern not only what he feels about the project, but what your mother feels about it, in terms of involving your father’s history?
Williams: Both of them feel it is a positive thing, because it has given him a sort of perspective on his life. At the same time, he didn’t want to read the script because it is a dramatic fabrication. It had to be, because you couldn’t make the story work on the original basis; it was too sprawling, chaotic.
The high point of the year happened at the start of the film, I suppose, when my father and I went back to Ambon together. We were there on Anzac Day with the survivors, in this cemetery where the Prisoner of War camp once was. It is a magnificent cemetery. That journey for me was the accomplishment, really - just to go with him back there, to be there.
Cinema Papers: One of the historical aspects of the film is the behaviour of the Americans.
Whitburn: Through the character of Beckett (Terry O’Quinn), who is the Liaison Officer for the Tokyo trials, we explore the politicking that went on at the end of World War II. Even before the war was over, by late ’44, the Allies had a pretty good idea that they were going to win back Europe. They weren’t so sure about Japan, but they were working on the atom bomb and that was the ace up their sleeve. But the question that was being raised, even before Japan was defeated was: What is going to happen to Hirohito? It was a question raised by the royal families of Europe, because Hirohito was of royal blood and it was unheard of for such a person - even of a defeated nation, who was from all the evidence very heavily involved in that nation’s going to war - to be prosecuted.
Williams: In fact, the complicating factor was that the Soviets had a man, a KGB agent as it turned out, advising MacArthur on who was to be prosecuted. The Soviets wanted the chief anti-Soviet Hirohito circle fellow, Prince Konoye, to be prosecuted and, when MacArthur reluctantly agreed, the Prince committed suicide. That had immediate ramifications.
Whitburn: The other concern of the Americans was blocking off the Communists at both the European and Asian ends. In Europe, they achieved that with the division of East and West Germany. In Asia, the Americans felt the only place where they could contain the Communist threat was Japan.
So, these two influences - the royal-family pressures out of Europe and the political concerns of having to contain the spread of Communism - led to Hirohito’s being given immunity. That immunity then spread out like a ripple effect to his immediate circle. And it is basically those people who were pardoned who then became the foundation for the political and business rule of Japan. That ultimately resulted in all the scandals involving corruption, etc., that have been going on for the past couple of years in Japan. In essence, the Americans set up the economic foundations that have virtually contributed towards the serious deterioration of the American financial system.
All this is seen in the film through the characters of Takahasi (George Takei) and Beckett. Takahasi, who is the camp commander in the story, is part of the Emperor’s circle and there is no way in the world that the Americans, represented by Beckett, will let him be prosecuted, because that would open up a whole can of worms with ramifications throughout the rest of the trial.
Cinema Papers: Were you at any time concerned that the script could result in an anti-Japanese film?
Whitburn: We were tackling a subject matter that on the surface could be viewed as ‘Jap-bashing’, but it was always our intention that we would write a film about reconciliation. We set out to write drama that appeared to be one thing, but in fact intended to serve a different purpose. That is what attracted me to it, and kept Brian and I going through the two years of writing.
From the beginning, we used a trio of Puttnam films - Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields and The Mission - as role models for the kind of film we wanted to make. Those films involved men from conflicting cultures brought together on a high moral ground. That was the concept that we had for Blood Oath.
Cinema Papers: Blood Oath deals explicitly with Japanese war crimes. Is it correct that the Japanese have really had no opportunity to experience the kind of catharsis that other countries and societies have experienced through films, such as the Vietnam movies in the U.S. and those on Nazi atrocities in Germany?
Whitburn: The aspect of brutality by the Japanese against the allies has been basically submerged throughout Japanese culture. There has been only a handful of films that attempt to approach the subject; one is The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, which delves into the matter of cannibalism by Japanese soldiers in New Guinea, on both their own people and the Allies. Also, in 1986, there was a feature documentary made by NHK in Japan, at a cost of $16 US million, The Tokyo Trial. It really goes into the historic perspective of why Japan went to war with China, and why Japan opened up that war into the Pacific.
But, yes, the Japanese haven’t gone through the same catharsis that America is experiencing with its post-Vietnam films.
Cinema Papers: Was that a consideration in writing the script?
Whitburn: Not really, because we were told by a number of ‘experts’ - and one tends to come up against ‘experts’ all the time in this business - that there was no way that the Japanese would ever contemplate distributing a film like this. We did not agree with them. But, at the same time, we did not concern ourselves with this issue as it would have hindered the creative development of the story.
Cinema Papers: Do you see filmmaking as a future area of co-operation between Australia and Japan?
Whitburn: Well, it’s interesting that the three Japanese actors in the film - who are, by the way, quite exceptional - brought a commitment and strength we had not seen before. They are very keen to continue this relationship between Japan and Australia through their craft. But, Brian and I don’t really see much of a move being made by the Australian creative community, or by the Japanese creative community, to bring the two industries together.
Williams: David Puttnam is doing it.
Whitburn: Yes, and there are one or two Americans, but the whole thrust at the moment seems to be Sony buying out Columbia Pictures, or JVC investing $100 million in a producer like Larry Gordon. No one seems to be asking, “What are our mutual interests? What are our conflicts? Where are there parallels between our cultures, let’s get into it.” The only other Australian project I know of in the Blood Oath ilk is The Cowra Breakout.
Cinema Papers: What effect has this film had on your professional careers?
Whitburn: Brian and I have been discussing for some months another project. It takes place after World War II, but this time it is entirely set in Japan.
You talked earlier about catharsis. There are different types of catharsis and there’s a catharsis that the West has to come to terms with now, and that is that it may not be the dominant culture in the next century.
Cinema Papers: Blood Oath is an ambitious film from the point of view of its relatively large budget (about $10 million) and because it makes a dramatic exploration of a historical black hole, as the producer Charles Waterstreet describes it. Do you have absolute faith in the project’s success?
Whitburn: We have absolute faith in our vision and our commitment to the project, because our roles went way beyond mere writers. We brought Bryan Brown to the project, and Bryan was the key to the financing between Village Roadshow and the Film Finance Corporation. We played a major role in securing that Village Roadshow distribution, and we brought the original director to the project, Geoff Murphy, who unfortunately had to drop out because of delays in the financing.
So, as joint producers with Charles Waterstreet, we have a strong emotional commitment to Blood Oath.
Williams: The journey for us went beyond the personal story, based on my father, through to a passion for the whole project.
Whitburn: Brian’s right: it created for us a passion to explore further the dramatic potential of the story.
Cinema Papers: Do you think that, as a political film and as a dramatic entertainment, it can appeal to a broad audience?
Whitburn: Getting back to the role models of Chariots of Fire and The Killing Fields, they were films which treat the audience with respect. They don’t pander to audience expectations by trivializing the material. Bolstered by their success, we felt confident that if we respected the audience, and didn’t treat people like nongs when presenting material like this, they would respond in like.
One of the most encouraging development in film in recent years has been the fact that films like The Last Emperor and My Beautiful Laundrette can get made and do find an audience, despite all the ‘experts’ saying they will never work. There is an audience out there for every type of film, and the biggest mistake anyone can make in the film industry is to say, “There’s only one audience, and that’s the one that goes to see Batman, Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones.” There are dozens of audiences and the potential in those very sections of audiences continues to surprise even the major distributors.
Williams: I heard the same question asked of Roland Joffe, whose film about Robert Oppenheimer, Fat Man and Little Boy, had just been released in America. He said with absolute conviction, “Yes, my film will fid an audience because things that are of great historical interest, and are well-told stories, even if they are very strongly political, will find an audience because there is an audience now for that.” In Europe and Japan, there is a great historical tradition for the sort of things we are dealing with in Blood Oath. For example, the great 10-hour epic by Kobayashi, The Human Condition.
We are looking forward to seeing the response of different audiences. I want to be in Japan and Europe, but mainly Japan, to see the response of the audiences. I know it’s going to be fascinating.
Whitburn: The Japanese actors told us they had not come across a script like this in Japan, one that told this type of story or revealed these truths. George Takei from the States, who plays Takahasi, said the same: that he had never read a script like this out of America. No one is writing this type of story there. The only place Blood Oath could have been made is in Australia. I think it says something for the maturity of the industry here, despite the woes suddenly befalling us, that such a difficult subject has made its way to the screen.
11. Detailed synopsis, with cast details and spoilers:
Tan Toey prisoner of war camp, Ambon island, Indonesia, site of a Japanese POW for Australian soldiers, December 1945
A party of Australian soldiers, led by Captain Bob Cooper (Bryan Brown), his assistant Lt. Corbett (Russell Crowe), sidekick Corporal Patterson (Donal Gibson) and the Japanese-hating Sgt. Keenan (Nicholas Eadie) lead a group of Japanese soldiers through the mist.
The Japanese soldiers, including the defiant Captain Ikeuchi (Tetsu Watanabe) dig up an endless amount of skulls, bones and other remains of slaughtered Australian soldiers. Keenan calls Ikeuchi a murdering bastard and spits on him, and even threatens to shoot him.
Back at base, the prosecuting team led by chief prosecuting officer Cooper struggle to put together evidence, as his superior officer Major Roberts, judge advocate for the trial, reminds Cooper that they’re not there for vengeance, they’re here to give these people a fair trial.
An Australian journalist from the Sydney Herald, Sheedy (John Clarke) watches proceedings.
Witnesses are being repatriated, and there’s a paper war with the Yanks, as Corbett tells Cooper about four missing Australian airmen who will form a vital part of the story.
Corbett also tells him that a Mr Matsugae, Japanese defence counsel (Sokyu Fujita) has arrived. Matsugae says he has a problem - he has no witnesses to cross-examine in defence of his clients. He can’t cross-examine statements, and Roberts wasn’t much help.
Matsugae asks Cooper to talk to Roberts and explains his clients don’t understand the concept of the presumption of innocence. They also wouldn’t have had contact with a defence counsel before trial, and they are therefore very suspicious of him. Cooper suggests if they all plead guilty, they can pack up and go home, meanwhile he can’t run the defence and the prosecution.
As they walk over to the hospital, Sheedy says he’s heard Cooper’s got a hundred defendants in the dock at the same time. Sheedy notes everyone at home’s behind them, screaming for blood. Cooper suggests he talk to Matsugae, but Sheedy says he can’t see presumption of innocence selling a lot of newspapers.
Inside the hospital, Cooper tries to interview an almost completely out of it Private Bill Mitchell (Andrew Booth), who is muttering to himself. Cooper tries to find out if Takahashi was directly ordering executions, but Mitchell says they don’t want to try those bastards in court, they wanna try ‘em up against a wall.
The interrogation upsets Sister Littell (Deborah Unger), who asks Cooper to leave - her job is to get the boys on the plane tomorrow, they’ve been through enough. Out, both of you, she says, as Cooper wishes Mitchell a good trip home.
Littell moves over to comfort Private Jimmy Fenton (John Polson), who was captured in ’42, as Corporal Patterson rushes up with the news that Vice-Admiral Baron Takahashi (George Takei) has arrived.
Major Roberts introduces US Major Beckett (Terry O’Quinn), chief liaison officer, Supreme Command, War Crimes Trials. Beckett says they’ve taken on a big job and Roberts notes he’s there as an observer. Every little bit helps the big show back in Tokyo, he says, as Takahashi stalks off and Sheedy says he looks pretty guilty to him.
In the office, Beckett says that they fought the war together, they may as well clean up the peace together, but when Cooper says Takahashi’s conviction will bring them one step closer to the Emperor, Beckett has to explain the facts of life to him. Hirohito’s been granted immunity - use the conquered leaders and everything falls into place. He notes Germany after the first world war was a bad mistake but Cooper is indignant.
Roberts mentions the British in India, and Beckett approvingly notes a handful of British puppets ran the Hindus for hundreds of years.
Cooper wonders about a Japanese raj - the culture’s barbaric. If they don’t humiliate the blokes at the top, nothing’s going to change.
Beckett says he’s got to understand the politics and Cooper says he’ll bear it in mind when prosecuting some fanatic who swore an oath to the emperor to wipe them all off the face of the earth.
Night and Matsugae is explaining to the assembled Japanese prisoners that he’s a professor of law at Meiji university. He urges the prisoners to not hide the truth and behave with dignity - the emperor himself would like the Imperial Navy to co-operate and for them to tell the truth.
Ikeuchi fanatically shouts ‘long live the emperor’ and Takahashi and the others join in …
The arrogant Takahashi chats with Matsugae, and tells Ikeuchi there’s nothing to discuss.
A yelling crowd of Ambonese people try to assault the prisoners on their way to the courtroom.
Inside the makeshift courtroom the trial begins, with the President of the Bench (Ray Barrett) in charge of proceedings, convening the Australian War Crimes Tribunal Ambon in accordance with the Australian War Crimes Act, 1945. The accused are charged on section 3 with deliberate and concerted ill-treatment and murder of prisoners of war.
Takahashi goes first with a not guilty, and then all the other prisoners stand to plead ‘not guilty’.
With the Ambonese still noisy, Major Roberts orders all the shutters put up and the doors closed.
Takahashi swears on the bible and is then examined by Cooper. The vice admiral says the camp was in the hands of Ikeuchi and he knows nothing about the some 300 Australians in the mass grave bayoneted or beheaded. Cooper says he was the responsible officer and he was in command. Takahashi repeats he knows nothing about these men.
Cooper leads with some statements, including a statement from Private Mitchell that he heard Takahashi discussing executions with Ikeuchi, but Takahashi says he’s lying. Matsugae objects that Private Mitchell isn’t in court, and the President sustains the objection.
Cooper asks about the missing airmen and what the Japanese did with Australian fliers, but again Takahashi is nifty on his feet. Takahashi claims the records of his command disappeared during intensive bombing and says he’s not aware of any Australian airmen captured on Ambon.
Cooper goes to see Sister Littell again, this time asking to talk to her patient, Private Jimmy Fenton. She says he’s not really with them at the moment, he’s hardly spoken for four months.
Cooper notes four Australian airmen went down, and one of them was called EddynFenton.
Four more prisoners arrive from Tokyo and are processed, but they’re guards. Lt Jack Corbett suggests if they can find the signals officer they might be able to solve the puzzle of the missing records.
Littell arrives with a note written by Jimmy about Eddy Fenton - he did have a brother in the air force!
They head off to a map and work out Eddy was downed in July ’44 and must have been on the island.
Cooper orders the Japanese prisoners woken up and assembled in the night light.
He confronts Ikeuchi with photos of the missing airmen, but he denies everything.
Matsugae arrives to protest - they have a legal right to counsel during questioning - and when Frank Roberts asks what he’s going, Cooper says “mass trial, mass interrogation.”
Takahashi arrives and also denies knowing anything.
Back in Roberts' office, Cooper is forced to admit he doesn’t have the bodies. Roberts berates him for chasing four phantoms when he has the hard evidence of mass graves of 300 soldiers.
Cooper explains there were no witnesses or records but four flyers went down and one of them’s got a brother in the hospital. Roberts accuses him of losing his objectivity and Cooper tells him not to patronise him.
Roberts makes Cooper apologise to Matsugae.
In hospital, the sister tends Jimmy Fenton, who starts to talk to his brother Eddy.
In the court, Takahashi in his smarmy way tells Matsugae he insisted POWs be treated as if Japan had signed the Geneva Convention, as we learn that Takahashi obtained a degree in law from Oxford university and was the only Japanese member of a European golf club.
Asked about the mass grave, Takahashi explains he was off at a meeting in Manila, Captain Ikeuchi was in charge and never told him about mass graves. He mentions tropical diseases or allied bombing raids … and he’s very distressed by what he now knows, it does his command no credit, but he can’t be held responsible for actions taken during his absence.
A frustrated Cooper tries to get Ikeuchi to talk, because otherwise he’ll cop the lot, but all Ikeuchi says is “no executions.”
Ikeuchi says he doesn’t understand Japanese ways.
Cooper says he’s met some dumb pricks in his time there but Ikeuchi takes the cake.
Night, and Cooper sneaks in to the hospital, begging the Sister to allow him to show Jimmy some photographs.
But Jimmy can’t speak, and we cut to Cooper examining Ikeuchi in court, as he denies knowing anything about the executions.
Cooper returns to the subject of airmen, but there are objections and the court shuts him down.
Cooper asks for an adjournment so a search of Tokyo records can be conducted into courts martial in the region between 1942 and the surrender. Captured pilots in particular.
The President gives 24 hours to consider the request, as Sister Littell reads a family letter to the still mute Jimmy …
A truck brings a fresh prisoner, with Private Talbot (Jason Donovan) escorting Christian Japanese solider Lt Hideo Tanaka (Toshi Shioya).
Back in court, the President tells Cooper that Supreme Allied Command can’t guarantee production of the records within a reasonable time, and none of Takahashi’s staff can be contacted, so there’s no more adjournments.
With no witnesses, the counsel proceed in the summing up of Takahashi’s case.
Cooper still persists with talk of airmen in his summing up, and the issue of responsibility for the actions of subordinates - this ‘man of honour’ commanded the POW camp with the highest death rate in the war, as he asks for the highest possible penalty - but the court clears Takahashi …
Cooper’s outraged - he was bloody guilty - but Roberts tells him the case is closed. Cooper says the same thing will happen with Ikeuchi, and asks why they couldn’t have waited for evidence about the four flyers, but Roberts tells him again that they’re phantoms.
He should concentrate on nailing Ikeuchi, a real monster. Everybody will be happy at home and he’ll have done the job he came to do, but Cooper says it’s not justice, it’s politics.
Lt Corbett interrupts a discussion about justice and rules to announce they’ve got a Japanese signals officer.
It’s Tanaka, and he begins to answer questions. He can’t recall the July 1944 flight - he was in Nagasaki and lost sisters and parents - and Cooper thinks it’s a waste of time.
Matsugae asks about charges and formally requests that Tanaka be allowed to return home, but Cooper decides to keep him in case he comes in handy with the case against Ikeuchi.
Cooper watches as Takahashi leaves the camp …
Cut to Jimmy, moaning, photo of Eddy in hand. The Sister asks him what it is, as we cut to the prisoners cheering on a sumo match.
Ikeuchi comes up to Tanaka and tells him to keep his mouth shut.
Tropical downpour, and as they clean pots, Tanaka is discussing with Lt. Noburo Kamura (Kazuhiro Muroyama) why he gave himself up and what they should do. Tanaka reassures Noburo everything will be alright.
Thunder, and Jimmy bursts in to see the Sister and tell her that he remembers.
Cut to Jimmy being helped through the jungle, with Cooper, Ikeuchi and others.
They reach a clearing and Jimmy collapses with a scream to his knees.
Jimmy tells them to dig, and Ikeuchi is put to work digging. When he says Geneva Convention say officers don’t do manual work, “Cooper’s convention say Ikeuchi dig or shovel’ll come into contact with head. Now dig…”
The digging uncovers the four dead airmen - the dog tags confirm it.
“Phantoms Frank, one to four,” Cooper tells Roberts.
Jimmy goes into the tribunal with the Sister and gives his evidence.
Jimmy recalls Ikeuchi and his men breaking eight of his ribs, almost crippling him. He points out Ikeuchi and we go into flashback to see the brutality and the beatings which Ikeuchi stopped and started with a whistle.
Jimmy recalls escaping and hiding under a hut, and then seeing a truck coming.
He watches as the airmen, including his brother Flight Lt. Eddy Fenton (David Argue) arrive…
The traumatised, gasping Jimmy insists he’s okay to testify, as he recalls seeing Ikeuchi brutalise his brother who protests that he was on reconnaissance rather than a bombing run.
Jimmy sees the torture and hears his brother scream, as Cooper tenders records showing it was a reconnaissance mission.
Flashback, and with Ikeuchi gone from the interrogation room, Jimmy seizes a precious moment to hold the battered Eddy’s hand.
Then he recalls seeing his brother being taken to a truck by Jap guards. The four airmen are driven away, followed by Ikeuchi.
Jimmy takes off and follows the truck, and got as close as he could, and he hears his brother scream. “Mongrel bastards, you fucking murdering savages,” he shouts at Ikeuchi, screaming insults in Japanese…
Later, and as Cooper uses a bowl to wash his face, Sheedy’s offering Cooper a beer and brings news that Jimmy just died …
Cooper charges off and begins to violently assault Ikeuchi as he demands answers about the fliers and the executions …
Ikeuchi dobs in Tanaka the signals officer, as Cooper is interrupted by Sgt Keenan and a disapproving Lt Corbett.
The Sister tends Cooper’s wounds, as he reveals he got the name of one of the executioners and she suggests that he’s not much better than them …
Back in court and the trial of Tanaka and Ikeuchi begins in relation to the deaths of the four airmen. They plead not guilty.
Cooper begins submitting evidence, and interrogates Ikeuchi, who says he knows nothing, accusing Jimmy of lying.
Cooper points out they found the bodies where Jimmy said they were, and notes that Bushido demands that officers be executed by Japanese officers of equal rank.
Ikeuchi says nothing, and then it’s Tanaka’s turn to answer questions.
He admits seeing the airmen, and says Takahashi was in charge of courts martial, but he wasn’t a witness at the court martial.
He explains he was honoured by Takahashi to carry out the executions, the airmen having bombed innocent civilians.
Cooper reminds him it was a reconnaissance flight, but Tanaka insists the Japanese court martial found they bombed civilians.
Cooper says the court martial never took place, but Tanaka insists, and says he protested about Ikeuchi to Takahashi regarding the treatment of the POWs, tears forming in his eyes … as Ikeuchi begins to laugh hysterically, swats Matsugae aside, and says there were no records, because Takahashi burned them …
Ikeuchi is dragged away, shouting at Tanaka that they’re both going to die for the emperor…all the prisoners joining in with him chanting “banzai!”
One man attacks Tanaka as a traitor, as the shouting continues. Noburo and Cooper watch as tears stream down Tanaka’s face.
Night, and Matsugae comes up to Cooper to apologise - he feels great shame for what happened in the court. He defended Takahashi to the letter of the law, and now finds himself in a most difficult position.
It’s Tanaka that now concerns him, especially if the innocent were to be branded with the shame of the guilty.
Cooper’s not so sure he was innocent, as Matsugae says he was just following orders. So was the man he executed, says Cooper.
Private Talbot rushes up and drags them inside the compound, where Ikeuchi has killed himself in an act of seppuku. Such actions are meaningless, says Matsugae.
Later, over a beer, Cooper and Sheedy talk, and Cooper says he doesn’t understand these bloody Japs.
Later, Cooper confronts Roberts about news that Beckett is returning, with Shimada …
Beckett turns up with Lt Shimada (Yuichiro Senga), saying he will verify that a legal courtmartial was held in relation to the fliers …
In the tribunal, Cooper gives Shimada a hard time, and then calls Major Beckett to the stand, as the President jokes that if nothing else, he can testify that allied attempts to bomb Japanese records were highly successful.
Beckett obfuscates about Japanese signals, and resorts to ‘classified information’ when asked about decoding them.
Cooper’s caused consternation, as the President adjourns and then confirms that the information is classified and won’t be released.
But then Matsugae arrives with Lt Noburo Kamura, who confesses to the gathered Australians that American records will show no signal about the court martial … because no signal was sent …
Matsugae calls him as a witness for Tanaka, but then in cross-examination, Cooper forces him to recant his lies about the signal not being sent because the island was under heavy air attack. There were no attacks for the entire month. Noburo is eventually forced to admit that the court martial didn’t happen …he didn’t tell Tanaka, because he was scared, he’d be punished and court-martialled if he didn’t obey an order …
He knew Tanaka might not carry out the order if he knew there was no court martial … and Tanaka didn’t check to see if there was a written order …
Cooper then leads Noburo to recount the events of the day, and he confirms that Takahashi was responsible for the order that saw the Australians murdered.
Matsugae and Cooper then discuss Tanaka’s situation with him outside the court …
Later that night, Private Talbot tries to offer Tanaka a little sympathy, but a drunk Sgt Keenan comes up and suggests he’s got something better to do than chinwag with these monkeys…
Tanaka says he doesn’t want to cause trouble, as Keenan tells Talbot Jap lovers like him turn his stomach.
Meanwhile, Beckett takes Cooper aside to explain to him that Takahashi has been given a very sensitive role in the pacification program in Tokyo. It’d be a damn shame if there was any more trouble about what happened here … what, like killing 300 Australians, Cooper says, as Beckett explains there’s a bigger game and a grander scale.
He’s not saying the sonofabitch is innocent, he’s just asking him to see that there are more important things than what happened on Ambon. The future of the whole world is being worked out right now.
Cooper says he doesn’t have much time for barons at the best of times, “but let me tell you, the future of the world isn’t worked out on a grand scale, it’s worked out by ordinary people doing their ordinary bloody jobs.”
Beckett realises Cpp[er doesn’t understand that they have to use people like Takahashi to serve their interests.
Cooper: “Takahashi’s not serving our interests. You’re serving his. And you’re not working out the future of the world, Major. You’re just preventing it from being different to the past.”
Cooper walks off, and we’re back in the tribunal, as Cooper sums up the case against Tanaka. Did he know he was committing a crime, or was he ignorant? He was lied to by his superior officers, including one acquitted by the Tribunal, who lied to the Tribunal, ordered summary executions and destroyed all records. This knowledge should be put to better use than to convict his junior officers…
Cut to a re-enactment of the ritual beheading of the four Australian airmen …
As Cooper talks of the way in which power and privilege make victims of those who have neither, and he wonders what choice Tanaka had, what could he have done - we see Tanaka pull out his sword and prepares to behead a kneeling Eddy …
Cooper: “We all recognise that the world must go on … but if a swift political solution to the Pacific and the Far East can only be won at the expense of justice, then our grief and our anger at the barbaric treatment of our prisoners of war will not be washed away in this century.”
Eddy’s head is sliced off.
Cooper recommends mercy if Tanaka is found guilty …
Sister Littell comes in to Cooper’s office to say goodbye …
The Tribunal announces its verdict - Tanaka should have confirmed a legal court martial had given a legal order before he executed the fliers, and so he’s guilty as charged, a capital offence. The President says the sentence is death.
Tanaka bows and walks away, as Sheedy sends the news by Teletype to Australia, the irony being that Tanaka was a Christian who gave himself up. The sentence is to be carried out the next day - he amends the text to take out the word “ironically”.
Dawn, and Cooper, Sheedy and Mitsugae get ready as a priest accompanies Tanaka.
He walks down between two long rows of Japanese soldiers, officers saluting, other ranks bowing.
Tanaka pauses to shake Noburo’s hand and gives Keenan a letter for his wife.
Then he gets on board a truck, before walking down a long row of palms, accompanied by the firing squad.
Tanaka tells Keenan he doesn’t want a blindfold, he’s not frightened of death, but Keenan says “I’m sorry, it’s regulations.”
The firing party takes aim, the bullets hit Tanaka’s chest and he slumps against the post to which he’s tied. In his hands clutched behind him is a set of rosary beads …
The main players look reflectively at each other, as the soldiers take down the dead Tanaka, put him on a stretcher and the soldiers carry his corpse into the distance …
Mist spreads amongst the palms, as mournful music swells and end titles roll …