“Blood Oath” (also called “Prisoners of the Sun” in the States) is an Australian film released in 1990. It was directed by Stephen Wallace and written and produced by Brian Williams. Williams’ father John was the prosecutor in the trial depicted in the film. The movie marked the screen debut of Russell Crowe.
The film is set on the island of Ambon. Of 1,100 Australian and Dutch prisoners taken when the Japanese took the island, only about 300 survived. The war is over and a mass gave has been uncovered . Capt. Cooper (Brian Baker – playing the role representing John Williams) heads a war crimes trial to bring the perpetrators to justice. Crowe is his aide. A flashback depicts the mistreatment of prisoners supervised by the vile Sgt. Ikeuchi (Tetsu Watanabe). The big fish is Adm. Takahashi (George Takei) who is chaperoned by an American Maj. Beckett (Terry O’Quinn). Cooper attempts to prove the admiral gave the orders. He is acquitted because of lack of evidence and flown back to Japan.
Now that the big fish has gotten away, Cooper concentrates on four airmen who were shot down on Ambon and disappeared. His superior asks him why he needs the four airmen when he has 300 corpses in a mass grave and plenty of eyewitnesses to the brutality of the guards. Good question and one that remains unanswered. One of the captured airmen’s had a brother in the camp who witnessed not only his torturing, but the subsequent beheading and burial. On the witness stand, the obviously traumatized Lt. Fenton (John Polson) gives damning (but seemingly inadmissible, evidence) against Icheuki. When Fenton dies that night, Cooper beats up Icheuki with no consequences and a lot of irony.
With the new revelations and the discovery of the grave site of the four airmen, Cooper focuses his efforts on Icheuki and a milquetoast officer named Tanaka (Toshi Shioya). Tanaka testifies that Takahashi gave the orders, but Beckett makes sure his boy is untouchable because he is part of the post-war plans for Japan. As part of the Pacification program the future of the world depends on him, according to Beckett. Cooper counters with: “You’re not working out the future of the world, you’re just preventing it from being different from the past”. Oh, snap! It’s not just the emperor who will get off easy. It’s just politics. Ikeuchi has no protector so he commits hari-kari. Good riddance. There’s still that little matter of Tanaka cutting off an airman’s head with no written orders nor proof of an official court-martial.
“Prisoners of the Sun” is based on a true story. After Ambon fell, the Japanese executed 300 Australian and Dutch prisoners in what became known as the Laha Massacre. Three-fourths of the remaining prisoners died before liberation due to overwork, disease, and mistreatment. 93 guards were put on trial in 1946 in what was the largest war crimes trial in the Pacific. Rear Admiral Hatekeyama was determined to have ordered the executions, but he died before the trial finished. A different Hatekeyama was hanged for being in direct command of the executions. Three other officers were hanged for assorted mistreatments of prisoners. It appears the filmmakers have taken many liberties with the facts. The whole subplot of Takehashi being protected by the American government seems made up to advance the theme of politics trumping justice.
There is nothing special about the movie. The acting is fine. Baker is seethingly righteous. Watanabe is creepily malevolent. Shioya is effective as the pawn. The rest are okay with Crowe not deserving his prominent placement on the poster and Takei slumming in a stunt casting. A nurse is thrown in to provide a female foil and undeveloped romance angle for Cooper. The score is new wave schmaltzy. The cinematography is standard. The set is pretty good. It does look like a prison camp.
The plot is the main flaw. Close examination leads to head scratching. There should have been plenty of evidence of brutality to convict the guards. After all, Fenton was not the only surviving prisoner to witness and be subjected to violations of the acts of war. No other survivors are called as witnesses. The subplot of Takehashi getting off is an indictment of the post-war coddling of war criminals and is thought-provoking. It is also memorable that Cooper’s obsession with convicting someone results in the conviction of the less than villainous Tanaka. The flashbacks, including the beheading of Fenton’s brother, are well done.
“Blood Oath” is the type of movie that takes a forgotten moment in history and brings it to the public’s attention. For that, it deserves some praise. It did cause me to read up on the trial and I found there is not a whole lot of information on the Internet. What little I found gave me the impression that the movie is not really a good history lesson. It is fairly entertaining and the themes are compelling, just not a movie to get excited about. Even if you are a Russell Crowe fan.
Will it crack my 100 Best War Movies list? No.