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MAKING OF: BLOOD OATH (1989)

BY ANDREW L. URBAN
Ambon an innocuous word, it seems, but for many Australian soldiers in World War II, it was a word that came to mean horror; it is the name of a small island where they were prisoners of war. Blood Oath tells the true story.

War crimes: the subject is emotive, explosive and filled with potential for national antagonisms to flare up, as old wounds are exposed to the light of contemporary day.

The torture, ill treatment and execution of Australian prisoners of war has always been at the heart of anti-Japanese sentiment among the ranks of returned servicemen, and others.

"Nothing has been written or seen about the trials on Ambon"

The famous war criminal trials of Nuremberg have helped to deal with the national, social and emotional trauma that followed the war, especially in respect of Nazi Germany. But nothing has been written or seen about the trials on Ambon, the site of a POW camp where hundreds of Australian POWs suffered and died.

Nor has there been public debate on the controversial role of America's political influence in protecting some of the accused, to gain favour with Japan's post-war anti-communist administration.

Can an Australian commercial feature film do justice - pardon the pun - to such a major subject? We are about to find out.

"Blood Oath is a film that certainly seems to have all the right elements"

With a substantial budget (close to $10 million), Blood Oath is a film that certainly seems to have all the right elements, as it comes to the end of its eight week shoot at the Warner Roadshow Studios in Queensland.

With Bryan Brown as Captain Cooper, the lawyer sent to prosecute the accused Japanese soldiers on the Dutch East Indies island of Ambon, Blood Oath sets out from a factual base to open up what producer Charles Waterstreet calls "a real historical black hole".

The Australian garrison on Ambon Island, 650 kms north west of Darwin, was captured by Japanese troops during their swift Pacific offensive, not long after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbour.

In the words of Captain Cooper, "Six hundred men entered Ambon Island POW camp. Three years later, one hundred and twenty were barely left alive."

"It was a means of exposing through evidence"

But Captain Cooper was not his real name: it was John Williams, then a junior army lawyer, now a retired Judge. It was an extraordinary trial, herding together 91 Japanese officers and men who had controlled the POW camp.

The reason for such a large number of defendants, explains Judge Williams, "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." There was another reason: "the trials were a vehicle to tell the full story of what happened at Ambon. They weren't ordinary trials...it was a means of exposing through evidence, what in fact happened and had been hidden from all eyes. Even the eyes of the prisoners themselves to some extent."

Yet it wasn't Judge Williams who initiated this film; it was his son, Brian Williams, who was 12 when he first stumbled across a bundle of papers stacked in the storage area of the family garage in suburban Sydney.

"For years he was almost obsessed with the story"

The papers turned out to be transcripts of the Ambon trials, conducted by his father. Williams read them with interest. He re-read them. For years he was almost obsessed with the story that lay buried between the lines in the transcripts. He tried several times to write a script. He was turned down each time. His mother says it broke her heart to see him rejected time after time, and she wondered why he never gave up.

The turning point came when Williams teamed up with scriptwriter Denis Whitburn, and they approached Charles Waterstreet, who had produced a few films ("including Howling III, for my learning curve").

"I saw it as a great search for his father," says Waterstreet. "That was the romantic basis for a good story. And it's a real black hole in history. All of the subtexts were very appealing cinematically and insiprationally. Bryan Brown had been godfathering it a bit from he sidelines, - and he's not an element you'd want to detach," comments the producer.

"He reflects the great characteristics of a certain type of Australian character" on actor, Brian Brown

"This is tailor made for him: he reflects the great characteristics of a certain type of Australian character, like in Breaker Morant. But Captain Cooper is more authoritative and has great intellectual substance."

Much of the film is shot in a studio set of the Ambon hut used as a court, and the story is one of Captain Cooper's journey from seeking justice to understanding and compassion.

Brown, who met Judge John Williams on the set, says he did not attempt to portray the real man, but to create his own vision of Cooper. "All I did was relate to what he did and go from there."

But on the day of our interview, Brown had the longest and toughest scene (and a long rewrite to learn). It was the end of a difficult few days. "You can't ad lib or wing it in the courtroom," he said at the end of the day's shoot.

"I went off the booze for two weeks and became a boring bastard just to get through." Brian Brown

"It had to be legally right, and this (scene) was the essence what we really want to say. I went off the booze for two weeks and became a boring bastard just to get through. This was the really hard, solid graft."

As director Stephen Wallace points out, "this film is NOT about war. It's a trial. You meet the Japanese characters after the war. And it sets up both sides very well. It's not just about POWs - it's about Japanese society."

The film may just hit Japan at the right time. "There is a change going on in Japan and it's on many levels," says Judge Williams, who has been a keen student of history, with a special interest in Japan, all his life, even before the trials. (Since retiring, he has completed an MA in history.)

"There is a widespread belief that it wasn't a true reflection of Japanese culture or destiny." Director, Stephen Wallace

"There is a reaction against the pre-war period, seen now as an age of aberrant militarism," he says. "There is a widespread belief that it wasn't a true reflection of Japanese culture or destiny."

And of course, there has never been any real catharsis for the Japanese - such as the Americans experienced through very public self-flagellation over Vietnam, for example, or the Germans over the Nazi attrocities. But there are signs, says Judge Williams, "especially from writers like Saburo Ienaga, an academic of some reputation," that Japan's past militarism is being questioned.

This sentiment is not limited to writers and academics, however. Sumi Fujiwara, a middle aged suburban Yokohama woman, earlier this year (1989) sent her savings of A$1000 to plant a tree in the planned Avenue of Peace, near the Japanese War Cemetary in regional New South Wales, where 231 Japanese soldiers are buried, killed in the infamous 'Cowra Breakout'.

With the money came a letter, saying: "What killed the poor soldiers were not their enemies, but the Japanese military principles at that time in which they believed from the bottom of the hearts. Their tragedy stands really on that point. But I can understand their mind remembering even we, the children (at that time I was 10 or so years old) were taught that the best and ideal way to live is to die for the Emperor and the nation. Not only soldiers but most Japanese. But after the war, we obtained freedom of speech and humanistic thoughts, and now think the era mad."
She adds: "we never want to have such an era hereafter."

"Seeking drama, entertainment - and the compassion that glues humanity together."

Perhaps this film, Blood Oath, will help Sumi and her fellow Japanese confront, accept and emotionally expel the pangs of guilt and shame that have been bottled up for so long. As Williams went into court seeking justice, not revenge, so the filmmakers have gone onto the set seeking drama, entertainment - and the compassion that glues humanity together.

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BLOOD OATH

FIRST REPORTED: 22/11/89

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4th IN NEW SERIES:
2/7/98: The Making Of is a unique and historic series of articles on a selection of Australian films such as this one that were made BI (Before Internet), or at least before Urban Cinefile was launched. All the films covered in this series can be found in the FEATURES ARCHIVES menu page, listed alphabetically under MAKING OF

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the Australian Film Commission in helping to publish this series.

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Making of BLACK ROBE

Making of ANGEL BABY

Making of STRICTLY BALLROOM

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