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Exactly 11 years ago last week, Blood Oath had its Japanese premiere in Tokyo; it brought together the men who were on opposite sides in the war crimes trial of 1946 on which it is based. Now the DVD brings the film – and all the historical context – to a new audience, at a most relevant time in world affairs. Andrew L. Urban reports on the Australian film with global ramifications that uncovered a terrible secret.

Brian Williams was 12 or 13 when he uncovered files and photos that revealed his father’s role as a junior army lawyer prosecuting Japanese soldiers at the Ambon POW camp in 1946. It made such an impact on him that 20 years later he helped make a film of the trial and its horrific causes. (He co-wrote the screenplay with Denis Whitburn and produced it with Whitburn and Charles Waterstreet.) Bryan Brown stars as Captain Cooper, modeled on the late Judge John Williams, and much of the material for the trial was sourced from the Williams archives. It uncovered the ‘secret’ of Ambon, and helped survivors on both sides to speak about it.

"Fate gave him a prod"

When Blood Oath was released in 1991, it grossed just under $1 million in Australia. “World War II was seen as ancient history with no immediate relevance,” he says. “But now, people are looking for a compass in this warn torn world situation, with war crimes trials under way, and so on.”

But in Japan, the film did have an impact: on April 5, 1991, the film was screened for the first time in a Tokyo cinema, attended by not only Judge John Williams and his filmmaker son Brian, but by several Japanese veterans of Ambon. The very men who were some of the 91 on trial. In an extraordinary show of reconciliation, they offered their sincere apology for the hideous treatment handed out to the 600 Australian soldiers held prisoner. Of the 600, 125 were barely left alive three years later. “That moment in Tokyo was the most memorable in my life,” says Brian Williams.

Williams had been nursing the source material for a few years when fate gave him a prod. A weekend writer’s conference at Katoomba in late 1984 coincided with the premiere of a new, high profile six part war drama series on the 10 Network, The Last Bastion, dealing with the politics of World War II from an Australian point of view. The co-writer and co-producer of the series, Denis Whitburn, was at the conference, as was Brian Williams, who went up to Whitburn and said: “I’ve got the sequel to The Last Bastion.” But when he briefly outlined the story, Whitburn said, “That’s a movie!” 

A week later, says Whitburn, “we were having lunch with Judge Williams…Brian had to convince his father to give the OK for us to make the film.”

Five years later the film went into production. 

Brian Williams began working on the DVD in June 2000, encouraged by Roadshow’s boss, Graham Burke. As Williams points out, “The DVD format gives us an opportunity to use the documents and archival material to expand the study notes and to create a historically important setting.”

"If Blood Oath helps us understand the difference between revenge and justice .. it will have been a major achievement" 

The timing for a DVD seemed right for a variety of reasons, including the relevance of contemporary international affairs. The post war relationship between Australia, Japan and the US is one of the issues examined in the film: how the US was anxious to play it soft with its new economic ally, Japan, while Australia was seeking…. Seeking what? Revenge? No, and that’s Brian Williams’ most heartfelt point. 

Beyond revenge is justice and beyond justice is compassion; the Japanese apology and the testimony of Australian survivors recorded on the DVD serves to underline what Williams feels is a search in the world for a way to deal with the complexities of the war on terror, the recent conflict in East Timor, the East European ethnic wars and the many other instances of crimes against humanity. “Revenge sucks us into a moral quicksand,” he says. And Williams makes another point: “We show that of the accused, 50% were acquitted of war crimes.” He hopes the DVD will be an enduring document widely used – in the search for solutions.

If Blood Oath helps us understand the difference between revenge and justice – and the value of that difference – it will have been a major achievement. 

Another factor that helped convince Roadshow to support the production of the DVD was Russell Crowe’s fame. “There is a demand for his earlier films,” says Williams. As a bonus, Crowe gave permission for the use of a music video of his band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts, performing Memorial Day, a song in honour of Crowe’s grandfather, Stanley Wemyss.

But Williams hopes that the DVD will showcase the outstanding performances by Bryan Brown, “and by all the Japanese actors in the film…” Director Stephen Wallace makes several favourable references to these Japanese actors in his commentary, as did Bryan Brown (during our on-set interview).

For director Stephen Wallace, Blood Oath also represents a different sort of battle: the filmmaker’s battle. “I came onto the set with a different attitude,” he recalls. “I had always tried to second guess what other people wanted … like producers or financiers. This time I decided I wanted to use my own judgement and if I was wrong I’d find out. I decided I’d fight for anything I wanted, and I knew I may lose one or two battles, but I wouldn’t lose the major battles. I’d rather lose the film.

“So I did whatever it took to make the film I wanted. Of course, I was terrified it wouldn’t work. But it did.”

He only felt reassured, though, over a decade later when he first saw the film with an audience at a special screening at Sydney’s Popcorn Taxi last year. 

"all right, bloody well shoot it"

One of the battles he won was the inclusion of the short but critical farewell scene between Bryan Brown’s Capt Cooper and Deborah Unger’s Sister Littell. “It wasn’t ever in the script, and I kept saying we need it…until finally I was told to write it myself. Which I did. But then we never got to shoot it…it kept being deferred for some other scene. So one day I said to [cinematographer] Russell Boyd, to light the scene at the end of a day’s shoot and leave it set up. Next day, the schedule began with another scene, but I said to the first AD [Chris Webb], ‘You know it’s a funny thing, but I can’t shoot another scene until I’ve shot this farewell. I’m just going to sit here and we’ll fall behind schedule.’ So they all threw their hands up and said all right, bloody well shoot it.”

The signs were evident early on that this was no more Mr Nice Guy Wallace. Going through the script one day at producer Charles Waterstreet’s house, Wallace was being pushed this way and that by Waterstreet, until Wallace stopped and said: “Look, Charlie, if you keep pushing me and shoving me into directions you want to take, you’ll end up with a second class Charles Waterstreet film. If you encourage me and support me in what I want to do, you’ll end up with a first class Stephen Wallace film. And Charlie agreed.”

Published April 11, 2002

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Bryan Brown onset with Judge John Williams


Behind the Scenes …Blood Oath

Brian Williams

Stephen Wallace


The DVD team: 
Brian A Williams (producer) Denis Whitburn and Annie Bleakley-Ross (joint producers)

Special Features: Berry Digital Media /Paul Coolahan and Brian A Williams

Roadshow Entertainment: Al Thompson (Head of Production) Michael Brooks (Technical Director), Leanne Emerson (Supervisor); Brian Rollason and team at DVM (DVD authoring).

Special thanks: Stephen Wallace, director; Russell Crowe, Graham Burke (Village Roadshow) and Ros Wilson (Roadshow Home Entertainment)

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