Dr. Garry Gillard
A Critical Review
Part I: Film Information
Bryan Brown: Captain Cooper
George Takei: Vice-Admiral Baron Takahashi
Terry O'Quinn: Major Beckett
John Bach: Major Roberts
Toshi Shioya : Lieutenant Tanaka
Deborah Unger: Sister Littell
John Polson : Pvt. Jimmy Fenton
Russell Crowe: Lt. Corbett
Jason Donovan: Pvt. Talbot
Tetsu Watanabe:Capt. Ikeuchi
Sokyu Fujita: Mr. Matsugae
Village Roadshow Productions/Blood Oath Productions
Director: Stephen Wallace
Writers: Denis Whitburn
Brian A. Williams
Richard Brennan (line producer)
John Tarnoff (executive producer)
Cinematography: Russell Boyd
Editor: Nicholas Beauman
Australia: July 26, 1990
USA: July 26, 1990
Finland: March 22, 1991
Sweden: June 14, 1991
Germany: February 18, 1992
Blood Oath, although it takes place on Ambon Island, was filmed in Queensland.
Blood Oath was the 3rd highest grossing domestic film in Australia in 1990, grossing $633,000.
On-Line Film Reviews:
DVD Review: http://www.darkhorizons.com/dvds/d-blood.htm
Internet Movie Database list of internet film reviews:
Blood Oath nominated for nine AFI awards, winning two.
Won: Best Achievement in Costume Design, Best Achievement in Sound
Nominated: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor in a Supporting Role (both John Polson and Toshi Shioya), Best Achievement in Cinematography, Best Achievement in Production Design, and Best Screenplay.
I was unable to locate and bibliographical detail of interviews with filmmakers regarding their work on Blood Oath. The only interviews I was able to locate were the commentary tracks on the DVD version of this film. One commentary track features director Stephen Wallace, while the other features writer/producers Brian A. Williams and Denis Whitburn. These audio tracks, as well as the DVD as a whole, are reviewed at this website: http://www.darkhorizons.com/dvds/d-blood.htm
The majority of the information above was found through the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). Here I was able to find the necessary information about the cast and crew, the release dates, filming location, online reviews, awards and nominations and a number of other details included in this essay. I was unable to find any box office figures at IMDB, so I visited the Australian Film Commission website (www.afc.gov.au) where I was able to find the total gross of the film and where it ranked that year in Australia. I was, however, unable to find the budget for Blood Oath, although I would assume it was not very high as it was filmed in Queensland mainly on one single location. Also, it was very difficult to find any existence of Blood Oath in any non-internet literature. I looked through a number of books on Australian cinema, and the film was rarely ever mentioned save a filmography or two. I found this odd because the nine AFI nominations led me to believe that Blood Oath may be considered a rather important film. Also, IMDB normally has a very extensive list of film reviews. The database offered five links for Blood Oath reviews, a number that is staggeringly less than other successful Australian films. This indeed indicated a lack of coverage, both nationally and internationally, for Stephen Wallace's Blood Oath.
Part II: Critical Review
Director Stephen Wallace's 1990 film Blood Oath tells the true story of an Australian war crimes trial that took place on Ambon Island in Indonesia in 1946. The film opens with Australian soldiers marching Japanese prisoners into the jungle where they are then ordered to dig. What is discovered in this scene are the bodies of over 300 Australian soldiers buried in the soil of Ambon Island. Needless to say, the Australian soldiers, particularly Captain Cooper (Bryan Brown), are enraged and want someone to pay for these atrocities. Capt. Cooper goes right to the top and attempts to prosecute Vice-Admiral Takahashi. However, Takahashi is able to shift the blame to his subordinates, a process that continues until finally the only conviction that Captain Cooper is able to attain is against Lieutenant Tanaka, a man who admits to executing only one soldier.
One major theme present in Stephen Wallace's film is what Tom O'Regan refers to as "the limits of ÎAustralian action.'" (O'Regan 1996) Despite Captain Cooper's dedication to winning this case, he finds much resistance in the form of the American allies as well as Cooper's own superior officers. Vice-Admiral Takahashi arrives at Ambon accompanied by Major Beckett, an American officer who is there to ensure that Takahashi receives a fair trial. As Beckett later reveals to Captain Cooper, his real intention there is to ensure that Takahashi's name is cleared, thus smoothing the international peace process. Therefore, the American officer's role is to ensure that Australia's pursuit of justice does not interfere with other national interests. As Captain Cooper states, "If a swift and political solution to the Pacific and the far east can only be won at the expense of justice, then our anger at the barbaric treatment of our prisoners of war will not be washed away in this century." However, Cooper is never able to overcome these obstacles in his pursuit of justice as those officers responsible for these atrocities are never convicted. As Tom O'Regan states, Cooper's "principled actions meet with fierce resistance and his own marginalization by the American and Japanese high commands." (O'Regan 1996) Stephen Wallace is clearly making a statement here about the way in which Australia's national interests are often compromised when they conflict with those of more powerful nations. By showing Cooper's superiors merely going along with the American officer's wishes, the film also suggests that Australian leaders are often content to let other nations dictate the way Australia is run.
In order to convey the tragedy present in the notion of one soldier being executed for following the orders of his superiors, Stephen Wallace must establish the loyalty that Japanese soldiers had toward their leaders and their country. Wallace does this by presenting a contrast in the presence of the Japanese soldiers when Takahashi is on the island and when he has left. When Takahashi is at Ambon Island, the Japanese soldiers are shot in very rigid formations. The scene of Captain Cooper's mass interrogation is shot so that the soldiers are shown in perfect formation as Takahashi looks on. Also, in the courtroom, after Takahashi rises and declares that he is not guilty, every Japanese soldier rises individually and closely mimics the Vice-Admiral's actions. Thus, we are able to see how loyal these soldiers are to their superior officers. However, Wallace shoots the Japanese soldiers quite differently after Takahashi leaves Ambon. For example, one of the first scenes of the soldiers without the presence of the Vice-Admiral is shot at night and features a crowd of Japanese soldiers gathered around two men who appear to be Sumo wrestling. The men are scattered everywhere, thus breaking their aforementioned formations, and are presented as sweating and screaming wildly. This type of screaming in support of fighting can only be associated with savagery. Thus, this scene serves to contrast the earlier shots of the Japanese soldiers and to show that, although these men were just following orders, they were indeed capable of this kind of brutality.
Another notion that Blood Oath conveys is that in times of war, it is very difficult to discern what is an atrocity, and therefore it is hard to accuse any particular army of acts of cruelty. Wallace does this by shooting the Japanese soldiers very similarly to the Australian soldiers. In the opening scene, the Australians force the Japanese prisoners to dig by using force and pointing guns. At this point, it is not yet clear to the viewer what these prisoners have potentially done, and what is most striking about this scene is the Australians' harsh treatment of the Japanese soldiers. Also, Wallace's shooting of the execution of Lt. Tanaka at the end of the film is very similar to that of the Japanese army's execution of Private Fenton. The two scenes are indeed paralleled in order to get the audience to question what makes the actions of the Australians more honorable than those of the Japanese. The audience feels no sense of retribution as it is clear that Tanaka was just following orders, and therefore they know that this execution is wrong. Wallace is perhaps alluding to the notion that this event in Australian history could itself be deemed an atrocity of war, and therefore those responsible for it are no better than the Japanese leaders themselves.
Critically speaking, I feel that this film failed in showing both sides of this case, particularly that of the Japanese. The 1970 film Tora, Tora, Tora gave a very accurate and fair depiction of the bombing on Pearl Harbor by showing the perspectives of both the Americans and the Japanese. The result was that the audience gained a further understanding of Japan's motivations for the attack and saw it less as an atrocity and more as a military strategy. This is indeed not an implication that the murder of hundreds of Australian prisoners of war could ever be construed as military strategy. However, by not fairly showing the Japanese side of this issue, the complexity of such issues of war is lost and the audience only sees the Japanese as the villain. One could argue that the character of Lieutenant Tanaka represents the Japanese soldiers as a whole and, through him, we gain a further understanding of their perspective. However, this attempt fails because Wallace immediately labels him as Christian and, therefore, different from the rest of the Japanese and more sympathetic to the Australian audience. When Tanaka is introduced, Wallace cuts to a deliberate close-up of the cross around his neck. Also, Captain Ikeuchi refers to Tanaka as "Christian." This labeling by another Japanese soldier implies that he is different from the rest of the army and therefore Tanaka is not an adequate representative of their side of the story.
In Australia, it can be assumed that Blood Oath was quite the critical success. Although there is not much literature to support this claim, particularly on the web, Blood Oath's critical appeal is evidenced by its nine AFI award nominations. The film was nominated for such awards as Best Film and Best Director, and Blood Oath managed to take home the AFI awards for Best Costume Design and Best Achievement in Sound. (imdb.com) However, the very limited number of articles about Blood Oath in American magazines and newspapers suggests that the film did not have as much appeal abroad as it did in Australia. After searching the archives of most of the major American newspapers on the web, the only articles regarding Blood Oath could be found by two separate authors from the Washington Post. Writer Hal Hinson's critiques of the film suggest that Blood Oath was not a success with American critics because the format of the courtroom drama, no matter how original the plot may be, is very common in cinema and thus the director runs the risk of not having his film stand out from the pack. "Wallace can't overcome our sense of familiarity with the architecture of the story:The film, in attempting to draw a line under this little-known historical evil, only makes it seem generic." (Hinson 1991)
Despite the fact that the majority of funding of films in the early 1990's came from foreign investors, Blood Oath was a film that was primarily funded by Australian production companies. Blood Oath Productions was established by the writers/producers of the film, and the Australian branch of Village Roadshow Productions also contributed. However, the Australian film industry at the time was opening its doors to foreign influence. This was indeed integral to the survival of Australian cinema, and explains how Stephen Wallace was able to obtain the talented Japanese actors to play these roles. Also, because of this foreign influence, the 1990's represented a time when Australian films began to celebrate its own cultural diversity and acknowledge the richness of other cultures. However, one could argue that Blood Oath goes against this model because, rather than celebrating the influence of other countries, it depicts a scenario where the interests of other nations interfered with Australia's rightful pursuit of justice. However, it could also be stated that Wallace's film is celebrating the notion of the honorable soldier who is willing to die for his country through the character of Tanaka. Wallace is not simply praising the heroics of the Australian soldiers who died in WWII, but rather showing that many soldiers are forced to sacrifice themselves because of the will of their leaders. Thus, although he is indeed not absolving Japan from its actions in WWII, Wallace is showing that Australians also made mistakes and therefore is establishing with Japanese audiences "a cosmopolitanism interested not so much in what separates Australia from the world but in their commonalities." (O'Regan 1996)
Despite Stephen Wallace's nomination for Best Director at the AFI awards, as well the Blood Oath's nomination for Best Film, his career subsequently seemed to stand still. His next film, Turtle Beach, was critically a failure and he has not directed a feature film since. (imdb.com) This is quite surprising considering that Wallace's second film, 1980's Stir, was also nominated for both Best Film and Best Director. Undoubtedly, this nomination helped Wallace get the job to direct Blood Oath, a film with a very heavy subject matter not likely to be handed to an inexperienced director. In Stir, Wallace also collaborated with actor Bryan Brown. Brown was perhaps considered perfect for this role as he is one of Australia's most consistent leading men in the 1980's, and was also a staple of such successful Australian courtroom dramas as Breaker Morant. Wallace was also able to acquire the help of a very successful cinematographer in Russell Boyd. Boyd had previously worked on such Australian classics as Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. Boyd's cinematography indeed adds a lot to Blood Oath, giving the audience a strong feel for the dark, dusty atmosphere of the Ambon Islands. Boyd worked with Wallace again on Turtle Beach, but his career does not seem to have suffered because of it and is now seen filming a number of big budget American films. Blood Oath also marks the feature film debut of Russell Crowe. Although Crowe's acting abilities are certainly not put to the test in his small role as Lt. Corbett, his face is on screen enough to recognize that he indeed has a strong presence. This undoubtedly contributed to Crowe becoming one of Australian most prominent leading men in the early 1990's, and his success flourished internationally thereafter.
Blood Oath was indeed not the international success that it undoubtedly was hoped to be. Despite the success it received in Australia, evidenced by the awards and the box office, it is clear that it simply did not reach international audiences in a similar way. This is evidenced by the lack of coverage of Blood Oath in American newspapers and magazines, and the very insubstantial amounts of literature regarding this film on the web. However, Blood Oath's lack of international success is not necessarily telling of where Australian cinema stands on the international market. Because the Australian film industry in a medium-sized English language cinema, their productions need to have something about them that will stand out against other English language cinemas, particularly the United States, in order to achieve international success. Perhaps what this does tell us is that Australian films can rely too strictly on the formulas that typically mean commercial success; in this case, the courtroom drama. In order to compete on the international market, Australian cinema must represent a deviation from the norm. Successful Australian films of the 1990's, such as Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, seem to find their own voice and not rely on well-established formulas. If Stephen Wallace were able to better manipulate the courtroom drama so that it did not simply blend with all other films of this genre, then Blood Oath would have indeed achieved far greater international success.