Prisoners of the Sun (1990)

 

 

Director:     Stephen Wallace

Starring:     Bryan Brown (Capt. Bob Cooper), George Takei (Vice-Adm. Baron Takahashi), Terry O'Quinn (Maj. Beckett), John Bach (Maj. Frank Roberts), Toshi Shioya (Lt. Tanaka), John Clarke (Sheedy), Deborah Kara Unger (Sister Littell), John Polson (Pvt. Jimmy Fenton), Russell Crowe (Lt. Jack Corbett), Nicholas Eadie (Sgt. Keenan), Jason Donovan (Pvt. Talbot), Tetsu Watanabe (Capt. Ikeuchi), Sokyu Fujita (Mr. Matsugae), Ray Barrett (President of the Bench), Kazuhiro Muroyama (Lt. Noburo Kamura). 

Japanese internment of Australian soldiers

 

Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie. 

On the little known Indonesian island of Ambon, 650 miles north of Australia, the Japanese established a prisoner-of-war camp.  1,100 Australian soldiers were captured on Ambon in February 1942.  When the Japanese surrendered in September 1945, less than 300 were left alive.  91 Japanese officers and soldiers were later charged with war crimes. 

Capt. Bob Cooper, in charge of prosecuting the Japanese with war crimes, and the Australian guards force the Japanese prisoners to dig up a mass grave.  Capt. Ikeuchi is the senior officer among the Japanese.  He is very uncooperative.  One of the guards spits in his face as the first skeleton is being removed from the mass grave. 

Tan Toey Prisoner-of-War Camp, Ambon Island, Indonesia, December 1945. 

The man Capt. Cooper really wants is Vice-Admiral Baron Takahashi.  He was the number one man and Capt. Ikeuchi was the second in command.  The Japanese defense council arrives.  His name is Shinnosuke Matsugae and he is a professor of law at Meiji University.  He tells Cooper that because of the differences between the Japanese and Australian systems of justice, the Japanese prisoners are very suspicious of him.  But Cooper has no sympathy whatsoever for Matsugae's problems.  He just came from the unearthing of a mass grave. 

Capt. Cooper goes to the hospital to see some of the former prisoners-of-war.  He tries to get some information from Private Mitchell, but he is a goner  -- a victim of Japanese mistreatment and torture.  Sister Littell comes over and tells the Captain that he is not allowed in the hospital and throws him out.

Cooper receives the news from Major Roberts that they have gotten the Vice-Admiral.  Takahashi comes in on the plane with American Major Beckett who is with the Supreme Command War Crimes Trials.  Cooper is informed that Emperor Hirohito has immunity.  The American says that the United States wants to work with the Japanese leaders to make the transition to peace much easier.  Major Beckett adds:  "You've got to understand the politics."  But Captain Cooper has no patience with politics; he wants justice for the around 800 dead Australian P.O.W.s.

The Japanese prisoners are taken from confinement to a building to be used for the trial.  A large crowd of locals scream and shout "Kill them!" and "Murderers!" and try to hit the prisoners.  The Japanese accussed are charged with "deliberate and concerted ill-treatment and murder of P.O.W.s".  Everyone of the defendants pleads not guilty.  The Vice-Admiral is the first to testify.  Capt. Cooper asks him about the 300 Australian P.O.W.s whose skeletons were found in the mass grave.  Some were beheaded and the rest were bayoneted.  And "Who ordered it or failed to stop it?."  He tells the Vice-Admiral that the soldier named Mitchell, who worked as a gardener for him, heard him discussing the execution of soldiers.  The prosecutor says, after all, Japanese policy was to kill captured airmen.  Luckily for the Vice-Admiral, all records have been destroyed. 

Four prison guards are brought in from Tokyo.  Capt. Cooper thinks that Fenton's brother Eddy, an airman, must have been on the island.  He takes pictures of the four airmen (one being Eddy) on one downed reconnaissance flight and asks Capt. Ikeuchi if he recognizes them.  Of course, the Captain says no. 

Cooper asks the Vice-Admiral if he recognizes the four pilots.  He says no.  Major Roberts wants to see both of the lawyers in his office.  He has Cooper apologize to the defense attorney, for springing the pictures on him.  Cooper defends himself by saying that this is an extraordinarily difficult case because there are no witnesses and no records. 

On the stand the Vice-Admiral says that Japan never signed the Geneva Conventions dealing with the treatment of P.O.W.s.  The high-ranking officer spent four years at Oxford then joined the Japanese navy.  He repeats the often use refrain that he knew nothing abut the mass graves.  He passes all blame onto Captain Ikeuchi.  When the Captain gets on the stage he just keeps repeating: "No executions.  No executions." 

After court, talking with Capt. Cooper, a newsman asks the question "Why did the American officer bring the trial of the Vice-Admiral to the little island of Ambon?"  Then he provides his own answer:  "To get him off?"   Cooper shows Fenton the four photos, one of which is his brother.  But he is still too gone mentally to be of help.  The prosecutor then decides they should check on the Tokyo records concerning events on Ambon. 

The court now moves to have the final arguments by both sides.  Since there are no witnesses and no records, it looks like the Vice-Admiral will get off. After the final arguments, news arrives that they have found the signals officer, Lt. Tanaka, but it is already too late.  The court acquits the Vice-Admiral.  Major Beckett flies away with the Vice-Admiral. 

The next man to be tried is Captain Ikeuchi.  Captain Cooper wants to use the testimony of the signals officer to get Ikeuchi.  In the camp Ikeuchi warns the signals officer about testifying against him. 

More good news.  Fenton remembers seeing his brother at the camp.  The man takes Sister Littell, Capt. Cooper, Lt. Jack Corbett, some soldiers and some Japanese P.O.W.s to the burial place of the four fliers.  Ikeuchi has to do some more grave digging to uncover the bodies.  The bodies are recovered complete with their dog tags. 

Fenton testifies at the trial of Ikeuchi.  He says he was beaten by the Captain.  The Captain gave the orders.  He would blow the whistle to start the beatings and then again to stop them, and still another time to restart them, and so on.  There were 30 men being beaten, of which three died.  He saw his brother Eddy and the three other flyers be taken off a truck at the camp and held in isolation.  He also saw his brother being interrogated and beaten.  Then the four beaten men were taken in a truck.  Fenton followed the truck.  From a distance he saw the executions of the four flyers.  Fenton calls the Japanese savages.  The defendants look rather sheepish.  After court, the newsman in the group tells Cooper that Fenton just died. 

When Captain Ikeuchi is on the stand again he says that the Christian (the signals officer who is of the Christian faith) gave the orders.  Capt. Cooper charges both of the officers with the deaths of the airmen.  On the stand Lt. Tanaka says he recognizes the pictures of the four airmen.  When asked who were the ones in charge of the court-martial of the four flyers, he says it was the Vice-Admiral, Captain Ikeuchi and Lt. Shimada (the legal officer).  Lt. Tanaka says that he protested against the poor treatment of the P.O.W.s to the Vice-Admiral, adding that men were dying all around them.  It was of no avail.

Mr. Matsugae speaks with Capt. Cooper and tells him that he feels great shame for what happened at the camp.  As they talk, a soldier tells Cooper to come quick.  The three men go over to the prison and find Capt. Ikeuchi with a knife in his stomach.  He is committing ritual suicide.  He twists the knife in his belly.  A soldier then just pushes over the dead, but still kneeling, body of Ikeuchi. 

Capt. Cooper learns that Major Beckett is coming back.  He says it is because his people have now found the evidence about the deaths of the four flyers that they did not have before.  Cooper actually puts Beckett on the stand as an expert on present and missing records.  Beckett worked for secret intelligence.  Yes, he admits, the Allies have the Japanese codes and that any document can be decoded.  But most of it is "classified" information.  The court adjourns for one hour to call to see about the availability of the records involved in the case.  The result is bad news.  They say the records are "classified". 

Mr. Matsugae has someone to testify for his side.  The man is Lt. Kamura and he says that in the court-martial of the four flyers no signal was ever sent.  There was too much bombing going on at the time.  Matsugae will use the man in the defense of Lt. Tanaka.  At court the Lieutenant testifies that the court-martial took place on September 10, 1944.  When Capt. Cooper cross-examines the man, he destroys his testimony.  The records show that there were no bombing raids on or near the September 10 date.  Then the prosecutor suggests that there never was any court-martial.  Why did Lt. Kamura not tell Lt. Tanaka, who was given the "honor" of beheading air officer Eddy Fenton, that there was no court-martial?  Because Lt. Tanaka was scared that he himself would be court-martialed and punished.  And if he had told the truth, Lt. Tanaka might not have agreed to the beheading.  Did the orders come from the Vice-Admiral?  Yes, is the answer.  On the stand Lt. Tanaka says that he carried out an execution that he believed was a lawful order.  And he asks:  "What could I have done?"

Major Beckett tries to cool-out Capt. Cooper.  He says that the Vice-Admiral now has a very high position and that Cooper should go easy on him.  It would not be good for the whole truth to be revealed.  Beckett says that the Captain should think of the bigger game. After all, he says: "There are more important things than what happened at Ambon."   But Capt. Cooper has a great reply.  "You're not working out the future of the world, Major.  You're just preventing it from being different to the past."

In his final argument, Capt. Cooper suggests that if Lt. Tanaka is found guilty, he would recommend mercy for the defendant.   The court does find Lt. Tanaka guilty.  The judges say that the Lt. should have confirmed that the execution order was a legal order, but he did not even inquire about it.  The sentence is death.  The next morning the bound Lt. Tanaka is taken out into the forest, put up against a tree, blindfolded and shot to death. 

 

Pretty good movie.  Cynical ending, but why not?   The Allies let a lot of war criminals go because they were thinking of the upcoming war with the Soviets.  Not a pretty picture, but that's what happened.  Even key players in the Holocaust were not punished.  Bryan Brown as the righteously indignant prosecutor Capt. Bob Cooper did a good job.  Russell Crowe has a small part in the movie as Lt. Jack Corbett.   George Takei  as Vice-Adm. Baron Takahashi was a bit over the top -- so much so that he seemed effeminate at times.  Tetsu Watanabe as Capt. Ikeuchi was a good villain. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.

 


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