Based on accounts of Japanese atrocities during their wartime military occupation of Southeast Asia, PRISONERS OF THE SUN is a well-intentioned, intermittently powerful journey backward through a tragic period in history.
On the island of Ambon, Indonesia, 1,100 Australians were captured during WWII. At the end of the war-to-end-all-wars in 1945, only 300 survivors returned home; the remaining flyers, never officially incarcerated as prisoners of war, perished in mass executions. The court case that forms the
basis of PRISONERS OF THE SUN concerns the fate of four missing airmen, presumed dead.
Eager to prosecute the barbaric men who captured this quartet, Captain Robert Cooper (Bryan Brown) runs into one brick wall after another including lack of incriminating witnesses to the men's disappearance and Australian governmental cooperation with American military chiefs who have peacetime
plans for high-ranking Tojo officers. A man with a mission, Cooper goes after camp commander Baron Takahashi (George Takei) but is stymied by the lack of camp records. Stonewalled by his country's postwar policies, Cooper prosecutes Takahashi's second-in-command, Captain Wadami Ikeuchi (Tetsu
Watanabe), the remorseless expediter of Takahashi's commands.
Although Takahashi beats the rap, Cooper's luck changes when a Japanese signals officer, Hideo Tanaka (Toshi Shioya), surrenders in Japan and travels to Ambon to testify. Furthermore, an Aussie private named Jimmy Fenton (John Polson) summons up the courage to appear in court despite his recent
nervous breakdown. Fenton reveals how his brother Eddie and three other flyers were sequestered in the camp and later executed under order from Takahashi; Jimmy witnessed the slayings. When Tanaka testifies that the four men were legally courtmartialed, Ikeuchi loses his temper at the trial; soon
afterward, he commits hara-kiri.
After Jimmy dies, Tanaka starts to look more and more like a scapegoat. Although Cooper was after Takahashi and Ikeuchi, Tanaka implicates himself in the war crimes. Even after another Japanese soldier explains that Tanaka was duped by his superiors, Tanaka is held responsible for his part in
executing one of the four flyers--even though acting under direct orders. Despite Cooper's eloquent plea for mercy, the ill-fated Tanaka is convicted, sentenced to death and executed.
With fascinating, factual material to draw from, PRISONERS OF THE SUN should have been more riveting than it is. As a courtroom drama, the film is engrossing for the most part, but constantly undercuts its own momentum. First of all, the facts are laid out too straightforwardly. If some
information had been withheld from the viewer, this melodrama might have built up some suspense. Unfortunately, as each new shred of evidence is located, we experience neither shock nor surprise.
The earnest docudrama approach doesn't enhance this material. At times we might as well be sifting through court depositions because the data hasn't been reshaped with enough dramatic punch. Another problem with the dramatic flow of the movie is that the flashbacks at the trial actually diminish
the emotion churned up in the courtroom. Although the scenes of execution, as remembered by Tanaka and Fenton, are disturbing in themselves, their placement interrupts the thrust of the trial revelations--the screenplay constantly cuts away at all the wrong moments.
Another debit is the sketchy development of Bryan Brown's advocate hero. When Cooper explodes and attacks Ikeuchi, doesn't he realize he's jeopardizing his case? What in his background drives him to this rage--if it's simply the frustration of court proceedings, then this man is his own worst
enemy. Instead of our viewing him as a passionate idealist, he emerges as a hot-head. Brown's basic appeal as an actor softens that criticism, but directorial incompetence isn't so easily overlooked.
Helmed with more finish than fire, PRISONERS OF THE SUN is prevented from tearing at our emotional core because of the misdirection of several actors. Although Shioya is superb as the selfless witness, Takei pushes the Baron's cold-bloodedness into the realm of caricature, and Watanabe chews the
jungle scenery so much he could be confused with a stock villain from a Hollywood propaganda film of the 40s. Several others, like Sokyu Fujita as Shinji Matsugae, the defense attorney, have so much trouble with the English language, they seem like stereotypical portraits of Orientals. If the
director had restrained them from going over the top in their performances, maybe the vocal strain would have been toned down also.
Movingly ironic (e.g. the one Aussie soldier who befriends Tanaka is selected to be on his firing squad), this WWII drama holds the viewer's attention and commands his sympathy but it doesn't build to the crescendo of the similar BREAKER MORANT. A poignant cross-examination of history, PRISONERS
OF THE SUN grips us sporadically but never ascends to the stature of tragedy, which is what this heartbreaking material deserved. (Excessive violence, profanity, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1991
- Rating: R
- Review: Based on accounts of Japanese atrocities during their wartime military occupation of Southeast Asia, PRISONERS OF THE SUN is a well-intentioned, intermittently powerful journey backward through a tragic period in history. On the island of Ambon, Indonesi… (more)