Prisoners of the Sun (R)
By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 17, 1991
Stephen Wallace's "Prisoners of the Sun" takes place in the wake of World War II on the tiny island of Ambon on the northern coast of Australia. During the war, Ambon had been occupied by the Japanese, who held captive some 1,100 Australian troops in the Tan Tai POW camp. As the movie opens, a mass grave containing the remains of more than 300 Australian soldiers is unearthed, leading to a trial of the Japanese for war crimes.
That the Japanese are guilty of the crimes is never in doubt, which is part of what makes "Prisoners of the Sun" a something less than riveting movie drama. The film provides the day-to-day details of the trials, the denials by the Japanese officers, and the frustrations of the Australians who, because of the difficulty in finding living witnesses, are stymied in the face of Japanese stonewalling.
A second and even more formidable obstacle blocks the dedicated efforts of the Australian military prosecution. Because of their determination to build a solid alliance with their defeated enemy, the Americans aren't keen on pressing forward aggressively with a case that might reflect badly on the Japanese high command, many of whom play an important role in their newly forged postwar order. Still, despite this lack of enthusiasm, Capt. Cooper (Bryan Brown), the military lawyer prosecuting the case, stubbornly pushes on, at times exceeding his authority (and the ethical constraints of his profession) to get to the truth.
Cooper's impassioned doggedness is the movie's focus. He looks on as the bodies of the Australian servicemen, many of whom had been beheaded, are dragged from their common grave, and he refuses to let this atrocity be swept under the rug. Cooper is as uncompromising as a pit bull, and Brown brings his usual virile competence to the part. It's an adequate piece of acting, maybe even more. He makes Cooper's hardheaded relentlessness seem like an aspect of machismo.
But Wallace, for all his good intentions, can't overcome our sense of familiarity with the architecture of the story. Though it's given a ravishing, dark-shadowed look by cinematographer Russell Boyd, the film, in attempting to draw a line under this little-known historical evil, only makes it seem generic. There is no such thing as just another atrocity, but "Prisoners of the Sun" comes close to being a "just another atrocity" movie.
"Prisoners of the Sun" is rated R and contains violence.
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