1 9 8 4 (Australia)
5 x 120 minute episodes
This Australian miniseries tells the story of the 1944 escape attempt by 1100 Japanese Prisoners of War from a camp in Cowra, New South Wales, Australia.
It begins innocuously enough as a batch of Aussie soldiers arrives in New Guinea in 1942. We meet Stan Davidson (Alan David Lee), a likeable working-class lad from Sydney who declares good-naturedly that he is “eager to give the nips a hiding”.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when The Cowra Breakout‘s extraordinary tension begins building: perhaps it is as Stan glimpses, stunned, wounded soldiers being carried away on stretchers, or on Melbourne Cup eve when he thinks he hears thunder in the jungle and his mate tells him it is artillery fire: “someone’s copped it,” he adds grimly.
By the time Stan has his first confrontation with the enemy, anxiety has him – and us – by the throat. The level of fear and excitement achieved in the first episode of the ten-hour production from Kennedy Miller – makers of the Mad Max movies – is magnificent.
It is subtle, treacherous and pretty close to unbearable in parts, especially late in the first episode when Stan and a Japanese soldier, Junji Hayashi (Junichi Ishida) brutalise each other during an absurd two-day duel.
Just as artfully, the first episode compels us to care deeply for Stan and Junji and Stan’s dead mate who leaves behind a wife (Tracy Mann) and kids. Amid the shocking violence, the main characters of Stan and Junji are drawn as humans blinded by perpetual fear and ruled by patriotic indoctrination.
The Cowra Breakout contains the occasional humorous incident – a shrewd move because it affords a temporary release of some of that unrelenting, surprisingly powerful tension. One such event is during a train journey in which the Japanese POWs are travelling to Cowra camp. The train stops and the POWs are ordered out. They believe they are to be executed but the Australian guards want them to relieve themselves. The Japanese bewilderment is delightful if poignant.
The Cowra Breakout is masterfully scripted, researched and performed but was criticised heavily at the time by the Australian Returned and Services League (RSL) for allegedly favouring the Japanese and depicting them as nicer than they actually were.
Alan David Lee
Tony Benedict Smith