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The Cowra Breakout (1984)


In the Second World War, Stan Davidson (Alan David Lee) and his best mate Mick Murphy (Dennis Miller) are on patrol in the jungles of New Guinea when their patrol stumbles into a small group of starving Japanese soldiers who have vowed to fight to the death. Mick is fatally injured by the last surviving Japanese soldier, leaving Stan, also wounded, to spend the night in a standoff with the lone Japanese who finally breaks his cover at dawn to charge, unarmed, at Stan, seeking death rather than the dishonour of capture. Stan runs him through with a bayonet.

Back in Australia, after his recovery, Stan is posted to the Cowra prisoner of war (POW) camp close to where Mick’s wife, Sally (Tracy Mann) and their three girls are living on the farm that Mick carved out of the bush. Stan is a welcome visitor at the farm where over time, a relationship develops with Sally.

Meanwhile, at the POW camp, Stan is drawn to Junji Hayashi (Junichi Ishada) the Japanese soldier who he thought he’d killed in New Guinea, but who had been picked up by Allied medics and nursed back to life. As their relationship develops, they gain a better understanding of each other’s culture. The Japanese soldier realises that the future of Japan will depend on its young warriors returning to rebuild their country while Stan begins to understand that Hayashi is resisting a strong warrior code according to which a Japanese soldier must die rather than be taken prisoner.

Curator’s notes

This riveting mini-series is based on a true story from wartime Australia. The series doesn’t simply dramatise the events as they unfolded, but gets inside the various characters to help us understand the vast cultural gulf between the Australian way of life and the culture of self-sacrifice that lay at the heart of the Japanese military tradition.

In the early hours of 5 August 1944, 1100 Japanese prisoners launched a mass breakout from a POW camp near the small NSW town of Cowra. Armed with only hand sharpened cutlery and baseball bats, they charged over the barbed wire into Australian gunfire. Four Australian guards were killed and 231 Japanese soldiers died. For over 30 years great secrecy surrounded what was known as 'the Cowra incident’.

One of the problems in researching the film was in tracing Japanese survivors and their families. Many spoke about the humiliation attached to being taken captive while some have still not admitted to their family and friends that they were prisoners of war.

The creative team included writer/directors Chris Noonan and Phil Noyce and writer/producer Margaret Kelly. All three were involved in every stage of production, research and writing which took over two years to develop. Chris Noonan later directed Babe the very successful Kennedy Miller feature film produced by George Miller. Phil Noyce became an internationally successful director whose credits include The Quiet American and Rabbit Proof Fence, and Margaret Kelly has written for Seachange, McLeods Daughters and Heartbreak High.

This remarkable mini series, shown on prime time commercial television in 1984, exposes a terrible and little understood episode in the bitter history of the Pacific war and has no doubt been a potent factor in helping Australians to come to a better understanding of the Japanese character.

The story of the breakout at Cowra has been recently retold in the low budget feature film, Broken Sun (2007).