The Cowra Breakout (miniseries)

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The Cowra Breakout
The Cowra Breakout (miniseries).jpg
Written by Margaret Kelly
Russell Braddon
Chris Noonan
Phillip Noyce
Sally Gibson
Directed by Phillip Noyce
Chris Noonan
Starring Alan David Lee
Dennis Miller
Tracy Mann
Country of origin Australia
Original language(s) English
No. of episodes 5 x 2 hours
Production company(s) Kennedy Miller
Original network Network Ten
Original release 4 March 1985

The Cowra Breakout is a 1985 Australian mini series based on the Cowra breakout, focusing on the friendship between an Australian soldier and Japanese prisoner.[1][2]


November 1942. A unit of in-experienced Australian soldiers arrives at the frontlines in New Guinea as Allied troops drive back the crumbling Japanese forces. One is private Stan Davidson, eager but naive. The newcomers soon receive some harsh lessons in the realities of warfare as they and their US allies encounter the savage and fanatical Japanese. Nervous young Lieutenant MacDonald leads Davidson's section on a patrol and they come across what appears to be a deserted enemy camp. However it is a trap staged by two Japanese soldiers, the only survivors of their unit, hiding in a concealed bunker. MacDonald flees in terror, abandoning his men, most of whom are wiped out by booby-traps and machine-gun fire, leaving only Davidson and Mick Murphy alive, sheltering in a ditch. Davidson returns fire, killing one of the Japanese but the other, Junji Hayashi, pins the two Australians down with his machine-gun. Murphy is badly wounded and in agony and a distraught Davidson is forced to kill him to put him out of his misery. The subsequent stand-off lasts for many hours until both men are exhausted. Hayashi finally emerges from the bunker and makes a screaming Banzai charge but Davidson shoots him.

1944. Davidson is now back in Australia and he is assigned to guard duties at the POW camp at Cowra, NSW. The Japanese POWs are segregated in their own camp and are kept confined, unlike the gentler Italian POWs who are allowed to work on nearby farms. Davidson is amazed to discover that Hayashi has survived his wounds and is now in the camp. The two begin to talk and gradually form an unlikely friendship. Mick Murphy's widow Sally lives near the camp and Davidson finds himself romantically drawn to her, although he cannot bring himself to tell her the truth of what happened in New Guinea. Davidson's experiences has made him hate the war and he finds his attitudes towards the Japanese softening, causing a rift with the other guards, although he gets along well with Private Hook and Corporal Doyle, both former Anzacs from the First World War. Hayashi himself has no stomach for more fighting but a hard-line element amongst the POWs incites fanaticism, making many of the prisoners feel both ashamed at having been captured and determined to either fight or die an honourable death. Davidson, trying hard to understand the culture and the minds of the POWs, soon senses that something is brewing but his concerns fall on deaf ears, including those of newly promoted MacDonald, who escaped punishment for his cowardice in New Guinea and who is now one of the senior officers at Cowra.

The Japanese POWs begin to plan a massed riot and break-out and most of the prisoners join in. Even Hayashi overcomes his reluctance and agrees to participate. Davidson, Hook and Doyle are all convinced that the POWs are planning something but their CO Major Dorden still refuses to believe it. Finally in the early hours of August 5, 1944, the Cowra Breakout occurs as hundreds of POWs attempt a massed breakout, storming the gates and wire, brandishing makeshift weapons. Many of the prisoners are cut down as the guards open fire. Hook and Doyle, firing a heavy machine-gun, are over-run by a mob of Japanese and both are beaten to death but not before Hook manages to remove the firing bolt, preventing the prisoners from using the weapon. Hundreds of POWs escape into the surrounding bush.

The following day MacDonald is ordered to lead a unit of troops to re-capture the POWs. They encounter a fanatical group who refuse to surrender. Abandoned by his men, MacDonald is killed by the Japanese who then all commit suicide. Back in the camp, most of the surviving POWs (which includes those who were recaptured and those who chose not to participate in the breakout) are bitter and remorseful over what has happened. One of the ringleaders (the lead of them) who incited the breakout yet who stayed in his barracks is forced to commit ritual suicide by his furious comrades. The rest of the prisoners still on the loose are soon either re-captured or shot by trigger happy soldiers and civilians. Hayashi is one of the last prisoners still at large when he reaches the farmhouse of Sally Murphy where Davidson is also present. Relieved to see his friend, Hayashi comes forward to give himself up but he is then shot dead by a group of soldiers nearby. Davidson sadly examines Hayashi's personal diary which ominously reveals that the latter's family reside in Hiroshima.

A written postscript at the start of the end credits pays tribute to the 231 Japanese and 4 Australians who lost their lives in the Cowra Breakout.



Reviews for the show were generally positive.[3][4]


  1. ^ Ed. Scott Murray, Australia on the Small Screen 1970-1995, Oxford Uni Press, 1996 p183
  2. ^ "WHO'S DOING WHAT". Filmnews. 13, (10). New South Wales, Australia. 1 October 1983. p. 17. Retrieved 5 November 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  3. ^ "THE COWRA BREATOUT". The Canberra Times. 59, (18,096). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 15 April 1985. p. 1 (TIMES TV). Retrieved 5 November 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 
  4. ^ "MONDAY APRIL 22". The Canberra Times. 59, (18,102). Australian Capital Territory, Australia. 22 April 1985. p. 2 (TIMES TV). Retrieved 5 November 2017 – via National Library of Australia. 

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