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Thursday, 24th April 2014

Stephen Garton

Changi as Television: Myth, Memory, Narrative and History

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For Australians, Changi is an iconic name, one enfolded into many strands of our history and culture. It is a place, an event, a site of mourning, memorial, incitement to memory and, most recently, television. The broadcast of the popular six-part ABC mini-series Changi in 2001, became an opportunity to engage with complex debates about truth and memory — ones that framed much of the controversy over the series itself. These debates have come to be seen as central to the historiography of war.1 But there are other ways of situating this series. Here I put Changi in a different framework, as a problem of representation. In this context it is also possible to situate this program within a larger history of representations of war imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese. How can we depict such an experience? How have we accounted for Changi? What meanings have we given it and have these changed over time?

Accounts of the prisoner of war experience, like most accounts, are creatures of their time. If we approach programs such as Changi as historical ensembles of representation and narratives that invest the past with particular meanings then we can place these meanings in a larger framework of different accounts of war imprisonment. Although Changi has a number of dimensions, ones which cut across each other and complicate any simple characterisation of its central meaning, overall I would argue that Changi enacts an enfeebled narrative of the prisoner of war experience — narrow, parochial, inward looking, blind to the complexities, deaf to the multiplicity of former prisoner voices but attuned to John Howard’s nostalgic vision of national cohesion cemented through the commemoration of an Anzac ethos. The danger here is that I am reading Changi through the lens of my own particular distaste for post-Tampa Australian political culture. My harsh conclusion might even reflect a damaging nostalgia for Keating’s ‘big picture’ with its sense of Australia as part of Asia. There is a theoretical and methodological trap here, which threatens any analysis of the series. My way round this trap is to ground Changi within a larger history of narratives of imprisonment. By examining the ways war imprisonment has been written, most importantly by former prisoners themselves, then Changi can find a place in this lineage. And here I attempt to show that its place represents a retreat from the knowledge and understandings offered by former prisoners themselves. Changi shrinks away from some of the important insights offered by the men and women who experienced imprisonment, placing it within a more comfortable and familiar frame of reference — the Anzac legend. Thus the series fails to grapple with the distinctiveness and difference of war imprisonment, rendering it as just another example of the national myth. In its effort to capture the essence of war imprisonment it actually distorts and misunderstands what that experience could mean for some of those who lived through it.


The Changi series, written by noted comedian and radio personality, John Doyle, and directed by Kate Woods, best known for the film Looking for Alibrandi, screened in October and November 2001. It excited extensive public and media controversy. Commentators were anxious to test the authenticity of this historical drama. They sought — and found — former prisoners of war who condemned the numerous inaccuracies in the series: the uniforms were wrong, the prisoners too healthy, there were too many Japanese guards, there were no roll-calls, prisoners had to bow not salute their captors, and at Changi there had been no executions or attempts to kill prisoners in the final days before surrender. ‘Half of it is rubbish’ declared one former inmate and there were plenty of veterans who echoed this view.2 Some contributors to the talk-back radio, including the children of former prisoners, found the series ‘disgusting … a soap opera … that made everything cheap and ordinary’.3 Historians also joined the frenzy. Peter Stanley at the Australian War Memorial declared the series wrong in detail and tone, accusing Doyle of inventing a Changi that ‘never existed’.4 And there were plenty of opinion writers who added their weight to the chorus of disapproval. Christopher Bantinck, writing in the Courier Mail, declared Changi a ‘farce … insulting, discourteous and a travesty of history’.5

But the series also had plenty of defenders. Robin Oliver, the Sydney Morning Herald’s chief television critic declared the series ‘immensely satisfying’, and there were other laudatory reviews in the papers praising it as ‘powerful’, ‘one of the finest pieces of drama’ ever produced in Australia.6 There were also a number of veterans who, in newspapers and on radio, declared it ‘very much true to prison life’.7 Some historians offered their support. Michael Cathcart found it a moving series that captured the suffering and comradeship that were at the heart of the prisoner of war experience. For him it was a ‘celebration of the powerful egalitarian spirit that is the Australian story’.8 Despite support from these quarters, Doyle was understandably defensive, given the vehemence of the attacks, declaring that the series was not history but art — an effort to be honest to the spirit not the facts of Changi. When you try to deal with such a tricky subject Doyle explained, you have to ‘abandon naturalism’.9 It is through an art that moves beyond the merely documentary, he suggested, that one could uncover the deeper truth of the Australian story — how Australian humour and mateship allowed Australians to survive in greater numbers than other groups of prisoners.10

Doyle has a point. Much of the debate about the series was bogged down in an entirely fruitless obsession with factual accuracy and authenticity, when it might be better seen as a problematical assertion of the historical fact as authenticity. Changi, the series, is art, a story enacted in a visual medium, enabled and constrained by all of the modes of that medium. More importantly, Changi is quite obviously not meant to be a depiction of the ‘real Changi’. As all of the historical work, and many of the former prisoner testimonies argue, Changi was actually the ‘Hilton’ of prisoner of war camps; a way-station to the far more brutal camps on the Burma-Thailand railway and islands of Indonesia. The men were given relative freedom at the Selarang barracks and the death rate was a comparatively low five percent.11 Doyle instead is using Changi as a metaphor for the prisoner of war experience in general, thus capturing and transforming stories from many of the oral history testimonies about the experiences of men from widely dispersed camps. Indeed for those familiar with oral histories of prisoners, it is clear that Doyle has taken actual stories told by a wide variety of interviewees and transposed them to his Changi scene.12

The choice of the term Changi to embody the whole prisoner experience is an understandable metaphor with deep resonance within Australian culture. At the end of the war, media reports of the plight of prisoners focused on Changi. It was the way station for most returning prisoners and was thus immediately etched into Australian consciousness as the signifier of the prisoner of war story. Only in the last twenty years have Hellfire Pass and Sandakan come to rival Changi as the cultural tropes propelling the narrative of torture, imprisonment and Australian fortitude.13

The only sensible comments on the series by historians came from Joy Damousi and Paula Hamilton who attempted to shift the terms of the debate away from the problem of authenticity. For them, Changi had to be assessed as ‘filmic’ and ‘visual’, not history. They accepted that there were commercial and artistic constraints on the series. It had to have a ‘popularist message’, so while Changi obviously played up to the Anzac ethos, for Hamilton it was faithful to the memories of survivors, and it was memory, not history, that she saw as the key to the series. Damousi and Hamilton also argued that Changi opened up interesting perspectives on the relationship between memory and history, and how the competing testimonies of former prisoners could complicate any simple notion of historical truth. Regrettably the ‘sound-bite’ mentality of contemporary media is not terribly attuned to exploring such complexities and neither Damousi nor Hamilton were given the space to develop their arguments — a fact graphically illustrated when interviewer, Geraldine Doogue, speaks over the top of her guests, announcing for all to hear — ‘have to be quick, Joy’.14

So what about Changi as art? Here I have to confess to some ambivalence about the series. On the whole I enjoyed it and the solid ratings suggest that I was not alone.15 For me, the conventional use of ‘flash-back’ techniques worked reasonably well, knitting together past and present in complex ways. Here we could explore the problem of return and the effect of imprisonment on men and their families, in ways that undercut some of the strained humour of the Changi scenes. It has to be said, though, that these explorations of the consequences of imprisonment focused more on the men than their families, which is perhaps understandable. But certainly these elements of the series provided an entry point for viewers themselves to think through and experience some of what families might have had to endure. Other parts of it were less successful. The occasional ‘Denis Potter’ song and dance sequences were derivative and embarrassing. Some of the prison camp sequences, notably Gordon’s punishment in the Square and Curley’s period in the hole, were powerful and moving, although all too often slipped over into a rather thin melodramatic mode. Too much of the series, however, revolved around the cliché of Australian humour and mateship. There was a sharp disjuncture between the rather shallow portraits of the prisoners, who were all mates blessed with a great sense of humour and the more complex and differentiated psychologies of the older men.16

The most interesting analysis of the series, however, was that by Graham Thorburn, head of the directing unit at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Thorburn argued that funding problems (the series went well over budget and in the end cost a sixth of the entire ABC drama budget) showed in the production values of the series. For him there were ‘not enough shots’. Thus instead of focusing in on individual speaking heads to develop more complex visual conversations between screen and viewer, the series had to resort to more long shots, focusing on the men as a group. As a result the series failed as drama. There was no struggle to talk in the series, little inner conflict within the characters, either in the camps or after, reducing the opportunities to explore human lives in a deeper vein. This shallowness was exacerbated by the intrusion of current sensibilities in the framing of the story. There was a naïve and anachronistic late twentieth century belief that talking about trauma was good and this naïve faith meant that little effort was made to explore in detail or depth the struggles men of this era might have had articulating their feelings. For Thorburn the dialogues of the men and their families in later life lacked drama, struggle and authenticity (dramatic authenticity). Instead of dramatic development there was a more general presentation of the group mentality (a failing more generally in Australian drama for Thorburn). Here we have Australians as a unified group, cementing social bonds to repel alien forces (a trope that Thorburn finds in much contemporary television, most notably, Seachange). Thus for Thorburn, Changi was a ‘load of nostalgic old cobblers’.17

I wouldn’t go as far as Thorburn, although I think his critique is a very interesting one. There is more to the flashback sequences than he suggests and indeed the interplays between past and present undercut some of the dominant narrative. Indeed, like many texts, it does more than it thinks it does. But that returns us to an important question. What is the explicit or dominant narrative of the series? Certainly the media releases, the advertising and the comments of the actors, producers and most importantly the writer John Doyle, hone in on one major theme — mateship. I happen to think they sell the series short in this marketing strategy. There is much more of interest in the series than they present, and the evidence of talk-back radio suggests that some viewers explored more dimensions of the program than the ABC was prepared to present in their efforts to entice them to watch. There is nothing terribly unusual in this failing. Nonetheless the focus of the makers and marketeers is how the matey humour of the Australian prisoners transformed them from victims into agents. These were ‘boys who became men in a climate of fear, who react to the terror around them in the way they know best. They laugh at it’.18 Thus the prisoners exemplified the national Anzac spirit — laconic, can-do comrades, bonded together in adversity, triumphing over all odds. It was this that allowed them to survive better than others. This is the meaning that the series explicitly wants us to take away from our viewing. So how does this message sit in the history of meanings ascribed to Changi?


Contrary to the argument that former prisoners have only begun to talk about the horrors of the camps since the 1980s, it is demonstrable that prisoners began to articulate the meaning of their experience even before release from prisoner of war camps.19 In diaries and in drawings and paintings they set about putting imprisonment into familiar frames of reference. Moreover, a steady stream of published texts by former prisoners began to flow from as early as 1946, and continued throughout the 1950s, 1960s and beyond. While it is true that the stream of reminiscences became a flood in the 1980s, this is in part the product of men nearing the end of their lives seeking to have their story told before there was no one left to mark its significance. It is also the product of the oral history industry itself, which produced an army of interviewers, often supported by public institutions, who marched out to reclaim the memories of Australians. And former prisoners were naturally anxious to ensure that their stories found a secure place in Australian history, especially as prisoner groups were locked into a familiar struggle with the government to get greater repatriation benefits. In this context others felt emboldened to publish their diaries and memoirs, to what was now a large and appreciative audience. But the audience was always large and appreciative. Some of the early texts, notably Rohan Rivett’s Behind Bamboo (1946) and Russell Braddon’s The Naked Island (1952) went through numerous reprintings and editions.

The interesting question is how those accounts were framed.20 What were the narrative conventions and emplotments that writers used to give shape, form and meaning to the experience of war imprisonment in Asia? Typologies are always risky ventures for historians committed as we are to the goals of specificity and difference, but they can also be useful heuristic devices. Let me propose some loose categorisations to focus some of my argument. The first distinction to draw is that between the ‘universal’ and the ‘national’.

Much of the prisoner of war literature has attempted to write a story of national distinctiveness.21 Australians were different: their humour, their mateship allowed them to survive in greater numbers than the men of other forces — symbolised in the series by the death of the lonely and alienated Dutch inmate. This is indeed the key message of the Changi series and it is enshrined in Australian folklore. Of course historians have questioned aspects of this narrative. Closer examination of the ‘facts’ suggests some complications for the folklore. Although Australians did survive in greater numbers than some other groups of prisoners, mateship and humour could not aid the men on the Sandakan ‘death march’ — of the 2,000 who set out, only six survived.22 Moreover, the ground-breaking research of Joan Beaumont on Gull Force in Ambon demonstrates clearly that mateship had little impact and rates of mortality there were high. In fact she highlights more complex issues such as leadership, morale and authority as the factors in determining the response to and experience of imprisonment. When leadership hierarchies were maintained, the mortality rate of Australians was as high as that of other forces.23 Moreover, as her research shows, there was no single Australian prisoner of war experience.

Yet the folklore is remarkably persistent, as the Changi series testifies. Australians are believed to have been distinctive. But some recent scholarship does question the self-evidence of the Australianness of the mateship ethos. For instance, the fascinating work of Eric Leed on German soldiers in the first world war and John Ellis on soldiers in the second world war, argues that the intense social and emotional bonds of the small fighting unit were forces that sustained men through the horrors of war no matter what side they were on.24 Moreover, the important work of Gavin Daws on all of the prisoners of the Japanese shows that ‘tribalism’ and ‘little brotherhoods’ were the hallmark of almost all of the prisoner groups — British, American, Dutch as well as Australians.25 We do have to ask whether there is anything distinctive about Australian mateship. Certainly at some camps, the Australians survived in greater numbers, but at others they didn’t, so a simple characterisation of a distinctive Australian experience is problematic. Nonetheless, the overall mortality statistics do suggest that Australian prisoners did manage to create a prisoner culture of cooperation and mutual support more effectively than other nationalities. Looser authority structures in many Australian units, and the presence of significant numbers of doctors, helped create networks that assisted the survival of the group. So there is something different about Australian war imprisonment, but it is more a matter of degree than kind.

This sense of Australian distinctiveness found its way into the prisoner story very early. Prisoners tried to give meaning to their experience by tying it into the Anzac legend. Where the prisoners of other forces took their experience back to cultures with established and coherent national stories unrelated to war comradeship, for Australian prisoners, mateship was the national story. But in the literary effort to give meaning to war imprisonment, some Australians sought to tie their experience into a larger human story. They stressed the ‘universal’ dimensions of the prisoner of war experience. Here was a timeless story of suffering and brotherhood, most evident in the use of Christian iconography to represent imprisonment. But the national and the universal are not mutually exclusive, they can in fact reinforce each other. The frequent references in Australian prisoner narratives to Shakespeare’s St Crispin’s day monologue in Henry V, ‘we happy band of brothers in this state together’, found in such widely divergent texts as Ray Parkin’s three volume ‘faction’ account of his prison experience and Weary Dunlop’s diaries, use the classical analogy to reinforce the mateship ethos. Here is a transcendent brotherhood, at once timeless and specific to Australian prisoners. The literary references serve to ennoble the struggle of Australian prisoners.26

Mateship, now, might seem the obvious frame of reference for Australian prisoners of war, but we shouldn’t gloss over the difficulties prisoners faced incorporating their story into the national narrative. These were very gendered difficulties. The bare facts of the prisoner experience run counter to the legend. Surrender, capture, slavery, subjection to foreign authority, disease, decline and death, hardly chime in with the masculine warrior tradition. Of course the recent work of historians such as Joanna Bourke and Michael Roper has disrupted the sharp gendered dichotomy of male frontline and female homefront that has become the staple of gender and war scholarship.27 The masculine and the feminine mix in complex ways between and across these cultural and spatial divides. Nonetheless the prisoner of war is an extreme case, a very significant challenge to traditional war iconography. The passive feminised condition of prisoners requires a real literary effort to turn it into a story of national resonance. Moreover, prisoners of the Japanese lacked the tropes of valiant and resourceful escapes that prisoners of the Germans used to ennoble their plight. They couldn’t resort to such universal and classical themes as ‘the wooden horse’ to link their struggles to a wider human story of skill, cunning and bravery.28

There seem to me to be four main literary genres and techniques deployed by writers, and the writers I’m most interested in are the former prisoners themselves who sought to shape the story. They are a religious story of suffering, horror, comedic adventure tropes and the Bildungsroman. Most of the prisoner texts incorporate elements of more than one. With that caveat, let me try to draw some distinctions between texts based on this typology.

The first two require the least comment. Certainly some of the texts, particularly visual ones such as Stanley Warren’s murals at the Changi chapel, draw on a consoling religious iconography of the crucifixion to give meaning to the suffering of the prisoners.29 Here was a message of suffering as something to move beyond, something fundamental to the soul, something that would pass on the path to something greater, even if that something was after death. Horror, however, was a far more prevalent literary genre. It is present in all the narratives of the prisoner experience. The brutal treatment of prisoners, the slavery, petty tyrannies, killings, beheadings and the insidious effects of disease all help to create an inescapably nightmarish world. This is a key element of the prisoner story. And in many of the early accounts it takes on real force by the deployment of racist stereotypes. For writers like Rohan Rivett and Russell Braddon, the prison experience was all the more horrible because the Japanese were uncivilised, unschooled in the Geneva convention, unrestrained by codes of honour, unforgiving, relentless, barbaric. They depict a struggle between east and west, barbarism and civilisation, in which the prisoners are the crusaders for civilised values.30 Some of the writings of former nurses, such as Betty Jeffreys and Jesse Simons, are particularly explicit. Here the sexual tensions implicit in female captivity are disavowed through the constant assertion that the ‘slit eyes and bandy legs’ of Japanese guards are repulsive, they are ‘like monkeys’, their barbarities due to their ‘pagan inheritance’. Instead the nurses ‘long to see a sun-tanned digger’.31

One of the best-known uses of the horror genre is James Clavell’s novel King Rat, which has been continuously in print since 1962. King Rat was turned into a powerful suspense movie in 1965. Here we have a Dante’s inferno world of torture, subjection and men transformed into scheming, lying, desperate survivors, crawling over each other to survive. Here we have a world where men lose their humanity. They are reduced to the circumstances of animals through the brutality of the Japanese.32 This is a disturbing and uncomfortable message, and most importantly it is by someone who is British, not Australian. Although the elements of horror are liberally mixed in most Australian accounts, almost all move on beyond the nightmare of the camps to find some other meaning. This is where other literary devices help to rescue imprisonment for the national story. Comedic adventure elements are a frequent resort for Australian prisoner of war writers. Indeed this is the key element of John Doyle’s script. Of course it can never be pure comedy — this would disavow the real tragedy of so many deaths. When Doyle first conceived the series, he actually wanted to make a Hogan’s Heroes style sitcom, and Changi was originally commissioned by the ABC’s comedy department. Very quickly the implausibility of making the Japanese camps comedy was realised and the project transferred to the drama department.33 Humour remained a key feature of the script. Doyle drew on a long tradition. In 1946, Rohan Rivett’s account of his imprisonment was deftly transformed from horror into a public school ‘boy’s own’ romp. Rivett declared that he felt it was important for readers to look ‘on the brighter side’. His inmates are the ‘old dysenterians’ constantly scoring minor victories over ‘the limited and obsessed minds’ of their captors. The dominant trope is farce, silly prefects believing they were in charge undermined by the humour and resourcefulness of the inmates.34 Similarly the accounts of Betty Jeffreys and Jesse Simons, written in the 1950s, although less obviously comedic, take on the character of the ‘girls own’ adventure. Plucky heroines, like the men who, through a mixture of good fortune and humour, triumph over the stolid stupidity of the captors. Defeat is turned to victory. National attributes of laconic humour and resilience are deployed in adverse circumstances. The ‘natural superiority’ of the white race is affirmed.35

In the Bildungsroman, young men (for it is usually a man) start off with naïve optimism that, through adverse circumstances, slowly develops into a deeper and more profound understanding of the world. The major theme to emerge is the overcoming of the racial antipathy generated by the experience of imprisonment and the forging of a new accommodation, even respect, for Asia. This is not the course for all. Many retain bitter hatred of all things Japanese and often are unable to articulate their deep anger and resentment. What surprises is the few former prisoners, who in oral histories and written accounts, tell a story of coming back to Asia, of achieving a sense of serenity and peace in their new found connection with Asia.

Such narratives began to appear as early as the 1960s. In the late 1960s, Kenneth Harrison may have focused on the horror of the experience and the brutality of the captors, but he leavened his account with reflections on ‘considerate and comradely Japanese’. There are references to the bravery of the Japanese and musings on the common fate of all soldiers ‘in the face of suffering and death’.36 In the 1980s the emergence of memoirs by formers prisoners such as Rowley Richards, Stan Arneil and Tom Uren add to the small chorus of opinion that imprisonment was a profound experience — one of undying mateship, but also one where they achieved a transcendent, almost spiritual sense of moving to a new plain. Part of that accommodation with the past was a respect for Asia.37 Men who believed they could never face a Japanese without resorting to violence found themselves making friends with Japanese, travelling to and enjoying the riches of this and other Asian cultures.

Arguably, the greatest exemplar of this narrative is Weary Dunlop, who in many respects is an embodied text. Although Dunlop himself wrote little, and his diaries appeared near the end of his life, he performed his life for the Australian people and his performance was one of saint-like transcendence of suffering.38 In his life he was a far more complex and troubled character than the public persona, but it is the latter that is important.39 Moreover, some of his cultural resonance comes from his capacity to embody both feminine and masculine traits — a nurturing female presence and a masculine bravery, fortitude and mateship. A key element of the story was how Dunlop overcame the rancour of imprisonment to embrace Asia — which he visited frequently. His is a story of growth, maturity and transcendence, one of enormous power and appeal. It is a story of great literary power, rooted as it is in a classical and universal story of ‘growing up’ and enlivened by the extraordinarily traumatic circumstances of a coming of age.


Although Changi moves back and forth between past and present to set up a dynamic of change, this dynamic is fixed in trauma. In other words the prisoner experience is seen as a primal scene, one that marks the subsequent life in profound ways. But rather than building on this trauma to change the self (as the Bildungsroman genre does) in Changi the present is always the trigger for the Proustian return to one fixed point in the past. In other words the men never escape the past, have no other past than imprisonment. In many respects this is a ‘realistic’ account of the effect of such an experience. But in literary terms, what the series structure creates is a fixation on the camp experience as the defining moment of the life. Thorburn, I think is right here. It is a structure that lacks dramatic development. It is circular rather than developmental.

Doyle’s Changi shares remarkable similarities with Rohan Rivett’s Behind Bamboo: horror, physical privation, death and despair, with a counter point of the ‘brighter side’. The humour, fortitude, devil-may-care larrikinism of the Australians is the source of their group strength and the means by which they survive. It turns the captives into agents. They really control the show. It is the ‘boys own adventure’, the schoolboy prank narrative, with cunning inmates subverting the authority of the prefects and winning the day. Thus the Japanese guards are rendered stupid, ridiculous, psychopathic dolts, constantly undermined by the prisoners. There is little character development in them. The few attempts to develop some depth through the overly strained efforts to create a troubled look for Colonel Aso don’t work. He is constantly outwitted and becomes the foil for the humour. Thus the Asian characters are two-dimensional caricatures that fail to undergo any genuine change or development. There is no real attempt to explore the complexities of their social, cultural or psychological position — or more accurately the few token gestures at insight ring hollow.

Doyle’s Changi fits very comfortably into the 1950s tradition of prisoner of war reminiscences and ignores the more complex literary manoeuvres developed by many prisoners from the 1960s. The point of the series seems to be to affirm an Australian faith in the Anzac ethos. It is a series that plays on, reactivates and reinforces this ethos in a rather static narrative structure. Some other recently published accounts of prisoners of war perform a similar function. Michael McKernan’s study This War Never Ends (2001) is a troubling addition to the literature.40 On the positive side it is a sensitive and well-documented exploration of the genuine problems prisoners and their families faced on their return to Australia. There are moving and illuminating case studies used to great effect and these are well situated within the context of a repatriation system that struggled to deal with the unique problems of these returned service personnel. But McKernan seems blissfully ignorant of the current scholarship on returned soldiers, grief and the problems confronting families with the return of soldiers.41 More significantly, having developed important insights into the problems of returned prisoners, he cuts off analysis just at the moment when he should be exploring contradictions, nuances, differences and the ways in which the prisoner story both affirms and disrupts contemporary narratives of return. Moreover, it is a narrowly national story. Unlike Hank Nelson’s pioneering work, which manages to combine empathy, horror, humour, national identity and an appreciation of the cultural significance of imprisonment as Australia’s first substantial encounter with Asia, McKernan keeps the focus on Australian developments. In the final analysis, for McKernan, the prisoner story is just another one that exemplifies the strength and importance of the Anzac ethos. The uniqueness of the prisoner story is effaced and wound into the larger national narrative, freed of its complications and dissonances.

Doyle and McKernan sit firmly within a narrative tradition forged in the late 1940s and early 1950s. They ignore some of the narrative possibilities opened up by former prisoners such as Richards, Harrison, Uren, Arneil and Dunlop. This is where a history of the different ways imprisonment has been written is important. The narrative potential in the prisoner stories told by formers POWs, particularly in the Bildungsroman genre, demonstrates the cultural complexity of the prisoner experience and its multiple meanings for any national story. Moreover, these are cultural capacities created by prisoners themselves rather than imposed by me. There is a dramatic potential within war imprisonment, one that gives shape to the experience itself, although this is only recognised in hindsight (which is after all what memory, history, narrative always does — it comes after). This potential is one that uses the prisoner experience as an engine for personal and historical development. It is not fixed in the past but grows out of it. In contrast, the horror or comedic narratives are unable to move on beyond the trauma of the moment, unable to imagine a future, but only to live a past — it is event, not process. The comedic/Anzac narrative in fact disavows the prisoner of war experience altogether, renders it just another example of the national ethos and robs the prisoners of their history, their difference, and their claim to tell us something about ourselves.


Notes to pp 73-83 I would like to thank participants at the Frontlines conference, Melbourne in July 2002 and staff at the History Program RSSS, ANU seminar in September 20002 who provided such constructive critical feedback on earlier versions of this paper. Thanks also to Cheryle Steel for her excellent research assistance.

1 See one of the more recent contributions to this growing field, Michael Roper, Graham Dawson,Timothy Ashplant (eds), The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration, Routledge, London, 2000.
2 See The Age 13 October 2001, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 2001, 3 ‘Louise’ on ‘Arts Today’, Radio National, 22 October 2001.
4 Quoted in Matthew Spence, ‘Historians Shoot Down Changi’, The Australian, 15 November 2001 and Samantha Baden, ‘Controversial Australian TV Series tackles Changi’, Japan Economic Newswire, 19 November 2001.
5 Christopher Bantinck ‘Chopping Down our Real History’, Courier Mail, 22 October 2001.
6 Robin Oliver, ‘Show of the Week: Changi’, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 October 2001. See also Simon Yeaman, ‘Humour Amid the Horrors’, The Advertiser, 10 October 2001 and Robert Fidgeon, ‘Aussie Spirit’, Herald Sun, 10 October 2001.
7 See the positive views of veterans in Megan Doherty, ‘Changi survivor gives show thumbs up’, Canberra Times, 14 October 2001 and Nick Bray, ‘For years we sat round and starved – no adventures, no heroics, just fear’ Courier Mail 13 October 2001.
8 Michael Cathcart on ‘Arts Today’ 22 October 2001.
9 Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The Guide’, 1 October 2001.
10 See also Weekly Times, 10 October 2001.
11 For the history of the actual Changi see Tim Bowden, Changi Photographer: George Aspinall’s Record of Captivity, ABC Books, Sydney, 2001 and Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians Under Nippon, ABC Books, Sydney, 1985.
12 The most important collection of oral testimonies, one which received wide media coverage as a radio series on the ABC, is that by Tim Bowden, Hank Nelson, Margaret Evans and Janine Walker, ‘POW: Australians Under Nippon’, ABC Radio and Drama Features Department, ABC Radio 24 May – 28 October 1984. There are a number of stories told by prisoners in these programs that form the basis for incidents in the television series.
13 See Stephen Garton, The Cost of War: Australians Return, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1996, pp 208-10.
14 ‘Life Matters: What does Changi tell us?’ Radio National, 16 November 2001.
15 Changi scored the best ABC ratings on a Sunday night for a decade, with, according to OzTAM, an average 1.3 million viewers, although the audience seems to have been skewed towards older Australians and those living in regional areas. See Newcastle Herald, 17 October 2001.
16 A few critics were able to escape the debate about authenticity and focus on the aesthetic aspects of the series. Although many critics praised the series for bringing such an important episode of Australian history to life with a moving story and great acting, a few critics pinpointed some crucial flaws in the series, issues related to the series as drama and a piece of television, shorn of any consideration of history. See for example Paul Gray, ‘Prisoners of Fantasy’, Herald Sun, 13 November 2001.
17 ‘Arts Today’, Radio National, 22 October 2001.
18 These were the words in numerous advertisements and the by-line for the video box set sold at ABC shops.
19 This question is developed by Michael McKernan, This War Never Ends: The Pain of Separation and Return, University Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2001, pp xi-xx. McKernan notes the many texts written but bemoans the absence of the prisoner story within Australian history. This is an important point but it ignores the ways in which Australian popular culture was saturated in the prisoner story from almost the beginning.
20 For an excellent overview of war experience as a literary phenomenon see David Walker, ‘The Writer’s War’ in Joan Beaumont (ed), Australia’s War: 1939-45, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1996, pp 136-61.
21 See for example Patsy Adam-Smith, Prisoners of War: From Gallipoli to Korea, Viking, Melbourne, 1992 and Hugh Clarke, Colin Burgess and Russell Braddon, Prisoners of War, Time-Life, Sydney, 1988.
22 See Don Wall, Sandakan Under Nippon: The Last March, Author, Sydney, 1988.
23 Joan Beaumont, Gull Force: Survival and Leadership in Captivity, 1941-45, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1988.
24 E J Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War I, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1979 and John Ellis, The Sharp End of War: The Fighting Man in World War II, David and Charles, London, 1980.
25 Gavin Daws, Prisoners of the Japanese, William Morrow, New York, 1994, pp 17-28.
26 Ray Parkin, Out of the Smoke, Hogarth Press, London, 1960; Into the Smother, Hogarth Press, London, 1963; The Sword and the Blossom, Hogarth Press, London, 1968; and E E Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway, Nelson, Melbourne, 1986, pp xv-xvii.
27 For the key works that established the gendered nature of war see Margaret Higonnet et al, (eds), Behind the Lines: Gender and Two World Wars, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1987; H.M. Cooper et al, (eds), Arms and the Man: War, Gender and Literary Representation, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1989; Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott (eds), Gendering War Talk, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1993; and Joy Damousi and Marilyn Lake (eds), Gender and War: Australians at War in the Twentieth Century, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995. For some of this new work see Joanna Bourke, ‘The beast within: masculine narratives and the economics of violence’; Michael Roper, ‘The mother addressed, the mother remembered: masculinity and the maternal relation in letters home from the Western Front’ in ‘Frontlines: Gender, Identity and War’ Conference, Melbourne Town Hall, 12-13 July 2002.
28 See Colin Burgess, Freedom or Death: Australia’s Greatest Escape Stories for Two World Wars, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1994.
29 See Kevin Blackburn, ‘The historic war site of the Changi murals: a place for pilgrimages and tourism’, Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no 34, May 2002 and ‘Changi: A Place of Personal Pilgrimages and Collective Histories’, Australian Historical Studies, no 112, 1999, pp 152-71.
30 See Rohan Rivett, Behind Bamboo: An Inside Story of the Japanese Prison Camps, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1946 and Russell Braddon, The Naked Island, T Werner Laurie, London, 1952.
31 Betty Jeffrey, White Coolies, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1954. See also Jesse Simons, While History Passed, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1954.
32 James Clavell, King Rat, Nelson, New York, 1962.
33 Sydney Morning Herald, ‘The Guide’, 1 October 2001.
34 Rivett, Behind Bamboo, especially p 311.
35 Jeffrey, White Coolies and Simons, While History Passed.
36 See Kenneth Harrison, Road to Hiroshima, Rigby, Adelaide, 1983 (first published 1966), p 280.
37 Stan Arneil, One Man’s War, Sun, Melbourne, 1982, p 4; Rowley Richards and Marcia McEwan, The Survival Factor, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1989, p 205; and Tom Uren, Straight Left, Random House, Sydney, 1994, pp 36-7.
38 Dunlop, War Diaries of Weary Dunlop.
39 See Sue Ebury, Weary: The Life of Sir Edward Dunlop, Viking, Melbourne, 1994.
40 McKernan, This War Never Ends.
41 See Damousi, The Labour of Loss: Mourning, Memory and Wartime Bereavement in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1999 and Living with the Aftermath: trauma, nostalgia and grief in post-war Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 2001. McKernan also ignores the work of Garton, who even has a chapter on prisoners of war. See Cost of War, pp 208- 27.

Originally published in Richard Nile (ed), The Dog of War: Journal of Australian Studies no 73, St Lucia, UQP, 2002.