Attack Force Z

Attack Force Z (alternatively titled The Z Men)[1] is a 1982 Australian-Taiwanese[2] World War II film, directed by Tim Burstall. It is loosely based on actual events and was filmed in Taiwan in 1979. It was screened at the Cannes Film Festival on 18 May 1981.

This article concerns the 1982 fictional movie. For information about the actual Commando unit, see Z Special Unit.
Attack Force Z
Region 4 DVD cover
Directed byTim Burstall
Produced by
Written byRoger Marshall
Music byEric Jupp
CinematographyHung-Chung Lin
Edited byDavid Stiven
John McCallum Productions
Distributed by
  • Jef Films
  • Roadshow Australia
Release date
  • June 1, 1982 (1982-06-01) (Australia)
Running time
93 minutes
  • Australia
  • Taiwan
Box office$88,000 (Australia)

The film is noted for starring Mel Gibson and Sam Neill, who were relatively unknown in the US at the time but who went on to become international stars. The plot concerns Captain P.G. Kelly (Gibson), who leads a team from the elite Z Special Unit against the Empire of Japan during the Second World War. The film fictionalises the exploits of the Z Special Unit, which was also known as Z Force. It was a joint Australian, British and New Zealand commando unit. Its main brief was to conduct reconnaissance and sabotage missions throughout Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia.


In the Straits of Sembaleng, five men are dispatched by submarine in Klepper canoes to rescue survivors of a shot-down plane on a nearby island which is occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Led by Paul Kelly (Gibson), an inexperienced commando officer, the team secretly lands on the island and hides their kayaks. As they venture in land, Ted 'Kingo' King is hit by fire from an unseen machine gun post, the team quickly eliminates the Japanese defenders and return to their wounded comrade. King has been hit on the leg, the bullet smashing his kneecap. King cannot be allowed to fall into enemy hands and compromise the mission under interrogation, and after sharing a cigarette with him, Costello shoots him. The four remaining men return to their search; coming across a rice farmer, they learn of the area in which the plane crashed. The rice farmer is also killed in order to preserve secrecy.

But as they near their destination they spot a Japanese squad at a local house, after the Japanese leave they enter the house and meet the local resistance leader Lin, his grown up daughter Chien Hua and her younger brothers and sisters. With a guide to lead them, they head off to the plane but are attacked by Japanese soldiers at a Buddhist temple. Separated from the rest, interpreter Jan Veitch ends up returning to Lin's house where Chien Hua hides him from the returning Japanese. After the deaths of their soldiers, the Japanese officers Watanabe and Imanaka torture Chien to tell them the location of her father, who they believe is hiding the survivors of the crashed plane, but Chien Hua refuses. Lin's son Shaw Hu falsely tells the Japanese that Lin, the Z men, and the plane's survivors are heading for the island's capital. All the Japanese leave except for two soldiers guarding Chien Hua; Veitch kills both with help of Shaw Hu.

Meanwhile, within sight of the plane, Kelly watches as locals blow up the wreckage. Lin is evasive, and after quizzing the inhabitants of a village, the team head on to the plane. Kelly manages to get Lin to tell them that the two survivors are being taken to his home, so they turn around and head back. In the capital, Veitch is led to the survivors. One of them is a defecting Japanese government official Imoguchi, and he is believed to hold a secret that could end the war faster. Only Kelly knows that he must be rescued at any cost - or killed. As the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall together, Kelly must persuade his own men that Imoguchi is worth rescuing and the local resistance that it is worth fighting against their Japanese enemies.



The script was based on a real-life commando rescue raid, Operation Opossum, where a team of commandos rescued the local sultan on the Japanese-held island of Ternate near Borneo.[3][4]

The film was originally entitled The Z Men and was to be directed by Phillip Noyce. Pre production commenced in Taiwan where for six weeks Noyce worked on the script with writer Michael Cove. However, Noyce clashed with the producers - McCallum later claimed in particular that Noyce refused to use one of the Chinese actors who had been cast in a small role[5] - and was fired the night before shooting was meant to start. He was replaced by Tim Burstall in November 1979.[6][7]

Filming was further delayed by constant rain and re-writing of the script.[8] Among the changes made were adding a fifth character to the team - a soldier played by John Waters who would be killed within the opening ten minutes by one of their own men.[9]


Attack Force Z was only released theatrically in Australia in Melbourne, where it took $88,000 at the box office,[10] which is equivalent to $256,080 in 2009 dollars. After the film's release, Tim Burstall was quoted as saying;

It sold everywhere, sold all over the world, and it got its money back. And it did perform the task of getting some co-productions going with the East, which was useful and very important. But it's always awful when you take over from somebody else - and Phil is a friend - but he really wanted to do something quite different and I was regarded as much more of a whore, I suppose.[9]

Mel Gibson later called the film "pretty woeful... it's so bad, it's funny."[11]

John McCallum later said he and Robinson wanted to make another film in Asia, about drug running in Thailand "starting from the poppies and the hill factories where they distil the damned suff and send it down to Bangkok"[5] but were not allowed to make it because of the dangers involved in filming in Thailand.

See also

  • The Highest Honor - Another film about Z Special Unit made by the same producers in 1983.


  1. AMG. "Attack Force Z (1982)". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 April 2010.
  2. Lee, Daw-Ming Historical Dictionary of Taiwan Cinema Scarecrow Press, 8 November 2012, pp. xxxix-xxxx
  3. Sue Johnson, 'After 37 years and 10 beheadings, Operation Rimau Explodes Again', Sydney Morning Herald, 27 March 1982 p 41
  4. "Exploits of the men of Z Force relived", Sydney Morning Herald 6 March 1981 p 8
  5. John McCallum interview with Brian McFarlane, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, Oxford Uni Press, 1999 p 300
  6. "Attack Force Z". Channel 4. Archived from the original on 28 May 2006. Retrieved 9 April 2010.
  7. David Stratton, The Last New Wave: The Australian Film Revival, Angus & Robertson, 1980 p39 & 213
  8. David Stratton, The Avocado Plantation: Boom and Bust in the Australian Film Industry, Pan MacMillan, 1990 p43
  9. Interview with Tim Burstall, 30 March 1998 Archived 15 November 2013 at the Wayback Machine accessed 14 October 2012
  10. Film Victoria - Australian Films at the Australian Box Office Archived 23 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  11. "Not just a pretty face In his new movie, Mel debuts as a director -- and puts the hunk on hold", Jay Carr, Globe Staff 22 August 1993 The Boston Globe BSTNGB City Edition B1
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