The Railway Man
Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.
Based on the book by Eric Lomax
Screenplay by Frank Cottrell Boyce & Andy Paterson
Colin Firth as Eric Lomax
Nicole Kidman as Patti Lomax
Jeremy Irvine as the young Eric Lomax in WWII.
Stellan Skarsgård as Finlay
Hiroyuki Sanada as Nagase
Tanroh Ishida as Young Nagase in WWII
Years ago I used to stay near the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo. The best cure for jet lag is a walk in the fresh air so I’d wander there from the Grand Palace hotel before breakfast. People say it’s a nice place to walk. It is. Fresh air is at a premium in Tokyo. Gradually I started reading the signs. It’s a monument to 2.5 million soldiers, who having died in action, are now regarded as deities. 1000 of them are convicted war criminals, 14 are Category A war criminals.. Among it all is the first steam engine to travel the Thailand- Burma Railway. Yes, that one. The Death Railway. The Bridge on the River Kwai, the plucky Brits, Dutch and Aussies whistling Colonel Bogey railway. Quarter of a million slave labourers. 75% of them died. The locomotive used to be outside when I was there, now it’s in the war museum. That train rolled seventy years ago. Japan is my favourite country of those I’ve visited. Even so, Prince Philip, who served in that theatre of war, was right to avoid a situation where he might have had to shake hands with Hirohito. And that question of when or if you can forget, let alone forgive, is the subject of the film.
It is “Based on a True Story.” What happened to fiction? Every major film seems to be based on a true story. The true story is about Eric Lomax, a railway enthusiast, traumatized by his experiences on the Death Railway. It starts around 1980 when he meets a woman (played by Nicole Kidman), falls in love, marries … a pleasant romantic twenty minutes of screen time. However he is haunted by memory and suffering nightly traumas and flashbacks to the railway. I understand that aspect. My dad was one of the first batch of troops liberating Belsen and my mother said he suffered nightmares until his early death in 1966, and that was seeing it, let alone being a victim.
Much more than half the film is the later 1980s period. Nicole Kidman as the wife, persuades Finlay, who was in the camp with Eric, to start revealing the story. He has found out that Nagase, the translator, and a participant in the torture, is not only alive, but a tour guide showing people round the surviving camps on the railway. Finlay commits suicide. Eric has to go to meet Nagase, intending to kill him. But Nagase survived the war because of his ability to interpret, and so was not arrested like other guards, nor hanged as a war criminal … a fate they all richly deserved. Nagase worked on the war graves commission, identifying the tens of thousands murdered on the railway. He started a Buddhist shrine (at least in the book) and shows remorse. They are reconciled. The endnotes tell us they became friends.
So … why did the dismissive reviews range from half-hearted to poor? The camp scenes are deeply harrowing, there is no “action” (torture lacks drama when there’s no chance of escape) and the romance is over very early on. The film is instructive, elevating perhaps, but it certainly lacks “entertainment” value. The cast are all good (and indeed it has nominations in the Australian awards, being an Australian co-production). It’s much less gung-ho and less theatrical than The Bridge Over The River Kwai. It strives for balance, and to be respectful. Therefore there’s no light and shade in the characterization of the prisoners (they are all stoical and co-operative with each other). It does show that Indian and Tamil labour was used too … much less obvious in the David Lean film.
We also only get the usual recitation from Nagase at the end, that the Japanese motivation was that the prisoners had lost their honor by surrendering so were worthless. Later in the torture scenes, while Nagase’s superior is getting into it with gusto, you do get glances of Nagase looking much less enthusiastic at the side. But he certainly did take part in the beating and torture. There was room for exploring that: was it being caught up in mass brutalization? Was it fear of the consequences if he didn’t take part?
The young Eric: nice hair after a few months slave labour
I could be picky … OK, I will be. Irvine was captured at the Fall of Singapore in February 1942. The film runs to the liberation of the prisoners by paratroops, which was 1945. In between they hear of victory in the Western Desert, which was late 1942, a reasonable 8 or 9 months after their capture. While surrounded by cadaverous fellow inmates, Irvine has lost little weight. While they’re making the radio (which gets them into trouble) his hair is pretty nicely done too, and that has to be a year in. OK, it would require Gollum-style SFX to thin him down to match, but he does look pretty fit. Also the torture and beatings shown would have left him with broken limbs, which in those conditions would surely have killed him. But it’s not the point. The point is the ordeal. The trauma persisted and in the end, reconciliation is the only way to lay the ghosts. All very worthy, but not dramatic. Nagase does confront and own up to his past, though that’s something which Japanese school history books still decline to do. What Rape of Nanking? They’ve never heard of it.
The young Finlay in 1942 has a Scandinavian accent, because the older Finlay is played by Stellan Skarsgård (as older he has no foreign accent whatsoever). This looks like poor co-ordination between two different locations, and is confusing because you think “What’s a German doing among the prisoners?’
Also early on Nagase’s interpretation ability fails to alert him that the soldiers counting off are saying “Nine … ten … jack … Queen! … King!” but he is then able to conduct quite a detailed interrogation in English. Maybe he was a fast learner.
Eric and Patti: resolution at last when they visit the railway
It leaves you with big questions about justice, retribution. It is a very moral film. I would weigh in on recent instances and say that when they find that 95 year old ex-concentration camp guard squirreled away in North Dakota or wherever, they should try them in a court of law and imprison them. It’s not about revenge, it’s about saying that some sins against humanity can not be forgotten. However, it would have been far better to deal with it in 1945, and expediency (we need interpreters) saved Nagase’s skin.
As well as the critical mauling, I can’t see it doing well on DVD. It’s a moving and well-made film, and I’m glad I saw it once, but once was enough.