This week’s pick is the real life story about the Bridge over the River Kwai, and a fantastic war drama about a group of allied POWs who are forced to build the infamous Burma “Railway of Death” in director David L. Cunningham’s To End All Wars (2001).
The film stars Robert Carlyle (Maj. Ian Campbell), Kiefer Sutherland (Lt. Jim “Yanker” Rearton), and Ciaran McMenamin as Capt. Ernest Gordon who plays the film’s narrator and was the man who wrote the book Miracle on the River Kwai a.k.a. Through the Valley of the Kwai about the accounts depicted in the film.
The film opens as a flashback where Ernest Gordon (McMenamin) tells why he decided to enlist in the second “war to end all wars” as he was attending university in Scotland at the outbreak of World War II. He says that he decided to stop reading about history and became a part of it.
Gordon joined the ranks of Scotland’s legendary Argyll Sutherland Highlanders who were Britain’s first and last line of defense. His brigade marches from Edinburgh Castle to cheering Scots seeing the men off to war.
The film then flashes forward to the allied defeat in Singapore in February 1942 as the Japanese seized the great British naval base which was the gateway to the East Indies. Thousands of British and other allied prisoners including Dutch, Australian, and one American Merchant Marine, Lt. Jim Rearton (Sutherland) who attached himself to the surrendering forces. They don’t know it yet, but these men are to be brought to Burma where their Japanese captors plan to use them as slave labor in order to build a railway in order for the Japanese to attempt an invasion of British colonial India.
Once the men are taken to a POW camp in the Burma jungle, they soon are stripped of their status as soldiers and are forced to adopt the laws of Bushido “Japanese chivalry.” To the Japanese, a real soldier would have sacrificed themselves and avoid the disgrace of surrender. Allied prisoners are relentlessly beaten and are forced to conform to Japanese culture in order to be good prisoners for the divine Emperor.
The allied soldiers discover that the Japanese disregard the Geneva Convention and care nothing for other international laws forbidding cruel and unusual punishment against prisoners. They are also forced to sign papers saying that they will also not try to escape.
In one instance Gordon passes a Japanese guard and fails to bow in his presence. Gordon then wakes up in the hospital and is told by the camp doctor, Dr. Coates (John Gregg) that if they fail to bow, they are beaten for insolence. The harder the beating, the more devoted to the Emperor they are says the doctor. The commanding officer in the camp, Col. Stewart McLean (James Cosmo) is also made an example of by the Japanese and tells his men including his adjutant Maj. Campbell (Carlyle) to make plans for escape.
As the men settle into the daily routine of camp life, men such as Campbell plan to escape and to rejoin the war effort, while men like Gordon try to better the lives of the prisoners by starting a school, a “jungle university” for men to have something to occupy them and to keep hope alive that they will one day be liberated. Kiefer Sutherland’s character is that of a man who is a self preservationist, who trades, barters, and bribes the Japanese guards in order to have special favors and to also receive contraband goods. As the film progresses, Rearton loses his selfish ways and finds redemption along with his fellow prisoners.
The film’s message is the power of love and forgiveness. Being that the majority of prisoners were beaten, starved, and deprived proper medical attention, they find it in their hearts to actually forgive their captors. In one scene, the men see American bombers over head and realize that the war has been going for the allied cause and that the Japanese are in fact losing the war. The camp is strafed by fighters and men are killed. The camp is also damaged due to bombing.
A truck pulls up to the gate and is full of wounded Japanese soldiers. The camp’s head guard Sgt. Ito (Sakae Kimura) tries to force them away. Ernie Gordon and others try to lend a hand with the wounded. Maj. Campbell warns Gordon that he is forbidden to give aid and comfort to the enemy. Gordon turns to Campbell and says “Major those are wounded dying human beings. They’re no harm to us.” Ito and the other guards look on in amazement as Gordon and other men give aid to the wounded soldiers. A very well done and emotional scene.
The performances in the film are fantastic from McMenamin, Carlyle, Sutherland, Cosmo, and Mark Strong (Dusty Miller) who plays a soldier who helps the new prisoners by teaching them the ropes in order to survive. The ordeal of constructing the massive railway through dense, inhospitable jungle also shows the viewer the unbelievable conditions in which they were forced. The Japanese swore that the railway would be completed in an unrealistic timeline even if they were to build it over the bodies of the prisoners.
I first learned of this story when I visited Scotland six years ago and took a tour of the Scottish military museum in Edinburgh Castle. I was familiar with the film The Bridge over the River Kwai and was very moved by the recorded testimonials of men who had survived at the hands of their Japanese captors. As men returned home from Europe and elsewhere from the war, they were given parades and honored, but for many of the men who were POWs like those in the Argyll Sutherland regiment, they were not given that luxury.
As POWs, many were accused of giving vital information to the enemy in order to be spared, or were responsible for allowing for Japanese victory by telling them their troop strengths or other capabilities. If you are ever in Edinburgh, Scotland, I highly recommend taking a tour of the castle and seeing the testimonials of these brave men who survived a great ordeal which makes for an incredibly touching story of survival and redemption.
To End All Wars is available on DVD through 20th Century Fox Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.