The Railway Man

Before seeing the emotionally powerful The Railway Man, hunt down William Holden and Sir Alec Guinness in the classic The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). It will give you the first sentence of an historical paragraph that The Railway Man finishes.

The Railway ManOne of the great movies in cinema history was David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Dealing with the horrid mistreatment of British prisoners of war by the Japanese in World War II as they were forced to build a railroad in the jungles of Burma, it left one unanswered question. How did the survivors on both sides adapt to life at home after the war ended?

The Railway Man provides an answer in chilling fashion. The extraordinary Colin Firth plays Eric Lomax, a former British soldier haunted by his time in captivity. Appearing normal, he rides trains in England as both a hobby and to escape his past.

In the process, he meets regularly with old military comrades, guys who provide collective support without saying one word about their ordeal. Stellan Skarsgard gives another accomplished performances as a close friend who helps Lomax protect their dark secrets.

In the process, Lomax meets a divorced woman on one of his train rides, and he falls in love and marries her. Played warmly by Nicole Kidman, a former nurse, she seeks to help her husband confront his reoccurring nightmares.

A critical moment in this film occurs when Kidman beseeches Skarsgard to reveal what really happened after they surrendered to the Japanese. Overwhelmed by the trauma caused by reliving a tragedy he was sworn to protect, Ms. Kidman learns of her husband’s lengthy torture that resulted from his creation of an old radio designed solely to allow his battered friends to listen to news and music from England.

The film reaches its denouement with the discovery that one of Lomax’s Japanese tormenters is not only alive, but conducting a tour of the original prison camp and surrounding work area in Malaysia. Lomax must decide if he is to confront his adversary, and the movie defines the character of both men.

While Firth is wonderful at every turn, he is matched by the performance of Hiroyuki Sanada, a man equally haunted by his past war experience. Why did he do the horrible things that cling to his psyche like an incurable disease? Should he now be killed, or would that turn Lomax into someone no better than his foe? Then again, if young men do horrible things, don’t you save your own soul by forgiving them?

The Railway Man is based on a true story, and I couldn’t help but feel its relationship to the unforgivable torture that our country inflicted on captives under Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney. As we watch Lomax being hideously waterboarded in The Railway Man, wasn’t that the same reaction of many Islamic captives under our control?

If we are to condemn Japanese military superiors for their cruel treatment of Allied soldiers in World War II, don’t we also need to condemn our own country for engaging in the same activities in the 21st century? How can we excuse that which we consider forbidden?