Monday, January 13, 2014

"The Railway Man" - the route to forgiveness gives two tortured souls new life

So what would be your response if you were held in captivity for three years, beaten, tortured, humiliated and forced to work endless days in appalling conditions. If some of your fellow captives were summarily executed on trumped up charges. If every aspect of your dignity as a human being was removed. If your captors regarded you as a coward for not having killed yourself rather than be captured. If you and thousands like you were regarded as slaves, instantly disposable once you could no longer work through illness or incapacity. What would be your response if years later you came face to face with one of the worst of your torturers? That is the key question posed in the film "The Railway Man" - the story of Eric Lomax who survived these grotesque privations on the Burma Railway at the hands of the Japanese.

Lomax's captivity lasted three and a half years before, after the Japanese surrender in August 1945, he was able to go home. If nominally his captivity was a comparatively brief period in what was to be a long life in fact for more than thirty years the scars of this dreadful time failed to heal. Hardly surprisingly. In 1980, at the age of 61, he met a woman, Patti, some 17 years his junior and they were to marry and gradually with her he began to address his demons for the first time. By chance a Japanese newspaper was found which featured a story about Lomax's torturer in chief - Takashi Nagase. This man was working as a tour guide in Kanchanaburi the town in Thailand which was the operational hub for the Burma Railway and which was frequently visited by tourists viewing what is left of the railway and the Bridge on the River Kwai.  Lomax decides to visit Thailand and confront Nagase, a sensitive man who clearly had been wrestling with demons as well - if rather different ones.

The reconciliation between Lomax and Nagase forms the climax of the film. It is moving and would be seen as improbably sentimental were it fiction. But it is a true story. Neither man is judgmental in the end - Nagase's apology is heartfelt and Lomax's acceptance of it generous. The production values of this remarkable movie are high and the performances mostly very good. Colin Firth as Lomax is believable and Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax equally so. Nicole Kidman as Patti doesn't look quite right - she is just too beautiful and slightly plastic looking, though her portrayal is sympathetic. The scenes in the Prisoner of War camp and on the railway construction site are convincingly harrowing. 

Can we ever know what it was like to have been a captive on the Burma railway unless we were there? One of the themes of the film is how difficult it was for the returned soldiers to talk about their experience. I know this personally from first hand because my own father was a prisoner with Eric Lomax. They were both captured at Singapore, both young officers and both to be sent to work on the railway. Indeed the key event in the camp in the film rings especially true - this is when the officers put together a clandestine radio to listen to short wave broadcasts from London of news about the war. My father, like Lomax, was part of a radio team - he was the guardian of the headphone which, he told me, he hid in a hollowed out part of his shoe. I don't think that it was actually Lomax's radio - although it could have been. Whether my father was beaten and tortured as Lomax was I do not know - he never talked about it - and it's now sadly twenty years too late to ask him. 

There are many lessons to be learned from Eric Lomax's story and from this fine film. Perhaps the most important is that it can be part of our human nature to forgive. If Eric Lomax could forgive Takashi Nagase then anything can be forgiven, at least if there is genuine contrition as there seems to have been from this Japanese man whose own suffering is also brought to an end by the reconciliation. 


Post a Comment

<< Home