Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Railway Man

                “The Railway Man” is “based on a true story”.  It is the story of one of the British soldiers who worked on the Burma railway famously covered in “The Bridge on the River Kwai”.  It is a biopic about Eric Lomax who wrote a best selling autobiography that the movie is based on.  It is a British-Australian production directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.  The film got a lukewarm release and floundered at the box office.

                The movie opens in England in 1980.  Lomax (Colin Firth) meets Patty (Nicole Kidman) on a train and although she is way out of his league, romance develops.  She is a nurse and he is a mentally fragile ex-POW who is obsessed with trains.  He needs to be “put back together”, but Patty has her work cut out for her.  He hallucinates about his experience in the prison came.  In particular he remembers a translator named Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada).  Nagase was a member of the Kempetai (the Japanese version of the Gestapo).  At one point Lomax attacks a debt collector.  His friend Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) was with him in the camp.  Finlay encourages him to hunt Nagase down.  A newspaper article reveals that Nagase is living in Burma where he shows tourists the famous bridge and maintains a museum dedicated to the Kempetai.  Lomax decides to track Nagase down and get closure by killing him.

                While the movie is developing Lomax’s PTSD, it is flashing back to the reason for it.  Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is in the signal corps in Singapore.  When the British army surrenders, Lomax and his fellow engineers are sent to work on the railway.  They build a clandestine radio to follow the war events.  When the radio is discovered, Lomax is singled out for brutal punishment.  Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) is the interpreter during the torture sessions which include water boarding.

                “The Railway Man” is a sincere attempt to meld the prisoner of war subgenre with the PTSD subgenre.  The story is an important one since we tend to overlook the long-term effects of being a prisoner of the Japanese.  “Bridge on the River Kwai” was a great movie, but it did not adequately cover the brutality of the treatment and did not attempt to cover the post-war.  In fact, “The Railway Man” is more of a psychological drama than a war movie.  In some scenes, it plays like a horror movie (complete with the music).  It is not really a POW movie as there is not much on life in the camp and it only briefly depicts the building of the railway (and there is nothing about the bridge).

                The acting is a highlight.  It is obvious the main players were sincere in their portrayals.  Firth and Kidman underplay their roles, which is appropriate.  The rest of the cast is fine with Sanada perfect as the elderly Nagase.  The score is excellent at setting the mood and it is a very moody movie.  The cinematography is a bit showy with off center shots featured. The weakness is in the script.  Too much of the film is predictable.  It has several tropes.  The strong woman who saves the broken man.  The secret radio that is discovered by the guards.  The veteran haunted by demons.  The closing confrontation between bitter enemies.  Although the movie was complemented for its frank treatment of Kempetai interrogation techniques and some critics had their eyes opened about Japanese treatment of American prisoners, this is not the first movie to depict Japan’s disregard for the Geneva Convention.  “The Great Raid” does a better job with prison conditions, for instance.  The torture scenes break new ground, especially the water boarding.  One has to wonder whether the current enhanced interrogation controversy was a factor in the inclusion of that scene.

                Eric Lomax’s story is a good one and certainly deserved a movie.  The dual aspect of the story is entertaining and the acting is strong.  It is within my margin of error when it comes to historical accuracy (see below), but just barely.  As is typical, it sticks fairly close to the story until the enhanced final act.  It does make a good companion to “Bridge on the River Kwai”, but there are much better movies about the Japanese prisoner of war experience.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:   Lomax was in the signal corps and was captured at Singapore.  He was put to work on the Burma railway.  He and five others were caught with a radio and were all brutalized.  The movie implies that Lomax voluntarily stepped forward and took the blame, but actually they all were punished by having to stand in the hot sun for hours without food or water.  They were stomped on and beaten with  axe handles resulting in two deaths.  Lomax was singled out for the interrogation stage.  He was left lying on the ground for two days with ribs cracked and arms and legs broken.  He was placed in a small box for hours.  The water boarding was accurately depicted.  Nagase was the interpreter.  Lomax was found guilty of “anti-Japanese activities” and spent the next five years doing hard labor and living in a filthy jail cell.

                The movie’s decision to jump to 1980 bypasses Lomax’s first marriage.  He was married for 37 years and had three children.  That marriage did not end amicably as Lomax did meet Patty on a train and the ensuing relationship contributed to the end of his first marriage.  The movie also takes liberties with the time frame because in reality, the confrontation with Nagase occurred twelve years into the marriage.  They did learn about Nagase from a newspaper article.  They read his book “Crosses and Tigers” and learned that he was a changed man.  He had spent the post-war years atoning for his participation in war crimes (for which he was exonerated because of work in body recovery for the Allies, as stated in the movie).  Nagase became a devout Buddhist and did acts of charity.  He raised funds to build a peace temple (not a Kempetai museum) near the River Kwai bridge.

                An exchange of letters and phone calls over a two year period led to the reunion in Thailand.  The meeting was an act of closure, not revenge, for Lomax.  The two men became close friends and Lomax spent a week in Lomax’s home town as an honored guest.  The whole scene in the museum is total hog wash.  Speaking of which there was no Finlay.  The character appears to have been based on Jim Bradley who was a bunkmate of Lomax’s in the camp.  His death in the movie is ridiculously false and inserted purely for plot purposes.

Here is the poem featured in the movie:

At the beginning of time the clock struck one
Then dropped the dew and the clock struck two
From the dew grew a tree and the clock struck three
The tree made a door and the clock struck four
Man came alive and the clock struck five
Count not, waste not the years on the clock
Behold I stand at the door and knock.


  1. Nice post. I remember seeing this in theaters and finding it on the dull side.

  2. I totally agree with your analysis of "Railway Man." I really enjoyed seeing Hiroyuki Sanada because I have been a fan of his every since "Sunshine."
    You are are right about the waterboarding, and it is what I had the biggest problem with. The movie shows several scenes of
    Lomax getting beaten with sticks which are so brutal that he ends up with broken bones. However, his worst PTSD is of what goes on behind the door. If taken back there do you get your eyes gouged out, or have body parts hacked off? No, you get water boarded!
    I think this movie is implying that since the US used it on terrorists that it had to shown as being the worst form of torture ever devised by man.

    1. Thanks for the comments. You make some good points. Water-boarding sure has an inflated reputation now.

  3. I made the mistake of reading the book before watching the film, and nearly walked out during the 'hogwash' museum scene - that was completelyn disrespectful to the memory of Lomax.


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