As more than one critic has noted, a ‘classic’ film sometimes spawns numerous re-makes, and few if any have an impact as powerful as the original. Since The Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957 there has been no follow-up, unless you count The Railway Man – and you should. It’s the adaptation of an autobiography by Eric Lomax, who actually lived through the experience of a prisoner of war during the building of the Burma railway – also known as the Death Railway.
Coming to U.S. theatres this weekend (11 April), the film stars Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, with Jeremy Irvine playing the young POW. Firth as the decades-older man tormented by memories of torture and humiliation. Hiroyuki Sanada is the post-war Takashi Nagase with Tanroh Ishida as the wartime tormentor. Nicole Kidman is Eric’s wife Patti, trying to understand and support her husband through his odyssey of remembrance, revenge and eventual resolution of his pain.
The Death Railway was so named because of the tens of thousands who died in its construction, due to factors that included mistreatment by their Japanese captors, disease, exhaustion and bombing raids by allied forces trying to destroy the military supply link. The film’s depiction of circumstances during this particular segment of the war has been substantiated by the experiences and observations of actual participants, and it’s not sensationalized for extra impact; the impact needs no exaggeration.
Lomax, a British army officer, was one of countless surviving prisoners whose ordeal was never forgotten or forgiven and it left him with unrelenting memories that shadowed his entire life. As we see him in later life, he’s a retired railway signals engineer, married to a woman he met on a train and still obsessing about trains. His nightmares threaten to take over his waking life, and then he discovers that the guard who was his nemesis is still alive, and working as a tour guide at the war memorial.
The ‘real’ story, apart from the atrocities perpetrated by war (and not limited to one side or the other, as history has reminded us over and over again) comes from the confrontation between Lomax and Nagase (Firth and Sanada). Neither one expects what eventually transpires, which is a human connection that leads to a form of catharsis and forgiveness.
Director Jonathan Tiplitzky has done an impressive job of bringing out the raw and conflicting emotions of this diverse set of characters; Firth and Kidman are both powerful performers and they bring an emotional resonance to their roles that’s as moving and compelling as the story they’re recreating. The movie is quite faithful to reality in both historical details and human actions and reactions, with an upbeat finale that reflects some of the best, rather than worst, of human behavior.
The Railway Man premiered in the UK and elsewhere in January of this year, to varying but mostly positive reviews. It is not a ‘war movie’ so much as an aftermath movie. It’s more about the lasting wounds as opposed to the physical ones that may heal, and the way those psychological scars can fester – or be allowed to heal as a result of understanding, acceptance and reconciliation.