Eric Lomax was one of thousands of Allied prisoners of war forced to work on the construction of the Thai/Burma railway during WW2. His experiences, after the secret radio he built to bring news and hope to his colleagues was discovered, left him traumatised and shut off from the world. Years later, he met Patti, a beautiful woman, on a train and fell in love. Patti was determined to rid Eric of his demons. Discovering that the young Japanese officer who haunted her husband was still alive, she faced a terrible decision. Should Eric be given a chance to confront his tormentor ?
“You are a soldier, Lomax. You never surrendered.”
There have been innumerable movies about the 2nd World War, in which the atrocities of the Nazi regime and the Holocaust were highlighted. Almost all major battles and facts from this dark period have been used. Films about the living conditions of prisoners of war (POW’s) in Japan and the daily torture and inhumane treatment they underwent in the Japanese-occupied territories, are rare. There were more than 140.000 inmates in this period in Japan. One out of three died from hunger, the hard labour, floggings and diseases. The worst conditions were for those who worked on the railroad that was built between Burma and Thailand. The so-called Death Railway which was 258 miles long and was built across inhospitable land. Japanese engineers calculated that it would take 5 years to make it. But with the use of military POW’s and civilians, the job was done in 16 months. An average of 200 workers died on a daily base. 15.000 POW’s, including 7.000 British, were killed. Also about 100.000 Thai and Indonesian citizens died while constructing this railroad.
“The railway man” is an emotional and beautifully portrayed story of Eric Lomax (Colin Firth), a Scottish officer who was taken prisoner in Singapore and worked as an engineer on the construction of this railway. Given the circumstances, his living conditions weren’t so bad, until the Japanese discovered that the small group of engineers had constructed a radio, so they could follow the developments at the front. However, the Japanese thought they used it to send messages. Eric takes a courageous decision and says he’s responsible, after which a long period of successive torture and humiliation starts. Until the liberation.
It’s an adaptation of the impressive story written down by Eric Lomax himself. A story of a scarred man suffering from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). A man who is obsessed by railways and tries to come to terms with his past. It’s during a train ride that he meets Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman), a recently divorced and well-read woman. During their marriage, Patricia soon discovers that he still suffers from his traumatic past and is still haunted by his Japanese torturers.
A gripping story, subtly and respectfully filmed. There’s no use of a lot of action-packed scenes or terrible horrifying images of tortures. It’s rather the lack of it that causes an oppressive feeling and that gives you an idea of the terrible conditions in which these POW’s were living. The nightmares Eric had sometimes and his comatose state of mind was performed in an impressive way. The story jumps back and forth between the past and the present, and delivers sometimes real postcard-images: like the loving couple on the beach with an umbrella flying away or the images at the end of the movie with the finished railway in Burma.
These beautiful images are in stark contrast with the sordid and degrading images of the shown Japanese camps. The hopeless situation, the emaciated bodies of the dead tired workers who succumb during heavy forced labor, inhuman conditions and the constant torture and punishments they faced. A tarnished image of the Japanese: cruel, callous, ruthless, extraordinarily hard and sadistic. A black page in their history they seemingly got away with easily. It is as if they torn that page, burned it and tried to forget about it as soon as possible.
Both Jeremy “War Horse” Irvine as Colin “Love Actually” Firth convincingly play the role of Eric Lomax. Irvine undergoes the physical terror and torture by the Kempeitai (a kind of Japanese Gestapo) as a young officer. There are some horrible images to see and to hear. The regularity with which he is beaten with a hardwood stick. The moment a bone breaks after administering harsh strokes gave me shivers down my spine. The wailing and screaming. The frightened look as he is transported back to an isolated room to get a special treatment. Firth is still undergoing the psychological torture of his traumatic experience. He looses contact with the outside world, he doesn’t speak a word and has even downright aggressive reactions. He regularly attends a meeting with fellow sufferers to study tacitly a timetable for trains. For once I thought Nicole Kidman played a decent role. She’s not exactly my favorite actress, and maybe she was overly cool and reserved in this movie, but it fitted perfectly and occasionally you saw this figurative glacier thawing. I also found the young Takeshi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) masterfully played. His facial expression ranged from a calm sadist to sincere sympathy. A good example of acting talent.
Eventually there will be someone complaining about the predictability (if you’ve read the book, this is obviously quite normal) and the faint ending. But finally I thought this was an appropriate and dignified way. An ending that was grander in its simplicity than any other conceivable way. And although the film progresses at a leisurely pace, the 116 minutes were gone before I knew it. It’s not a film like “The bridge on the River Kwai” but in my eyes it’s a memorable film that made quite an impression on me.