Political Film Society - To End All Wars

PFS Film Review
To End All Wars


The early comment in To End All Wars by a Scottish soldier characterizing World War II as the second "war to end all wars" somehow tells us that we are to view a film that will make us think. Based on the book The Miracle on the River Kwai (1962) by Ernest Gordon, the film is part-biopic and part-docudrama, with some fabricated details to tell the story more dramatically. Yet, one can hardly imagine a more dramatic plot. The story is about members of the 69th Scottish Regiment, the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders, who served in the Pacific theater but were captured by the Japanese with the fall of Singapore in early 1942 and placed in the Chungkai camp in Thailand; some 61,000 POWs were interned at various camps in Thailand during the war. Lt. Jim Reardon (played by Kiefer Sutherland), an American attached to the 69th, is also a POW. Although there is a lot of brutality and harsh treatment, even scenes of torture of the prisoners, the plot principally deals with the clash of cultures between the British and the Japanese, more specifically between Christian values and the Bushido code. In the first part of the film, Japanese inflict punishment on prisoners who violate the Bushido code before they know what that is, so we see the Scottish overreacting to their mistreatment and then being disciplined. For example, when the Scottish regimental commander, Lt. Col. Stuart McLean (played by James Cosmo), is summoned to the office of the Japanese POW commandant, he erupts with such intemperate anger about Geneva Convention violations that he is summarily executed for failure to show respect. The principal officer in charge of camp discipline, Ito (played by Sakae Kimura), uses a stick, a shovel, and a pistol as means to enforce the requirement that everyone must show respect to the Japanese, especially the Emperor, though later he is excluded from a session with the "comfort women," local women forced to service the Japanese sexually. From a Japanese point of view, the very existence of POWs is a violation of the Bushido code, as any captured Japanese soldier would be expected to commit suicide. Nevertheless, the camps exist, so a purpose has to be found. Accordingly, a decision is made at a higher level to have the prisoners build a railroad through the Burmese jungle so that Japanese troops will have a supply route for attacking India. Work commences on October 28, 1942, and is completed on October 16, 1943, six months ahead of the time originally allotted for construction. Why, one might ask, are underfed, demoralized POWs so helpful to the Japanese? The answer is a spiritual transformation among the prisoners, similar to the story in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), but far more profound. Captain Gordon (played by Ciarán McMenamin) decides to launch a Jungle University and "church without walls," using books that were among the personal effects of the POWs, including the Bible. Gordon realizes that the early angry British response to savage treatment is not working. Instead, the prisoners should utilize Christian principles to order their conduct. The result is to show respect to one another as well as forgiveness toward their captors. Major Ian Campbell (played by Robert Carlyle), the ranking officer when McLean dies, dissents from Gordon's approach, but he eventually finds redemption. The film's tagline is "In a jungle war of survival, they learned sacrifice. In a prison of brutal confinement, they found true freedom." The heart of the film is the transformation while construction of the Railway of Death of more than 400 kilometers is underway and afterward, when there might otherwise have been no use for the POWs. The high point comes in 1945, when Gordon insists on showing compassion toward wounded Japanese soldiers whom Ito at first refuses to accept into the camp after an Allied bombing raid; indeed, tears run down Ito's cheeks as he sees the moral leadership of the British in wanting to care for humans, regardless of race, when they are in distress. Most notable in the transformation is the friendship between Gordon and Takashi Nagase (played by Yugo Saso), a young Cambridge-educated Japanese soldier who serves as translator and admits that he is in the POW camp because he was considered physically unfit. He admits as well that all the Japanese in the camp are, in effect, being punished for misdeeds, thus perhaps explaining that their brutality serves to sublimate their sense of unworthiness. When the film ends, a title indicates that Gordon and Takashi met fifty-five years after the end of the war, and a video of their meeting flashes across the screen as they visit the war memorial and graves for those who died in the POW camp. Both ended up in religious roles after the war, Gordon as Chaplain at Princeton, Takashi as a Shinto priest. Another closing video shows the regiment's survivors march in a recent parade. Cinema patrons at a Hollywood screening stayed glued to their seats as credits rolled; the emotional power of the film was so intense that the credits and the music were needed for filmviewers to decelerate emotionally so that they could leave the theater without breaking out into tears. Directed by David L. Cunningham, To End All Wars has been nominated by the Political Film Society for three awards--as an exposé on how the Burma Railroad was built and how prisoners survived transformed, as an eloquent plea to have human rights respected in wartime, and as a peace editorial to remember World War II as the war to end all world wars. MH

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The Miracle on the River Kwai
by Ernest Gordon