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Arts & Entertainment Presented by Santa Barbara Center for the Performing Arts

Cinema in Focus

Cinema in Focus: ‘The Railway Man’

By Hal Conklin and Denny Wayman | @CinemaInFocus |

3 Stars — Profound

Colin Firth brings to life the true story of Eric Lomax, a former British officer reliving the horrors he faced as a Japanese prisoner during World War II while being forced to help build the infamous Burma Railway that crossed the River Kwai. The depth of his psychological torture is tested when he ultimately has to face his enemy decades later. Lomax as a young officer is played by Jeremy Irvine.

This true story retells the descent into hell that Lomax experienced and the debilitating impact the war had on the rest of his life. Today we might refer to these after-effects as “post-traumatic stress,” but in earlier times it was just expected that men would suck up their feelings and deal with life anyway they could, usually relying on the camaraderie of others who had shared similar fates as a way of coping. For Eric, his healing began when he finally let himself feel the love of Patti (Nicole Kidman), who became his wife.

Patti knew that Eric had been in the war, but had no idea the pain he carried until she witnessed his periodic collapse into a ball of pain on the floor. Having been trained as a nurse, and filled with compassion for him, Patti sought every means possible to understand what he was going through and to seek treatment. Getting there, though, meant opening some doors to his painful past.

Eric had always been fascinated by trains. Like many young men, he brought this love of railroads into adulthood, and by the time he met Patti, he was often kidded by his companions for knowing everything there was to know about the local train schedules and the trains that whisked through his village. As a young man entering the war, his love of trains coupled with his training as a civil engineer, gave him a skill that the Japanese sought to exploit in building their railroad through the jungles of Burma.

History tells us that the building of the Burma-Siam Railway claimed thousands of lives, many of whom were locals who were conscripted into slave labor. The most famous film on the subject was the 1957 epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai. No movie, though, carried a more profound message of torture, forgiveness and redemption than To End All Wars, another remarkable true story released in 2001 about the impact that one Christian man had on the lives of not only the Japanese captors, but also the British and American soldiers who witnessed his sacrifice on their behalf. The true story is told by another British officer, Ernest Gordon.

Ironically both of these stories are about the ultimate confrontation and forgiveness of the same Japanese interpreter, Takashi Nagase. In The Railway Man, Lomax makes a choice in 1980 to go back to the POW camp where he was held, and he discovers that Nagase is now working there as an interpreter of this World War II museum. Filled with anger and pain, Lomax attempts to hold Nagase against his will and perpetuate upon him the torture that he had experienced — a revengeful act to be sure. It is in this process that we witness Lomax’s powerful confrontation with his own soul and his reconciliation with the man who he believed had ruined his life.

In  both of these true stories, Nagase, who in real life became a Buddhist monk after the war and spent the rest of his life trying to repent of his actions, travels back to the bridge over the River Kawi to symbolically embrace these men whom he had tortured, an act of reconciliation he is reported to have repeated more than 100 times. For Lomax, this was the act that finally freed him of his past and released him to love his wife without the past being a millstone around his neck sinking him into despair. It is in this act of reconciliation that we also witness the redeeming power of love that is possible in all of our lives.


» When we are so unjustly treated that we carry a profound despair it is difficult to face our abuser and find forgiveness and healing. How have you dealt with the injustices in your life? Where did you find the strength to forgive? How did this change you?

» The spiritual journey of Nagase caused him to seek reconciliation more than 100 times. Have you had a similar journey to make amends with those you harmed?

» It is difficult to imagine the horror of a prisoner of war camp such as this. What can we do to keep this from happening again? How do we deal with the human soul that can become so deformed as to gain pleasure from another’s pain?

— Cinema in Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church, 1435 Cliff Drive. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com, or follow them on Twitter: @CinemaInFocus. The opinions expressed are their own.

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