The Railway Man

Nagase: You are a soldier, Lomax. You never surrendered.

Eric: I’m still at war.

This is a photo of Colin Firth as he portrays Eric Lomax in the film The Railway Man. As we meet Eric, it is 1984 or so, and he’s about 60;

a retired veteran of World War II. His current specialty is train traveling. Simply name any train station in the UK, and he’ll be able to tell you how to get there from nearly any other train station in the UK. He knows where to transfer, and even the best transfer stations. He’s also likely to know the best times of day to make these transfers.

On this particular day, he’s on a train and he meets a woman named Patti Wallace who is played by Nicole Kidman.

They meet, there’s some sparks or chemistry, and they soon marry. But all is not quite right with Eric. Below are pictures of both the real Eric Lomax in the army, and Jeremy Irvine who portrayed him in the film.

In the second World War, he was posted to Singapore as a 2nd Lieutenant of the Royal Signal Corps and was attached to a Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. When the British surrendered to the Japanese in 1942, Lomax became a POW. He was assigned with his fellow prisoners to build a section of what was to be a rail link between Siam and Burma. They would have to hew the route of the train by cutting down stretches of jungle, constructing bridges over rivers, and carving their way through the hills.

It was arduous work at best, and when you factor in that these men who were POWs, were more accurately described as slave laborers you get a picture.

This is not a new story. David Lean’s classic film The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) was similar in location and time. But Lean’s film was an adventure thriller.

Where at the heart of that story – we learned about the madness of war. In that film a British Commanding officer did his best to construct the best railway he could to show the Japanese captors the morale, spirit, and dignity of the British soldiers even while being held in captivity in harsh circumstance.

Only while he was building it, the Allied forces were mounting a mission to destroy the rail link at the point where it crossed the river by blowing up the bridge.

The Railway Man is also about the madness that comes from war. In those days, we did not have a name for it. Today – we do. This is the sickness that tortured Eric Lomax long after his ordeal in the war ended. Long after he was liberated and returned home to Britain.

And even after that.

We are talking about PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Years, even decades after the war, Lomax suffered from nightmares, sleep deprivation, and other symptoms from having to deal with the memories of his ordeal as a POW. Even this marriage did not make things better for Lomax. Sorry that’s not exactly the case. His life did improve, and measurably so, but the PTSD continued. Patti inquired, but Lomax wasn’t forthcoming. So she asked his friend Finlay, who told her that Lomax had undergone unimaginable horrors as a POW.

Finlay eventually has more talks with Lomax.

Lomax and some of the other surviving members of his work crew met regularly at a gentlemen’s club to work through their shared problem of PTSD. One such friend was Finlay who was played by Stellan Skarsgärd. Finlay had news for Lomax. The translator for the Japanese who oversaw the torture of the prisoners – a  Takeshi Nagase had been located. He was living and well in Thailand, running a war museum in the very place of Lomax’s captivity there.

But Lomax was unresponsive. So Finlay sent a message to Lomax. A strong message that Lomax would be unable to ignore. So soon after, Lomax would travel to Thailand to confront Nagase.

That’s not only your set up, but basically. the first half of the film which also included many scenes of the brutality, the torture, and the suffering visited upon Lomax, Finlay, and many others.

But once Lomax arrives in Thailand that entire atmosphere of the film changes. it was kind of dormant, but I think that was to set up the fact that Lomax was wallowing, and sliding towards a dark depression.

In Thailand, Lomax will travel by train, see the river, and even walk the very bridge he helped construct, that is when he wasn’t kept in a bamboo cage the size of a dog cage, or when he wasn’t being waterboarded – all of which is shown.

Nagase, now played as an older man by Hiroyuki Sanada, who you will remember from The Last Samurai, is not without issues himself. One man is haunted the horrible things done to him, and the other haunted by having done those things to another human being.

The film has an impressive cast, and all perform well. Nicole Kidman is quite good in an underwritten role. By that I mean she goes quite quickly from being a romantic presence in Lomax’s life – to the quietly stand-by-his-side-support-your-husband kind of role. Firth is masterful in his portrayal of the older Lomax. You feel his terror, you sympathize with his desire for revenge, and you suffer with him .

But I believe the real acting honors should go to Jeremy Irvine as the young Lomax, and Sanada as the older Nagase. Irvine is memorable as the younger Lomax for his zeal, his endurance, and his utter will. And Sanada carries his burden within. It may not show outwardly but you can still feel it.

Now the basis for the film is the book penned by Eric Lomax himself which makes the film somewhat of an autobiography. Clearly the film is not concerned with his immediate return from the war. And we only hear about what became of Lomax and Nagase in a textual coda tacked on at the end. The fact is that while the film tells an involving and powerful story, this film, much like the recent George Clooney film, The Monument Men, stayed within certain boundaries. The film lacked an edge. We know what these men have gone through and struggled with throughout their entire adult lives.

But the direction, by the Australian, Jonathan Teplitzky, with the screenplay by Andy Paterson and Frank Cottrell Boyce, leaves us not quite fully satisfied. The film is set up with a flash back structure, which is mostly effective, but at times it seems a tad overdone. Here’s an example:

in the above image we have the 1984 Lomax walking over the same ground he did in 1942. Behind him is the 1942 Nagase. A flashback and the present have merged. Was this necessary? Or not? Did it help the film or not? The answer to those questions is somewhere, but at the precise moment, you have to make a switch from Lomax’s reality to inside his head. This might have worked better if we had his POV rather than looking at him.

While the film is based on a true story, I think knowing this sort of places us at a small distance from the beating hearts at the core of the story. This is not to say that this is something that could have been avoided. I felt the same way about The Monument Men. While Clooney’s film played it safe with a stellar cast, and took no chances, we felt less than elation by the story’s end.

This film plays out in a similar manner. Though Teplitzky eschews  giving us a film on full safety – we are  not rising out of our seats to give a standing ovation at the end. Nor should we be.

I’ll score the film at three-point seven five, and I’ll recommend it.  I just can’t call it a must see.





2 thoughts on “The Railway Man

  1. Good review Mike. The performances from everybody were just good enough to keep this flick interesting. Even when it got a bit hokey by the end.

    • Thanks Dan. It seems like a worthwhile film and a man’s struggles with coming to grips with something from his past is something we all have to face. Of course for most of us it is NOT having the experience of being a POW. As I said the film falls just a tad short of being a must see.

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