To End All Wars was released straight to DVD last week. It is a harrowing and inspirational “true” story, based on a book and the experiences of Ernest Gordon, of the 69th Scottish Regiment, who later became the Chaplain of Princeton University, about the World War II prisoner of war story depicted in Bridge Over the River Kwai.
I must admit that I began to watch this film with prejudice. The last thing I wanted to see was another movie glorifying war. This story, however, told of how prisoners of war banned together to create a jungle university (and an orchestra – reminded me of Paradise Road a little) to help themselves to survive the horror of the Japanese prison camp and forced labor to build a railway through the Burmese jungle.
It’s also about the great contradictions they faced and the moral and ethical decisions: if we work hard, are we collaborating with the enemy? Is one human life only worth the value of a feather, as the Japanese emperor believed?
After they had been taken captive and imprisoned in the camp, the men begin talking about what they will do after the war. One says teaching and the leader of the Regiment syas, “Prepare for the next war.”
There’s a lot of philosophy and commentary going on in this film that is worth talking about in the light of current and ongoing events.
Did World War II teach us nothing about peace?
Kiefer Sutherland plays the only Yankee in the camp and when he gets into trading on the black market; the Scots look down on him. When a shovel goes missing, and the Japanese threaten that the whole camp will be punished, he steps up and takes the punishment, and ends up crippled for life. When the prisoner’s commanding officer dies, the Robert Carlysle character takes his place. While most of the men are studying justice as taught by Plato, Shakespeare’s Henry V and the New Testament, he is plotting escape and other ways to get the Japanese. When his insurrection fails, another soldier steps in to die in his place. How does a man live with that kind of self-sacrifice?
Nevil Shute wrote a wonderful book called A Town Like Alice (also available on video as a mini-series starring Bryan Brown.) It’s a very involved tale, based on true events. I had never understood emotionally what Christ’s crucifixion must have been like until I saw this film – the Japanese crucify him for stealing some pedigreed chickens from the commander of a camp to feed hungry women and children. Now in the film To End All Wars, another man is crucified for the sake of all, and once again, what we saw so graphically in The Passion of the Christ earlier this year, a film helps us understand the lengths to which people will go to imitate Christ and live what it means to be human and humane and in relationship with people, even one’s enemies.
The film is obviously meant “to teach” about Christianity, but I was willing to let it go because I thought the film explored love and reconciliation in a credible dramatic style that worked for me.
Although it is Gordon’s story, Robert Carlysle as the Major, shows the inner struggle of conscience the best. What do you do when someone has laid down his life for you because of your stupidity and stubborness? How do you live with that? The hero story, and how to live with the consequences of one’s choices, are paralled in the characters. The film also shows that some people really cannot learn from their mistakes.
It is very graphic and moving. The final scene shows documentary footage of Gordon and one of the guards he befriended meeting together many years later at the memorial for the victims of the Burmese railroad construction during World War II.
Now that we have a film like this, we need to ask ourselves what it means in the face of war today, in Iraq and elsewhere. If you are in a reflective mood, willing to be challenged and inspired, then this is a good rental.
Have we learned anything at all?