The Railway Man (2013)


Lightening the Traumatized Heart

–During the first reel of The Railway Man, an excellent film adaptation of a memoir by British World War II veteran Eric Lomax, Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky attempts to discard as many filmic ghosts as he can possibly muster. In 1980, a middle-aged Lomax (Colin Firth), falling in love with Patti (Nicole Kidman) on a train bound northward to Scotland tells his newly beloved that the village they are passing is where they filmed Brief Encounter, a David Lean film about a man and a woman who meet at a railway station, and then pursue a doomed love affair. Set before World War II, based on a 1936 Noel Coward play, the film, shot in 1945, is one of the great testaments to British culture having survived the Nazi onslaught. Will The Railway Man be about the doomed nature of love between Patti and Lomax, traumatized by his years of suffering in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma?

That bit of information of course raises the specter of a very different David Lean film, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in which a Japanese colonel enslaves British and American POWs to build a bridge for the monumental Thai-Burma railway project. In a bout of Stockholm Syndrome, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) engineers a seemingly impossible bridge, only to realize at the moment of his death that he must demolish his masterwork in order to help the Allies win the war.

The Railway Man switches tracks from this cinematic forebear: when his Uncle Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) shows Lomax a newspaper clipping featuring their former Japanese torturer, Takeshi Nagase, they ridicule his World War II history museum as “Bridge on the River Kwai holidays.” The former British prisoners are not weathering the decades after the end of the war well: Lomax tries to slit the throat of a man who comes to repossess his furniture with a box cutter, while Finlay hangs himself from a railroad overpass in Scotland. His life in shambles, Lomax decides to return to return to Southeast Asia to confront his torturer.

As he is about to beat the middle-aged Nagase to death, a remarkable thing happens. Lomax sits down next to him, imprisoned within the bamboo cage used decades before to torture the Allied soldiers, now preserved as part of the former Japanese soldier’s museum. Lomax and Nagase have the most heartfelt conversation in the film: Lomax rages at having been treated like an animal by the Japanese; Nagase observes that under torture, Lomax was the only one to have told him the truth, about the Allied victories he’s learned about from his contraband radio. After their conversation, Lomax walks to the railway bridge, and throws the knife he has brought to murder Nagase into the river. Unlike The Bridge on the River Kwai, which ends with British military duty trumping personal accomplishment, The Railway Man engages a far more complex question of the relationship between the past and the present. Nagase is so impressed that, despite Japanese cultural assumptions about British cowardice for raising the white flag in Singapore in 1942, Lomax “never surrendered,” even during horrific waterboarding torture. Lomax responds, “I’m still at war.”

The last reel of The Railway Man invokes, not David Lean films, but Simon Wiesenthal’s book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness. Wiesenthal tells a story of being called to a Nazi’s deathbed at the Lemberg concentration camp. The S.S. officer asks Wiesenthal (as a representative of all Jewish people) for forgiveness for his having slaughtered 300 helpless victims. Wiesenthal leaves without saying a word, and then turns over the question of whether it is ethical or moral to forgive or not forgive the barbaric man. The rest of The Sunflower features fifty responses to Wiesenthal’s question from various authorities, ranging from former President Jimmy Carter to the Dalai Lama.

It is not clear from the various answers to Wiesenthal whether forgiveness is the correct response to either Nazi genocide or Japanese torture, but The Railway Man has the good sense to sidestep this big ethical question. After receiving a letter back from Nagase, Lomax takes Patti to visit the site of his trauma. In the ravine emptied of rocks for the Thai-Burma railway with the hands of British slave labor, Lomax takes Patti to meet Nagase, who bows, declaring simply, “I am sorry. I don’t want to live that day anymore.” Lomax responds with equal simplicity, “Neither do I.” Lomax’ memoir offers a practical solution to Wiesenthal’s moral dilemma: to forgive is the only way for people in the present to no longer be traumatized by the patterns forged by the horrors of the past.

As moving as this is to behold on the screen, Teplitzky’s film has a further trick up its sleeve. For it is not Brief Encounter, The Bridge on the River Kwai, nor even The Sunflower around which the film’s structure is built. Instead, it is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that masterwork of modernist fiction. In its very first scene, The Railway Man presents Lomax as out of place even among his fellow soldiers, sitting at a social club. Uncle Finlay and the other men go so far as to make fun of Lomax’s obsession with railway timetables, with which he is a kind of autistic savant. The scene is most reminiscent of the opening of Conrad’s novella, when sailors sit in a boat at the mouth of the Thames, awaiting the tide. The narrator calls our attention to Marlow, the quietest passenger on the boat, who he first describes as a motionless idol. Suddenly, Marlow speaks—“And this also has been one of the dark places of the earth”—beginning his story of himself as a young idealistic man hired to travel up the Congo River to rescue an ivory trader, Kurtz.

At the beginning of his career, Marlow was fascinated with maps, wanting to fill in the tabula rasa that is Africa. Marlowe gets his chance, only to discover that the British imperial project is one of barbarity, dooming all. When Marlow finds Kurtz, it turns out he has placed Africans’ heads on poles and gone mad. Kurtz’ final words—the horror, the horror”—haunt Marlowe as he returns to Britain to inform Kurtz’s fiancée, the Intended, of her lover’s demise. He cannot summon the courage to tell her the truth about what happened to Kurtz.

The Railway Man alters the dynamics of Heart of Darkness. Both are about the demise of British imperialism, but narrated from opposing historical perspectives. Conrad’s 1899 novella ironizes the British imperial project, but from within its ideological assumptions cannot imagine its cessation. The Railway Man, on the other hand, engages the question from the other side of history. When the Japanese raise their flag over Singapore in 1942, one of the British soldiers comments to Lomax: “I think we’ve just witnessed the fall of the British Empire.”

Also, the function of gender in The Railway Man significantly revises the narrative of Heart of Darkness. In Conrad, the Intended is the only female character; she doesn’t appear until the final pages, awaiting news of Kurtz upon Marlow’s return to Britain from Africa. Patti in The Railway Man, on the other hand, is the fount from which flows Lomax’ desire to return to Southeast Asia. She is the one who seeks out Lomax’ story. Unlike Marlow, who tells the other men the story of Kurtz on the Nellie, it is Patti who demands that Uncle Finlay break the soldiers’ code of silence to tell her what happened to Lomax.

Furthermore, it is not Patti but Lomax’s mother who serves the function of Conrad’s Intended in The Railway Man. Lomax awakens from one of his reveries while hallucinating in the bamboo torture cage. Paratroopers land in the prison camp and free him. He returns home to greet his mother at the door of their house in Scotland. However, the sequence is a ruse: when his mother asks him why he built the radio, he awakens out of the reverie to discover the Japanese torturers posing the question. Later, talking with Nagase in the present, Lomax confides that he was writing letters from the camp to a dead woman, that his mother did not survive the war. In short, the hollow exchange of lies between Marlow and the Intended in Heart Darkness, an encounter between men’s experience of war and the passive woman on the home front, in The Railway Man is merely an imagined sequence. Instead, Lomax in the present takes his Intended, his wife Patti back to the scene of the trauma. In the ravine where slave labor broke even the strongest of men, driving Lomax’s commanding officer insane, Patti observes, horrified, “I wouldn’t have lasted a day here.” Having witnessed her dealing with his war trauma, he astutely responds, “You’d have outlasted a lot of us.”

As a memoir of the devastating effect of war trauma on returning soldiers, The Railway Man is a timely artwork. Its story of reconciliation between British prisoner of war and Japanese torturer complicates our ideas of good and evil in the post-war world, a crucial move when American acts of waterboarding during the War on Terror suddenly place the Allied forces in murkier ethical waters. However, The Railway Man in its reconstruction of The Bridge on the River Kwai by way of Heart of Darkness accomplishes something more: it demonstrates how the cinema can help us understand these sociological experiences more profoundly via an encounter with great narrative artwork that has withstood the test of time.

– Walter Metz