The Merciful Railway Man

Review of The Railway Man,* Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky

*This review is not based on the book in any way

Based on the autobiography of Eric Lomax, The Railway Man is the story of a British veteran of WWII who must deal with what Patti Lomax, his wife, calls, “war injuries of the mind.” The film pivots back and forth between the romance of an older Eric (Colin Firth) and Patti (Nicole Kidman) and Eric’s younger self suffering at the hands of his Japanese captors. The Railway Man is a deeply Christian film about forgiveness and suffering, though there is no reason to believe any of those involved have Christian convictions. The more gruesome scenes are difficult to watch, but are necessary to understand the lengths to which Eric must go to forgive his tormentors.

After Eric and Patti wed, Patti learns of the hardship that comes with living with a battle-scarred veteran. She sets out to find the truth. She besets Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) to tell her what happened during the war. The younger Finlay (Sam Reid) and younger Eric (Jeremy Irvine) served together in the British military–Finlay (was Eric’s commanding officer during the war and they were captured together among others. They were captured in Singapore in 1942 after British forces surrendered to the Japanese. From there, the Japanese transported British soldiers northward across continental Southeast Asia to the heart of the jungle where they are forced to build a railway. To get a sense of the conditions, Eric explains that such a railway, with potential for great strategic value, was never built by the British because they deemed it “barbaric” to submit anyone to construct it. Such a feat would require an “army of slaves,” which is what the Japanese had acquired in the British soldiers now under their control.

Despite a dark situation, Lomax and his friends cling onto hope and find a way to construct a radio receiver to get news of the war’s progress. When they learn that the Allies have Hitler on the run, the news quickly spreads through the labor camp, but also reach the ears of the Japanese overseers. Those who built the radio are rounded up and beaten until Eric stands forward to bear responsibility and is taken away to a walled compound dedicated to torturing prisoners. And that is as far as Finlay’s memory reaches because the next time he saw Eric was when he was being rescued after the Allies were victorious over the Japanese. Eric had never told a soul about what happened in the building.

The rest of the movie fills in this blank spot in Lomax’s history. In order to break Eric’s silence, Finlay shows him a newspaper clipping about the Japanese soldier who acted as translator in the compound. The translator, named Takashi Nagase, is now a tour guide at a Japanese war museum and Eric is determined to confront him and take vengeance. Without trying to describe the emotional intensity surrounding the last 30 minutes of the film. Beyond this moving picture of two men reconciled (Nagase and Lomax went on to be good friends until Lomax’s death in 2012), there is also the issue of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In a question and answer session with Patti Lomax, she explained how she disliked the term, preferring “war injuries of the mind” in order to avoid both the negative connotations with PTSD and obscuring the way it disables veterans under a generic term that can be used for a wide range of more minor experiences. If anything, The Railway Man shows the lingering effects of war on not only individuals, but whole families, for years afterwards, if not decades.

Eric Lomax’s forgiveness, at least as portrayed by the movie, comes as he realizes that Nagase is also a victim of the war. Nagase pays penance by making pilgrimages to the Buddhist shrines and runs the Japanese war museum so that the horrors of war will not be forgotten. In Lomax’s story, we see a spark, a reflection of God’s generous mercy to undeserving sinners. The fact that forgiveness is a common human experience is perhaps not merely a common grace, but rooted in being bearers of the imago dei, no matter how marred. In Lomax’s story, we see a spark, a reflection of God’s generous mercy to undeserving sinners.

Jesus tells a famous parable of the Unmerciful Servant. It is about a servant who owes the king a debt, but rather than take all he has for compensation, the king is merciful and forgives the debt. The servant in turn comes upon a debtor that owes him money, but when he learns that the debtor cannot repay, he throws the debtor into prison. When the king hears of this atrocious hypocrisy, he orders the unmerciful servant to be turned over to the jailers. This is the heart of Christian forgiveness–not that we are forgiving, but that the Father was kind to us and we in turn are obligated, in view of such great mercy, to be gentle with others. Christ himself was the ultimate example, bearing shame and scoffing rude, yet extending forgiveness to his persecutors. Discomfortingly, this means that forgiveness is not going above and beyond, but is a command and a failure to do so is condemnable.

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