The Railway Man

This is the perfect example of a smartass director taking a perfectly good book and prostituting it for Hollywood.

Actually the book on which this ‘true story’ is based is not so much a well-written book as a fascinating and sickening tale of Japanese brutality in the Second World War. I was drawn to it as much of it is set in Singapore, where I now live (most of the time), and we are soon to visit Burma. It tells the story, chronologically, of how a Scottish railway nerd – ‘not a train spotter, but an enthusiast’ – joins up and finds himself as a signals officer for the fall of Singapore in 1942. The Japanese take him up into Thailand, along with the majority of the captured soldiers, to work on the notorious Burma railway, rather romantically glorified in The Bridge Over the River Kwai

The torture inflicted on daily basis, and then to Eric Lomax and his fellow captives for building a radio, is told in spare and spine-chilling detail, as is his later incarceration in brutal and inhumane conditions in a POW jail in Singapore and, later, in Changi hospital. 

Meeting his second wife Patti, who steers him towards therapy and final reconciliation with his past, and with the Japanese interpreter, who was only in part responsible for his torture, but whose image haunted him after the war ended, plays a small yet significant part at the end. The majority of the book is dedicated to capturing the facts for posterity.

So what does Teplitzki do? He turns the whole film around and makes it into a soppy love story between Patty and Lomax, with flashback scenes to the torture and conditions playing very much a second fiddle, showing just enough to give a reason for Lomax’s desire for retribution. But this is absolutely not what happened. 

Spoiler alert! Lomax did not return to Thailand to meet interpreter Nagase with the intention of killing him; he did not pull a knife on him and incarcerate him in one of the bamboo crates the prisoners had been held in. When he returned it was only because he wished to confront and make peace with his past, and to forgive his enemy. The film is a total travesty of the truth.

It gets worse! The Lomax and Patty scenes are set in the 1980s: by my calculations that would have made Lomax in his mid-60s, and he doesn’t actually go to Thailand until 1995, when he would have been in his late 70s.  Colin Firth, in a nod to the box-office, is therefore hopelessly miscast, as he looks barely over 50, try as he might to look disheveled, haunted and suffering from post-traumatic stress. I just couldn’t buy it and it grates horribly. Even Nicole Kidman is all wrong in this role, likewise Hiroyuki Sanada (the older Nagase) looks too young.

The younger versions of Lomax and Nagase, played respectively by Jeremy Irvine and Tanroh Ishida, are much more convincing. Irvine is the real star of the film. But there is too little characterisation of his fellow conspirators, who played such a role in his life as a POW, and the few crumbs cast by the Teplitzki in this direction are all wrong too. So much else is missing – the strong Scottish Protestantism that kept Eric going, his thumbed-through Bible, a sense of his strict upbringing, his love for his Church fiancée – the things that made him a survivor. The Railway Manis a wasted opportunity: it demonstrates more clearly than any film I have seen recently how Hollywood values can destroy rather than create. Please read the book rather than see the film; even Eric Lomax expressed no desire to see it (it was in the making, but he died before it was completed). He knew what liberties had been taken in his name.

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