The Railway Man (IMDB) is a somewhat-fictionalized adaptation of Eric Lomax’s autobiographical book of the same title. The movie is affecting and heartwarming. However it makes some dramatic exaggerations while at the same time pulling some punches. I think this makes it less effective than in could have been.
Here are the bare facts. Eric Lomax (Colin Firth, played as a young man by Jeremy Irvine) was a British signals officer, captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore in February 1942. He was sent with his fellow soldiers to a prison camp in Thailand to work on the construction of the Siam-Burma railway, an enterprise that cost thousands of lives.
Lomax was singled out for torture and starvation because he helped his fellow prisoners build a radio and had drawn a map of the railway. Somehow he managed to survive but he was psychologically scarred. In the 1980s he married a nurse (played by Nicole Kidman) who became alarmed by his erratic behavior and urged him to seek treatment.
Eventually he learned that Takeshi Nagase, one of his interrogators, was working as a tour guide in Thailand. (Nagase is played as a young man by Tanroh Ishida and as an older man by Hiroyuki Sanada.) Seeking closure, Lomax traveled to Thailand to meet with Nagase. It turned out that Nagase was haunted by his memories of the war and had devoted his life to working for peace.
The movie has been criticized on two grounds:
- It unfairly suggests that all former POWs are depressive and suicidal.
- It pretends for dramatic purposes that Lomax went to Thailand intending to kill Nagase, and once there surprised him, imprisoned him and interrogated him. In fact there was no such violent encounter. The two men had corresponded and arranged the visit.
On thing that struck me was that the movie doesn’t come close to showing the full suffering of the prisoners. There are scenes of beatings and torture, but for the most part the camera discreetly turns away.
When rescued the men don’t look nearly emaciated enough. Anyone not familiar with the history of the war would probably think that they were only imprisoned for a few weeks. (Actually it was more than two years.) In the rescue scene, after all the torture, starvation and being locked in a tiger cage, Lomax just looks like he has been in a bar fight (and probably left the other guy looking worse.)
All of this makes it harder to appreciate why Lomax was so disturbed.
These are sins typical of historical and biographical movies. If you can overlook them, this is still a story worth hearing.