Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Film Review: To End All Wars

David Small
Director, Communications & Air Force Service Section

With the planned release of a director’s cut on DVD this year, the GI Film Festival kicked off its 2010 screenings May 11 with the 10-year-old flick, “To End All Wars” about four of the 61,000 Allied prisoners of war during World War II who built the 400km Thai-Burma railroad.

“To End All Wars” is based on the autobiography of Capt Earnest “Ernie” Gordon, played by Ciarán McMenamin, from his book, “Through the Valley of the Kwai,” and begins in Ernie’s native Scottland, where he is stationed with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders infantry regiment of the British Army’s Scottish Division.

His unit was taken prisoner Feb. 17, 1942 after Singapore fell. The story revolves around him, Lt. Jim “Yanker” Reardon played by Kiefer Sutherland, and characters Maj. Ian Campbell and Dusty Miller. Their main Japanese captors included Sgt. Ito and a translator named Takashi Nagase. In the character development of all captors and captives, the movie relays the concepts of honor and hope from different points of cultural views.

If it sounds a bit like the classic “Bridge over the River Kwai,” that’s because they are related, in story at least. Kwai was a 1957, over Hollywoodized snippet of a singular incident in building this railroad, but it didn’t address the level of brutal suffering these POWs endured at the hands of their captors like this movie did. Nor did Kwai treat the enemy's ancient Bushido warrior code with the respect that director David L. Cunningham accomplished in this movie.

Bushido, which assumes westerners are as inferior as dogs, is introduced early in the movie when a POW passes a guard and is beaten for not showing the proper respect by bowing. While many aspects of Bushido are seen throughout the film including ritual suicide to save face as the loser of a battle, the most important Bushido credo shown is when Takashi explains the reason Sgt. Ito is a guard in the POW camp, a duty seen by the Japanese as a punishment. Sgt. Ito accepted this duty in place of his previous superior for some failure on his commanding officer’s part.

This concept rears its head later in the movie when Dusty is literally crucified on a cross in place of the Japanese killing Maj. Campbell, who is hated among all the captives for his divisive leadership and scheming plans to take over the camp. Despite the overtly Christian overtones of the scene, Dusty’s sacrifice is less a statement about his faith than it is about respect for the Bushido ways. Dusty was the only character who all along understood the Japanese culture, a lesson being learned daily in Iraq and Afghanistan today.

The obvious lesson of the movie is maintaining strength in the harshest of times. Some may say the lesson is more of hope, but I say it is more of strength because it manifests itself differently among the four main characters. We see Yanker transform from a self-centered black-marketer to a strong teammate who sacrifices himself to a severe shovel beating instead of the entire camp being punished. We see Ernie give strength to his fellow captives after he falls deathly ill by creating a jungle university studying Bard and Plato’s concepts of justice. While Maj. Campbell is the least liked character in the film, we see his strength buckle when his escape plan fails. And we see Dusty’s strength through faith and caring for others.

Overall, the film left me thinking about the necessity to study cultural diversity, the need for hope and strength in times of adversity, the concept of justice and who has the right and obligation to administer that justice, and the honor in sacrifice before glory.

At one point in the movie, Ernie is punished when he’s found conducting his classes, but convinces the camp commander that his teaching makes the prisoners better slaves for the Emperor when he turns the other cheek. There is a touching moment between him and Takashi, who has a level of compassion and understanding for the prisoners, when Takashi is allowed to return Ernie’s books to continue his classes. The movie ends with tearful footage of the real Ernie and Takashi 55 years later visiting the grave yard of their fallen comrades.

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