05/09/2014 02:22 pm ET Updated Jul 09, 2014

RAILWAY MEN: A Film Review

I could not help but think of that other Burma Railway movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, directed by David Lean and based on the short story by the French writer, Pierre Boulle) as I watched The Railway Man the other day. The two films provide a measure of how much our Western culture and attitudes have changed in the intervening half century. Both protagonists, played by Alec Guinness and Colin Firth respectively, are driven out of their minds by the experience of war, imprisonment and torture--but in very different ways.

Alec Guinness's Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, the archetype of the British officer with the stiff-upper-lip and the devotion to duty and discipline at all costs, ends up so obsessed with his bridge-building challenge--no matter that it was assigned to him by his Japanese captors--that he all but forgets whose side he's on and nearly foils the plot the sabotage the enemy's project. While the story is all about the folly of war and the misguided values it inspires, ironically it manages to celebrate those same values. Thanks to the self-sacrifice and pluck of a handful of courageous men--and eventually of Nicholson himself--the sabotage succeeds. It's another stride toward the victory of the good guys over the bad, the triumph of good over evil.

How different is Colin Firth's Eric Lomax. We meet him long after the end of WWII. Along with a small coterie of fellow Burma Railroad survivors, he has for decades entombed the emotional wounds of his imprisonment and torture behind a wall of stolid silence. He is presented, even as a young officer, as courageous, yes, but at the same time vulnerable. It is less out of a sense of military duty that he risks his act of defiance against his captors (gerry-rigging a radio receiver out of purloined odds and ends) and more out of a need to preserve a shred of personal dignity and identity, and to maintain a spirit of camaraderie with his fellow prisoners. As punishment, he is caged in a confined bamboo hutch, and broken by constant water-boarding. In the intervening years, he has created his own painful cage--and gags at the throat when it comes to acknowledging, let alone revealing that pain.

Our culture has a different view of war these days, one transformed by Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. By Bosnia and Serbia. By Cambodia and Rwanda. By Syria. We have a more nuanced understanding of good and evil, and what can be done by military force to promote the one and neutralize the other. Even the concept of "victory"--the kind that brought WWII to an end--eludes us. We understand that, in war, there are no winners, only losers on all sides. The victors in "The Railway Man" shown as deeply victimized by their experience as those who "lost."

If we know more, or differently about war, we also know about water-boarding. Or rather, what we thought we knew about it is presented with excruciating reality in "The Railway Man." In confronting us in this way, the film requires us to examine our own--collective, cultural--consciences, knowing that it has been practiced all too recently in our names. We can no longer enjoy the luxury of a feeling of moral superiority, which the earlier film allowed us. We can't escape the knowledge that we are now complicit with the Japanese torturers. Which is why we are ready, even eager to accompany Eric Lomax on his journey from barely-contained rage and hatred to forgiveness and reconciliation. At some, perhaps unconscious level, it is we who need to make peace with ourselves. It is greatly to the same of our species that even now, in the twenty-first century, war continues to rage throughout the planet.

We have also have a language, these days, for the damage men like Eric have suffered: it's called PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The cost of war is not merely in the death count on both sides, not to mention the shameful proportion of civilians, but in the vast numbers of those who return wounded from the battlefields, whether in body or--as we have come more and more to understand--in mind. Did I mention that "The Railway Man" is a profoundly moving film? That Colin Firth's understated performance is outstanding, as is that of Nicole Kidman in the role of Patti, the wife who nursed him with infinite compassion toward recovery; and Hiroyuki Sanada as the Japanese officer/interpreter who was complicit in the torture? That director Jonathan Teplitzky's telling of the story is unhurried is an essential reflection of Eric's slow, reluctant path to healing.

Somewhere I read a review of "The Railway Man" that wondered whether another film about WWII was needed at this time. What I saw was a not a nostalgic movie looking back into the past, but one that reminds us in many ways to take stock of where we are right now, at the present moment; and to reflect, alas again, on the futility of war and on the responsibilities we incur when we embark upon it. The wounds that Eric needs to heal are not only the wounds of a war that was fought decades ago, but those of wars that persist today everywhere, not excluding our own.