About seven out of eight prisoners of war who died during captivity during World War II did so at the hands of the Imperial Japanese. This horrific legacy has resulted in surprisingly few American feature films compared to films about POW camps in Europe, or films about the Holocaust, or even films about Japanese-American internment camps. (Vietnam POW movies are a whole bizarre genre, more like fantasy films.) The last I can remember is "King Rat," from the 1960s. The British and Australians, however, regularly pump out Pacific POW films and miniseries.
Movie on Japanese-held
POWs torments its
By Burl Burlingame
And so "To End All Wars," labeled as a United States production and filmed mostly on Kauai last year, feels not only welcome, but long overdue.
The film gets many of the historical details right, although there are anachronistic elements, such as Japanese soldiers driving American Jeeps. Even a quick reading of Gavan Daws' "Prisoners of the Japanese," so far the definitive book on the subject, indicates that scenes that might be a screenwriter's overheated imagination -- severed heads jauntily placed on stakes as decoration, prisoners crucified on crosses, etc. -- actually happened.
As a catalog of horrors, "To End All Wars" drops us into the middle of nowhere, amongst filthy, disease-ridden victims of guards who were already the scum of the Japanese Army, with the bare remnants of military discipline and culture shock to sustain us.
As a dramatic film, however, "Wars" is an awkward, turgid mess. We'll get back to that.
The film is based on the memoirs of Ernest Gordon, one of the young Scots of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders captured during the fall of Singapore and imprisoned in Malaya and Burma, where the prisoners were pressed into building a railroad through the wilderness. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" by "Planet of the Apes" author Pierre Boulle, was a fictitious version of that event, and a fine piece of cross-cultural drama.
Gordon, however, was entirely atypical. He had a religious conversion while in the midst of the horrors, and set up secret bible-study classes in camp, teaching the other prisoners to turn the other cheek and love their captors. This didn't play well either with the Japanese or with British commanders planning escapes, and what drama there is in "War" comes from this inner conflict.
This inner journey is staged neither convincingly or dramatically well. There are a fair number of low-budget editing tricks to try to liven things up, but the camera angles work against the action.
The only American in the bunch is Kiefer Sutherland as a merchant sailor somehow attached to the Highlanders in Singapore. Robert Carlyle has some effective moments as a conflicted British commander, and Ciaran McMenamin plays Gordon with wall-eyed intensity. These characters change as the film lurches along, not because of the story arc, but because the screenplay has no handle on them.
"To End All Wars" will be well-received on Sunday-school movie night at church, particularly during group discussions afterward. For the rest of us, alas, it doesn't quite hang together. This is partially due to the extreme difficulty of the theme. Photographer Robert Capra once said there were only two things that couldn't be properly expressed on film -- sex, and a person's relationship with God. Looks like he was right.
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