Judge Joel Pearce says this isn't just another WWII POW film. How could it be when it stars Begbie?
"You know, a man can experience an incredible amount of pain and suffering if he has hope. When he loses his hope, that's when he dies."—Dusty
This is the hardest review I have had to write. If I focus on its many strengths…the things that set it apart from other POW camp movies…To End All Wars will get a glowing review. However, if I focus on its flaws, it could just as easily get a very negative review. It is going to be a challenge for me to balance these aspects of this unique film, but I have a great deal of respect for what it sets out to accomplish. I will do my best to do it justice.
Facts of the Case
To End All Wars is based on the memoirs of Ernest Gordon (Ciarán McMenamin, The Last Minute), who, along with the men of the Argyle Highlanders, was captured and forced to help build a railroad through Thailand. There, Ernest Gordon and his companions must find a way to come to terms with their fate and survive for as long as possible. In order to do this, a group turns to education in order to maintain hope through their years of servitude. He is aided by a local chaplain named Dusty (Mark Strong), but their attempts at building a school are challenged by both the Japanese guards and Campbell (Robert Carlyle, Trainspotting, Angela's Ashes), who is left in command of the men after the death of their superior officer (James Cosmo, Troy). The result is a battle of philosophy and ideals, which ultimately affects both the imprisoned soldiers and their Japanese guards.
In some ways, it would be very easy to make a POW movie. All it would require is a group of likable soldiers that are captured and treated horribly at the hands of savage foreigners. Escapes would be planned, the good guys would persevere through terrible trials and eventually be freed. The captors would be eventually punished, either by the group of heroes or the victorious army that would march in and announce the defeat of the forces of evil. There have been many great adventure movies based on this premise, created in a nationalistic tradition.
The director of To End All Wars, David Cunningham, didn't want to make another one of those films. This is not a war movie. Instead, it is about humanity struggling to come to terms with war. Because of this, the film's action does not begin with the capture of the Scottish soldiers. Rather, there is simply some stock footage of the second World War, which leads directly into the first person view of the soldiers being brought into the camp. Certainly, part of the reason for filming this scene in that way is because of the extremely low budget (estimated at $14 million). However, it also shifts the focus from the outside conflict of the war to the individual experience of these soldiers at this camp. So much of the production is aimed toward the examination of this personal experience. That first scene has the camera peering through the blindfolds of the prisoners. Often, characters will have brief flashes of memory that pop onto the screen. In the included documentary, David Cunningham explains that his director of photography has worked mostly on documentaries, and it shows. The scenes take on a life of their own, and the camera moves freely among the characters, capturing what it was like for these imprisoned soldiers. The violence in To End All Wars is handled well, as the scenes are very powerful without ever being gratuitous.
Part of the exploration of this experience is told through the differences between the western ideology of the soldiers and the Bushido code of their Japanese captors. Although the explanation of the code does it little justice, it is probably as clear to the audience as it was to the captured soldiers. When these two cultures first clash, the film seems to be moving in a typical and disappointing direction. The leaders of the western soldiers show fierce individuality and defiance, which is responded to through savage violence by the Japanese guards. Instead of carrying on in this way until the tenacity of the soldiers allows them to triumph, they need to learn what makes the culture they are trapped in so different from their own. The Japanese soldiers believe that it is through these savage beatings that they must honor their Emperor. At the same time, the westerners believe that honor comes from resisting as strongly as possible.
Then, something completely unusual and fascinating happens. The soldiers do not learn honor from the Japanese, and the Japanese aren't won over by the tenacity and resistance of the valiant Scots. Instead, Ernest Gordon and a few others decide to use education in order to maintain the hope of the soldiers. He begins an underground school, where he teaches history and philosophy to any of the soldiers that are willing to learn. They learn about justice from Plato. They learn about forgiveness from the Bible. They learn about nobility from Shakespeare. By digging into the history of Western thought, they believe that forgiveness and sacrifice will help them to survive where resistance and violence has only caused them pain and suffering.
The real conflict in the film is not as much between the Japanese and the prisoners, but between the educated soldiers led by Ernest and Dusty, and the rebellious prisoners led by Ian. This conflict leads into a series of philosophical debates, centered on notions of justice and questions of how these people could ever be able to come to terms with their horrible fate. These arguments lead to betrayals and eventually violence. As the film goes on, the sacrifices that must be made to maintain peace in the camp become more painful.
The conflict between the various groups wouldn't work without consistently strong performances from the principal actors. Fortunately, that's exactly what is delivered. Relative newcomer Ciarán McMenamin deserves special attention for his portrayal of Ernest Gordon. His growth through the film is believable and full of pathos. He has honored the memory of Mr. Gordon, showing us both a true hero and a man full of humanity and fear. Robert Carlyle is also excellent, blending the intensity of his performance in Trainspotting with the sensitivity of his performance in The Full Monty. Kiefer Sutherland is also at the top of his form. At first, Jim Reardon seems a bit too much like Jack Bauer in the jungle, but as he transforms through the film, his character becomes something else entirely. Mark Strong and James Cosmo also deliver moving roles. I also need to applaud the bravery of Sakae Kimura and Masayuki Yui. It takes guts to portray the villains in a POW movie, and it takes a lot more than that to come off as more than monsters. The Japanese soldiers who were sent to these camps were not in much better shape than the prisoners. It was a punishment for them as well, which both of these actors portrayed perfectly. The four Japanese actors that the crew brought in were regulars in Kurosawa's films before his death.
The middle of the film is so fascinating and engaging that it's very disappointing when things start to fall apart at the end.
Allegory is a tricky thing to pull off. When a film implies a connection with classical literature or theology, it can help the film to resonate better with an audience, even if they don't realize what's going on. Allegory, on the other hand, generally has all the subtlety of one of the Rambo films. I realize that Ernest Gordon would have appreciated the references to Christ as a model for the forgiveness that the soldiers display. I realize that it's an important reference that David Cunningham wants to make clear to the audience. Unfortunately, the lack of subtlety with which these scenes are handled threatens to destroy everything good about To End All Wars. The first few times there are scenes of personal sacrifice, we understand where they are heading. By the fifth time, we are starting to get tired of being hit with it over and over. By the seventh or eighth time, I found myself stunned by the overtness of it all. It also strains believability, which is so important for historical films. The shock of what these men really experienced starts to be replaced with skepticism. The commentary track reveals that these events truly did happen, which does help, although it still seems contrived at the time. Much of my confidence about the truthfulness of To End All Wars was also restored at the end of the film, which features footage of a recent meeting between Ernest Gordon and Takashi Nagase. The meeting between these two was organized by the crew of the film, and occurred on February 4, 2000, shortly before Ernest Gordon's death.
Fortunately, the disc includes extras that deal with these issues, explaining why the makers of To End All Wars made the choices that he did. The best of these is an excellent documentary that examines the making of the film. This documentary covers a lot of ground, using interviews with the cast and crew as well as behind the scenes footage. David Cunningham is completely aware that not everything is factually accurate, but he was forced to make choices in order to make an appealing film. The other major extra is a commentary track with Cunningham. While it is a little drier than some commentary tracks, he makes it clear that every decision that was made in the making of the film was done cautiously and deliberately. He has done an extraordinary job with a very small budget, and he speaks honestly and humbly about his experiences making the film. Despite the allegorical elements at the end, it is clear that Cunningham did genuinely care about accuracy, and his attention to detail really shows.
Technically, Fox has done a good job with the disc. For a small budget film, the video transfer is excellent, accurately representing a world of neutral tones and deep shadows. There is often a lot of movement in the cinematography, and it is handled without artifacts. The sound transfer is also solid, with an appropriately wide sound stage and regular use of the surrounds.
There is so much of value in To End All Wars that I wish I could give it a much stronger review. It's an intensely powerful film, made even more powerful by effective use of stock photographs and the more recent meeting of Ernest Gordon and Takashi Nagase. Unfortunately, some slips in the last act pull the overall quality of the film down. Still, war movie fans that are looking for something different will probably have a lot of respect for the film, as will people who like to be philosophically challenged. Others are urged to give it at least a rent, as it is a great example of a minor director trying to accomplish something new and exciting. It makes the suggestion that sacrifice and forgiveness could be a solution to the pain in the world, and offers a close examination of a situation in which it did bring two groups of enemies together.
After much deliberation, I have decided to release everyone involved. Although the crew made several major mistakes in designing the film, I believe that it honors the memory of Ernest Gordon, and that he would be pleased with the finished product.
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