The Railway Man (2013) Movie Review

Premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September, ‘The Railway Man’ has only recently made its way into North American theatres, a slow train considering the story dates back to a chapter in World War II history that has generally been ignored. It had taken Eric Lomax decades to open up and tell his story as a Japanese prisoner of war. His autobiography The Railway Man was published in 1995, half a century after his ordeal.

The Railway Man


Noting the demographics of the audience in the theatre I was in, it is likely that the passing of a generation could mean the eventual silencing of eyewitnesses and victims, or those who have heard from them first-hand. While a movie adaptation of Eric Lomax’s autobiography is important for raising awareness of the events in the Pacific theatre during the War, the real difficulty is to attract younger viewers today to go into a movie theatre to watch it.

Of the numerous full-length features on WWII, only David Lean’s 1957 “The Bridge on the River Kwai” comes to mind for a movie that deals with this chapter in history. Eric Lomax was a young signals officer in Singapore when the British surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942. He and other British soldiers were transported to Thailand to work on the Thailand-Burma Railway as slave laborers. Notoriously known as The Death Railway, the conditions there were horrendous. Many POW’s died and others were tortured. Lomax was one of them.

Having read his memoir, I find ‘The Railway Man’ a more realistic depiction of the POW’s conditions. Lean’s film where the men are portrayed in top physical shape marching to the famous whistling tune looks like a summer camp when compared to the atrocities Lomax and others had suffered. The war ended in 1945, but not the psychological torments of former POW’s.

‘The Railway Man’ begins with Lomax (Colin Firth) in 1980, a middle-aged veteran, still a railway enthusiast, encountering Patti Wallace (Nicole Kidman) while travelling on a train. This first part of the movie is the most enjoyable in that we see Colin Firth in his most natural and easiest demeanor, romantic yet reserved, with a dash of quirkiness. Nicole Kidman, with minimal make-up, gives an admirable understated performance. The two make good screen chemistry. Viewers will have more of their partnership in some upcoming productions.

Colin Firth & Nicole Kidman

As they chat on the train, David Lean’s ‘Brief Encounter’ is mentioned, a life imitating art experience thus ensues except this one leads to a long-term relationship. Eric and Patti soon get married. On their honeymoon, the nightmares of Lomax’s traumatic past begin to expose. He drops on the floor wrenching from fearful flashbacks.

Observing in anguish, Patti seeks to find out more from Lomax’s fellow veteran Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård) who cautions her of the scars of war and the never-ending torments. Thus leads to the second act where we see flashbacks into Lomax’s horrific POW experiences.

Jeremy Irvine puts forth an impressive effort in his portrayal of a courageous and decent young Lomax. After the radio he has made and his hand-drawn map of the railway line are discovered by his Japanese captors, the young Lomax bravely steps out to admit his involvement in order to spare his fellow soldiers the punishment. He is beaten, interrogated as a spy, and repeatedly tortured. Throughout, the young Japanese officer Nagase (Tanroh Ishida) is in full command.

Jeremy IrvineThe film goes back and forth in time during the bulk of the story, not roughly, but in an unbalanced way. The WWII sequences are intense, but the present day scenes exude a lethargic sense of inaction. While the talents of both Firth and Kidman can readily be tapped, the screenplay allows no further development other than the close-ups of a repressed and traumatically disturbed Lomax and a loving but exasperated Patti watching from the sideline. Here is a time when you would wish the director (Jonathan Teplitzky) and screenwriters (Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson) had exerted more artistic freedom and creative energy into the film.

The plot turns a new direction as Finlay finds out that the Japanese officer Nagase (now played by Hiroyuki Sanada) who was involved in Lomax’s torture is still alive. Adding to Lomax’s burden, Finlay has pressured him to take revenge. Indeed, it is with a vengeful resolve that Lomax seeks Nagase out in a war museum in Thailand, where Nagase is a tour guide by the River Kwai, showing visitors the same prison camp wherein Lomax was once a captive.

As the torturer and the victim confront, tension rises. In the most critical moment, the murderous vengeance that Lomax has harbored is snapped. Nagase expresses genuine remorse and offers his apology to Lomax. Vengeance is thus dissolved into forgiveness.

This third act is supposedly the most moving section. Unfortunately it drags on too long, losing the power of the cathartic punch. While Firth’s performance is riveting as he enters the torture room and relives the past, the verbal exchanges between the adversaries and their ultimate reconciliation look contrived. As in the book, which leaves readers little explanation as to Lomax’s change of heart, I assume therein lies the difficulty for the screenwriters to invent a realistic and dramatic scenario.

Nonetheless, stories like this ought to be told for the understanding of historic truths and of the human heart. It just may sound like an over-simplification, but maybe the long road to reconciliation does start with a word of apology.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

CLICK HERE To read my book review of The Railway Man by Eric Lomax.


This movie review was published in the May 10 issue of Asian American Press.

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

This is an important book in that it chronicles the real-life experience of a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese army after the British surrendered in Singapore during WWII. The Pacific War is a part of WWII history that has often been ignored, other than the Pearl Harbour chapter. The British Empire in the Far East was dealt a deadly blow by Japanese invasions, and, British POW’s suffered not a bit less than those in Hitler’s death camps.

Japanese atrocities and war crimes have often been muffled in this our North American society. I don’t want to speculate why but yes, I do have an inkling which I will not discuss here. But as someone who had grown up in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager, I can tell the difference in knowledge and perceptions when I compare the generally uninformed public of the West and those who themselves or their elders’ generation had lived through in Asia during the war.

Because of the general lack of knowledge on the Far East during WWII, Eric Lomax’s first person narrative as a POW in a Japanese labour camp and later military prison is all the more valuable. The memoir starts off with his love for the railways in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. As the colony fell to Japanese hands, Lomax’s life was torturously demented in subsequent decades until the very end.

The Railway Man Book Cover

Eric Lomax was a young 22 year-old when he was captured and moved with tens of thousands of POW’s to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to build the notorious ‘Death Railway’ in 1943. It was a passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. The conditions of forced labour were horrendous. Many POW’s died building the railway. This part of the world was the subject of the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, an unrealistic (even farcical now that I’ve read Lomax’s memoir) depiction of British POW’s inside Japanese military camps.

With his skills, Lomax and several others built a radio secretly to get news of the war. The radio was later discovered, together with a map Lomax had carefully drawn up of the railway line. Six of them were interrogated and savagely beaten by The Kempetai, or goon squad, as Lomax described them. Both his arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more tortures and horrendous treatments followed in the days after. The experiences had left him permanently damaged psychologically for the rest of his life. Decades after the war, Lomax was still being tortured by terrifying flashbacks. The nightmares continued until he met his tormentor and forgiveness replaced hatred and vengeance.

So all in all, a significant story to tell. But while the book’s description is straight forward and clear, it leaves me ungratified as to its writing style and lack of deeper exploration, with all due respect to the author and his horrific, nightmares of ordeals. Yes, he had done a detailed job in reporting his personal journey from childhood to the war, the tortures and his suffering, other victims and their fate. As well, he recorded the aftermath of his horrific experiences as he re-entered ‘normal’ society, and sadly still, to a family that he no longer knew. His mother had died of a broken heart and his father had remarried. I was particularly engrossed with the after war effects in the last chapters.

However, the internal change of heart for the reconciliation with the Japanese interpreter had not been explored. After the bulk of the book describing his painful ordeals, the very last chapter of a happy ending looks off-balanced. It all started with the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who was present at Lomax’s torture, publishing his autobiography in his seventies. In there, he even mentioned the torture of Lomax, but due to his remorse, he felt he had been ‘forgiven’. Lomax’s second wife Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband. Patti’s letter opened up a chance for the later meeting between the tormentor and the victim.

Nagase had shown deep remorse, and dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s, to ‘make-up’ for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In his meeting with Lomax fifty years later, both in their seventies, near the bridge on the River Kwai, Nagase offered his visibly acute and sincere regrets for what the Japanese army had done to the British soldiers. A forgiving spirit suddenly took hold of Lomax and the two became friends. However, Lomax did not go deep into how his ingrained hatred and vengeance were alleviated, except noting that Nagase was a changed man now.

Further, the book had not answered a question I’ve always pondered. No, I understand it was never intended to delve into that issue as it is a personal memoir and not a political or philosophical treatise. But this question has been unsettling for me. What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible? Other than Nagase, we know that many in Japan today still worship their dead WWII soldiers including war criminals as national heroes, unlike Germany’s denunciation of the Nazi regime. History textbooks had even been changed to tone down Japan’s aggression in the war. Even as recent as January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and paid his pilgrimage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The controversial Shrine is a clear symbol of, in Lomax’s words, “an unashamed celebration of militarism”. In the book, we also read that Nagase had taken the unpopular and even dangerous stance of denouncing this war monument. To victims and their descendants of Japanese wartime atrocities, the chapter has not ended; in international politics, the issue remains.

It is always a triumph to see true remorse and subsequent reconciliation. Lomax’s personal story is extraordinary for both himself and Nagase. In that sense, readers are gratified with a light at the end of a long, dark chapter of one life, a bright stroke on the large canvas of WWII history.


The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, first published in Great Britain, 1995 by Jonathan Cape. Movie tie-in edition by Vintage Books, London, 2014, 322 pages.

** Movie Adaptation: I saw The Railway Man the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. So far, there has not been a general, major release of the film here in North America. As much as I’d like to share my view on the film, with Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, and Jeremy Irvine as young Lomax, I intend to wait till there is a public release of the film before I post my review. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait much longer.

Related Links:

Pride and Pain of Patti Lomax

Railway Man’s Forgotten Family

What Japanese History Lessons leave out by Mariko Oi