By Stephanie Zacharek
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Thinking about contemporary war movies, it's hard to bring to mind one that doesn't offend some group or another. If it's a "war is hell" movie like Platoon, there'll invariably be those who decry it as unpatriotic. If it's oversentimentalized, like We Were Soldiers, someone will complain that it glorifies violence. Combine graphic battlefield imagery with a relatively minor dose of patriotism and a strong dose of action-adventure heroics, and you get Black Hawk Down, which a few folks got upset about because the enemies in it were black Africans.
A prisoner-of-war movie may not be quite the same thing; call it a subgenre if you like. To End All Wars fits that category, and yet it has managed to please reviewers across the board, from hipsters like Ain't It Cool's Drew McWeeny to moldy fuddy-duddies like Michael Medved. Based on the autobiographical account by Scottish soldier turned pastor Ernest Gordon, the movie is a Bridge on the River Kwai-era account of life in a World War II Japanese-run POW camp in Thailand. Hardships include the building of a 420 (no pot jokes, please!) kilometer railroad through the jungle by internees with less-than-adequate nutrition, and backgrounds that render them ill-equipped to deal with tropical jungle.
Gordon, played by relative unknown Ciaran McMenamin, is a Scottish soldier whose transition from bagpipe-carrying marcher in Scotland to prisoner of the Pacific is handled with a quick series of black-and-white photos. Captured alongside Gordon is superior officer Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle), a man who -- unsurprisingly given the actor who plays him -- is given to sporadic angry outbursts that often get him into trouble, but also stand him in good stead as a soldier. Not everyone in the camp is Scottish, however -- there are some rather ugly Englanders with chips on their shoulders regarding the neighbors from the north, as well as American soldier Jack Riordan (Kiefer Sutherland), who's dubbed "Yanker" because, as Gordon puts it, "He was both an American . . . and a bit of a wanker."
With ample time on their hands between laying down railroad tracks and dropping dead from malaria, the prisoners are divided over how to spend their hours. Gordon lets slip one night that he plans to be a teacher when all is said and done, and so a small group of his colleagues draft him to teach them mini-courses based on his memory and the odd book or two that manage to get smuggled in. Campbell, meanwhile, plans a revolt, which doesn't seem like it would be too hard, but for the fact that it isn't really the guards who make the prison -- it's the inhospitable jungle all around them. Yanker appears to be playing both sides, which naturally leads to trouble -- though in the meantime he establishes a black market connection to obtain the odd bit of contraband.
There's also much philosophy talk afoot. Those who don't understand the spiritual differences between World War II foes will get an earful here, as there's much discussion of the Bushido code that drives the Japanese, and the Judeo-Christian values shared by much of the West. What may come as a surprise, especially to those fundamentalist Christians urging the country to war even now, is that the Christianity espoused here is the "turn the other cheek" variety: Gordon and friends persuade the Japanese to return the Bible to the men by making a case that it'll create better slaves, then proceed to do the best job they can in hopes of leading by example.
The religious underpinnings may render the film more acceptable to conservatives who might otherwise have a problem with the film's violence. It should be noted, though, that the violence feels more viscerally graphic than what is actually shown. While you can't exactly sugar-coat a nail being driven into someone's hand, many of the executions by shooting are depicted from a distance, and more than one scene of a prisoner being beaten is implied via subjective camera jolts showing the beaten man's point of view. Perhaps to make a deliberate counterpoint, or simply to soothe those viewers who are easily disturbed, the soundtrack features the New Agey Celtic tones of Clannad singer Máire Brennan, who can still make younger sister Enya sound like an amateur.
There are a couple of minor nits to pick. One, how do POWs in Thailand get ahold of bagpipes? And why, after one character has been crippled and is unable to walk or work, does he get a wheelchair rather than an execution? The chair looks handmade, but where did the wheels come from? One imagines the filmmakers aren't making these things up, but a minute or two of explanation wouldn't have been amiss.
In the unlikely event that none of the movie works for you, hang in there until the end, when we get to see footage of the actual survivors, along with text describing their current professions. There's so much cynical and calculated religion these days that it's nice to see, regardless of one's wartime affiliation, a traditional Christian forgiveness that really does have the power to redeem.
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