To End All Wars, 2001, by David L Cunningham is a film I might normally recommend for all the typical filmic reasons: the shooting was done in difficult, exotic, jungle deep locations yet the camera motions are fluid and un-obtrusive; we are entirely within the unfolding action.  Unbelievable human-to-human brutality is displayed with impeccable special effects, props and acting.  The story of  human resourcefulness, courage and hope pitted against the unimaginable is one sought by all story tellers; it is told well, acted well and is to a large degree true, based on the memoirs of one of the POWs, Ernest Gordon.

Yet all these things can’t overcome the basic flaw in the enterprise:  is this an action hero kind of film or a great faith overcoming kind of film?  And doubling the problem is that the power of faith is not one which leads to action.  No great escape (in fact there is a failed escape that highlights the bifurcation), or climactic scene of forgiveness asked, and given.  The “action” is simply, that some survive three years of unbelievable  violence.

Capt Ernest Gordon, [Ciarán McMenamin] from whose memoir the movie was drawn, and much of the Scottish 93rd Division of the Argyle and Southern Highlanders, including Major Ian Campbell [Robert Carlyle], who led the failed escape attempt, were captured by the Japanese in Thailand after the fall of Singapore, Feb 17, 1942.  Some 61,000 captured POWs and 180,000 romusha, slave labor from Japanese conquests throughout South East Asia, were used to drive a railroad from Bangkok to Rangoon as the intended backbone of a Japanese advance on India.  The POW camps, if not the building of the railroad, went on to the end of the war, May of 1945 — 3 and one half years.

The film keeps us in the tight quarters of the mobile POW camp and among a small group of the Highlanders as they learn about, and practice, unit cohesion in ways they never could have imagined.  They are fed starvation rations. Clothing is no better than rags.  The discipline is brutal, arbitrary and often lethal.  As they are marched into camp they are shown the punishment for escape attempts:  summary executions; back of the head.  We learn that POW camp duty is considered by the Japanese to be very low duty, given to those officers who do not measure up in “real” battle positions.  As a result, alcohol and super sadism compensate some of the officers for their sense of failure.

The core dramatic tension is how do the prisoners survive? Having begun with marching Highlander troops, and Gordon’s voice-over praise for his two commanders –duty, honor, country– we expect the usual elements of patriotism, military discipline, the hard-bitten commanders, the make-do trading and black marketing by the men, to be part of the story. What enters and changes this story are strong and specific Christian elements. Dusty Miller [Mark Strong], in both the memoir and the movie, is a simple, salt-of-the-earth former gardener with a gift of faith far deeper than received by most. He almost sacrifices his own life by giving his food rations to Gordon. He practices Christian turning-the-cheek to both comrades and guards, but in a way which does not mark him as a holy idiot, someone to be laughed at,  but as a man to belong with.

Alongside his self inquiry and explanation to unbelieving friends, a camp “university” also springs up. Gordon, who had been studying to be a teacher leads small group explorations of Plato, Augustine and others of the religious/secular intelligentsia … leading to a solidarity born of oppression, but also of Christian and philosophical understanding.

While very interesting, and obviously deeply felt by Gordon himself, this presents a very difficult film challenge.

Unlike a Clint Eastwood offering where “good” violence beats “bad” violence and the structure of violence — the ribs of the story–  remains the same, here we have great moral/religious resistance, without violence, to great evil: a one-ribbed beast.

The “winners” survive the three years torture regime, ended finally by Allied bombing of the Japanese Army camps throughout South East Asia and the pummeling of the POW camp itself, not by outfoxing, outwitting, outrunning or converting the enemy, but by the fortitude of their Christian faith which, at its extremes requires not only turning a cheek to great violence, but accepting death at its cruelest.  They win not by hand-to-hand conflict but by defeating the enemy’s belief that they, sub-humans, can not survive. This is a battle of wills and faith, buried in the 2 hours of filmed violence.

For me, the emotional shape of the film is distorted. I am overwhelmed by the viscious, physical violence — mostly from the Japanese to their prisoners, but in one case returned.  The crucifixion of Dusty, the saintly Scot Christian farmer, who is the moral teacher of the story, is so close up and technically expert that we are indeed visitors to the story of Calvary, and unable to do anything but avert our eyes, or chant ‘it’s just a movie, it’s just a movie.’ But against this, the counter to the violence is not action but a growing moral sense of each other, the absolute need of each-other, bound by Christ’s finest words.

There is an explicit lesson against the every-man-for-himself idea, portrayed by Kiefer Sutherland as the Yanker, who begins as a cagey  black market dealing go-it-alone guy, and ends making one of the great sacrifices to protect the group.

In the end the prisoners do not ride off in triumph; they are hardly able to walk.  There is only the sense that the power of the group-in-faith has defeated the group-of-demented-ideology.

Trying to show, with images,  a tension between violence and nonviolence – not so much resistance, as survival– would be a very difficult problem in any circumstance. It was made more so by director Cunningham’s choice to show the violence, again and again, and explicitly, instead of say, reverting to earlier film traditions in which violence is implied, carried on off camera and realized by the audience via the faces of the actors, not our own pitching stomachs. The result for me, magnified by the opening scenes and the rock-hard Scottish faces in the publicity posters, reminded me of Catholic Lives of the Saints I was brought up on,  recounting the most savage abominations and the ability of the saints and martyrs to endure through this same faith. And of course these were explicitly didactic: this was faith and behavior to emulate.  So, whether Dr Gordon’s impulse or not — he became Dean of Chapels at Princeton for 26 years— there is a strong Martyrs as Action Heroes sensibility here:  No logic or treaties or statesmanship will end all wars, only the ability to act on the mystery of faith –even to enduring crucifixion– will shatter the faith of the oppressor.

It seems to me that a fundamental rule of narrative imagery is that that portraying great violence and great courage in overcoming it,  demands an understatement, not overstatement.  Or, regardless of the moral outcome, the visceral one is that the violence wins.

Why is graphical violence necessary?  In the memoir, Dusty, was not crucified by a Japanese camp commander, as in the movie,  but disemboweled  bushido style — so it’s not as if such violence didn’t occur. Nor is there is anything in the literature to suggest that the Japanese were other than overwhelmingly cruel in their treatment of slave work forces, and POWs.  The story teller/film maker’s task is to convey that cruelty in such a way that it will believed.  Filmed with unapologetic detail is not the way to do that.  Grisly input has nothing to do with it. In fact the opposite, as the grotesque run of “Conan the Barbarian” like films of the last decade have shown us: violence is very exciting to many, neither instructive nor conduits to empathy.

I stumbled on the movie tracking down books about WW I, the war that is universally known as The War to End All Wars. That this one is set in WW II was initially puzzling to me, though in the voice-over beginning Gordon refers to going off to fight in the second War to End all Wars. But there is more to the title than that.  To End All Wars, appears in lists of the top religious motivational films, of all time. The story is not only that religious belief was important to their survival, but that the extreme practice turning the cheek, or sacrifice for others, and learning to love my brother, are the only way To End All Wars. The shocking crucifixion of Dusty, even as the war looks certain to be over, makes the case in stark, primary Christian colors. The effect of his acceptance of his death is enough to unhinge the camp Sargent. Bushido can not hold up against Christianity. As the closing voice over tells us. “War is the final destination of hate.”

Besides the over saturated violence – two ghastly water-boardings, for example– other moments disrupted the telling of the story, and one almost swept away all my objections.

As with most war movies the intense focus is on the home-lads, those whose plight or heroism will reflect well on their people, will sell tickets. As a result, those not in the focus group are left out.  Nothing is mentioned of the romusha laborers/  !80,000 were used; 90,000 died –1/2.  Of the Allies 60,000 were used; 16,000 died slightly over 1/4.  To say this is not to diminish the horror of what the Allies went through; to not mention their co-sufferers, is.

Awkward sections disrupt.  Despite the starvation being acted, the condition of the core group of men, shirtless, in pinned together rags, could have appeared on the pages of Playgirl: a bronzed, muscular lot.  Some attempt was made to set the actual scene by means of black and white photos of the era. The men were visibly at Auschwitz levels of starvation. Maybe not much could be done about it, but it was distracting, especially in one shot when a very emaciated native scrambles for food lost in a fight between POWs.

The Japanese who were so brutal, allowed the making of musical instruments — including a full bag-pipe set!– and there was time to practice.  This did in fact happen, from the accounts of others, particularly after the rail line was completed. We are not given much in the movie to understand how accommodation might have grown between guard and prisoner, or perhaps simply benign neglect set in, both hard to imagine given the sadistic behavior for much of the film.

Large, hard bound copies of, the Bible were in the camp — perhaps, but Plato, Augustine? Again, given the evil of the camp officials, how did this happen? Where did the books come from? How protected, not only from guards, but mold, damp and insects?

The important lessons around which the movie was based of Christian forgiveness and strengthening of belief were often flagged: “OK!  Here is the important part!” Likely it was an effort to heighten the drama of the moment, against, again, the non-stop violence, but it was interruptive for me.  Gordon stands up and announces the formation of the “university,” instead of sliding into a realization that nightly gab-fests were becoming, and needed a designation, of ‘university.”

I think more tension might have been built in the small moments — hiding the Bible, having instruments destroyed, and then re-built, a showing of interest, even admiration, by some of the guards — smuggled food, for example. Negotiations and face-offs must have happened between the technically apt prisoners and their bottom-of-the barrel captors, who themselves were under constant threat of death to finish the railroad on time.

The great redeeming scene of the movie, the reason it will remain in my memory for a long time, is not because of the crucifixion, the extreme Christian lessons learned, or the grotesque violence delivered, but because of one unexpected moral act which, although in the movie context comes out of Christian teaching, in the life of the world, often does not.

In the closing minutes of the movie, the POW camp, and a neighboring Japanese Army camp have been bombed by Allied B-24s.  Captors and prisoners have been cremated while running and limbs blown off.  A truck of wounded and dying Japanese soldiers arrives at the POW camp where there is a make-shift hospital.  The camp Sergeant, a sadist of the first order, flying under bushido colors, orders the truck to turn around, at the point of a gun.  [The bushido code allows no surrender.]  At the tensest moment the young Capt Gordon steps out of POW ranks and moves towards the back of the truck to give aid to the dying men.  The Japanese Sargent threatens him with his gun;  Major Ian Campell, who had led the failed, disastrous escape attempt — and had escaped execution by Dusty’s intervention and crucifixion–   and is Gordon’s superior, orders him back into ranks.

“You are forbidden to aide and abet the enemy ”  he snaps. Gordon looks at him and says,

“These are injured and dying human-beings, Major.  They are not a threat to you.”

The camera pans over the faces of the all-but-dead men, all of whom have been savaged by their Japanese Guards for over 3 years.  There are thousands of reasons to wish the enemy in that truck to die slowly and painfully. Gordon turns his head towards the wounded men and as if visibly shouldering the cloak of the crucified Dusty, walks towards them.

“Bring me some water,” he calls.  The Scots look uncertainly back and forth; the Major seethes.  Eventually, in the best movie style, they begin to break ranks and do the  right thing.  Japanese are pulled from the truck, rags are used to wash their wounds; an impromptu triage ward is set up by those whose only medicine is what they have learned in taking care of each other.

The Sargent storms off, humiliated by the defeat his code; the Major follows for a scene that summarizes the violence of such kind of men, the contradiction of the Christian lessons learned by the others,  and at which I distract myself with silent praise of “Great Special Effects!  They’re only acting!  How did they do that?”

For Gordon, and the film makers, it is this great act of mercy from the utterly savaged towards their savagers that is proof of the Christian message; these men who were referred to, and treated as, sub-human, and who had every reason to give way to despair and accept that view as their own, did not.  Even in the Japanese Sargent’s eyes, they were the more human, in the end.

It is not exactly that, however, that struck me.  It was the act of resistance itself; the point of the arrow that allowed the mercy to be undertaken.  Or perhaps, in this case, it was the mass of the mercy behind the point, that drove the arrow through the order to desist and the threat of death to commit an act of mercy.

Gordon’s act of refusal to cooperate with evil, is one example, and at the extreme edge, of those in the world who have done so.  The most familiar stories are those of the “Righteous Among Nations,” of the Holocaust,  Raul Wallenberg and Erik Schindler foremost among them.  War Resisters, especially while at the front, most notably in England in WW I, but growing to visible, if still small in numbers, in opposition to the US war in Vietnam, faced similar challenges: refusing orders, stepping outside familiar and societal norms to Say No  –future at a halt, possible marginalization from ordinary life.  Civil Rights organizers, risking dogs, beatings, imprisonment and lynching, did it. Whistle-blowers who stand up, at great personal risk — if not of life, certainly of livelihood, and ostracization– step forward.

This is the act that grips me.

Who are these who are able to stand up, before friends and family, and in the movie the enemy with power of life and death, and Say No to great acts of evil? How are such people different from the rest of us – who all too often know something is wrong and decide, out of convenience, or fear ‘go along?’  Where does the courage come from?

And the most amazing are those, like Gordon, who do it with no social support, no one whispering Yes! Acts of resistance that are part of a larger, even if small, community of similar thought –Buddhist monks immolating themselves, Irish prisoners fasting to death, a youngster standing in front of a line of tanks– are no less brave, but somehow understandable.

It is those at the extremes,  Gordon in Burma, Roger Casement in the Congo and Peru, Aleksander Jetvik rescuing Croats in Serbia occupied Croatia (so movingly described by Eyal Press in Beautiful Souls,) that are the absolute wonder — in the sense of “I wonder?”  How does this possibility become actual — and how can it become a brighter flame in the behavior of all?