The Railway Man: The Long Shadow of Past Grievances

July 9, 2014

War films generally cover both war and history and can on occasion be very informative (think Letters from Iwo Jima) on both; however, what war films rarely do — and even rarer still do well — is discuss the relationship between war and history. Jonathan Teplitzky’s The Railway Man performs that feat masterfully and in doing so reminds us of a simple fact about human conflict often forgotten amongst those who study it: treaties end wars on battlefields but not in the minds of the men who fought them. Our repeated efforts to end wars via treaty are laudable and necessary, and bringing two or more sides — previously in conflict — together to establish and implement a mutually agreed upon peace process is very difficult. That being said, the simple reality is that nations and organizations do not fight wars, people do. And the most enduring legacies of wars are the scars they leave in those people’s minds; ghosts of past slights that trap people in their own histories and make future conflict more likely.

The Railway Man is based on a book with the same title by Eric Lomax and tells the story of Lomax’s life after the conclusion of World War II. The movie begins with a calm and quiet Lomax (Colin Firth) sitting in the corner of the room at the veterans club. Lomax, who the movie takes great pains to paint as a quiet and reserved man, announces to the other men sitting in the room that he has a problem they might find interesting. He then recounts how while on the train back from a book auction he met a woman named Patti (Nicole Kidman) that he is now in love with; before storming out of the room and back to the train station to engineer a “coincidental” encounter with Patti. Their ensuing courtship blossoms to marriage which appears, at the onset, to be a happy one.

Patti soon finds out that being married to Lomax is far from easy. He has nightmares, sudden shifts of moods, and manages crucial life tasks like paying the bills on time poorly. Deducing that his troubles are related to his experiences in the war, she seeks help from Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), an old war buddy of Lomax’s and fellow regular at the veterans club. Finlay proceeds to recount Lomax’s experiences during the war. The two had been captured by the Japanese after they surrendered in Singapore, and transported to south-east Thailand to build the Burma Railway. While the brutality of the project is only hinted at in the movie, the Burma Railway was also known as the “Death Railway” because of the more than one hundred thousand Asian civilians and western POWs who died as a direct result of their forced participation in its construction.

While in captivity, Lomax is tortured by Takeshi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada). Lomax has never gotten over his past and neither have his brothers in arms. When Finlay finds out that Nagase is still alive and working as a tour guide at the site of the Death Railway, he informs Lomax with the expectation that the once powerless tortured ex-solider will want to seek revenge. Lomax is initially reluctant. Finlay responds by describing himself and the other veterans as an army of ghosts miming at the choir; incapable of love, life, or even sleep.

In their anger, Lomax and his comrades bring to mind a quote from James Baldwin’s essay Stranger in the Village wherein he surmises history and the shadow it casts over the present by saying: “Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” Lomax and his confederates are in precisely that situation: the history that captivates them is not pleasant but they are none the less enthralled by it. When he finally confronts Nagase, Lomax tearfully admits that he is still at war, what he seems to implicitly realize is that his captivity in the horrible past prevents him from a happy future with Patti.

Baldwin argues that this historical entrapment is the product of rage; specifically “the rage of the disesteemed” – a rage so deep it confounds even the people whose actions are motivated by it. It is a rage beyond the grip of reason and argumentation that moves people to create a history and be motivated by it. Lomax has something of Baldwin’s rage. He has buried his history in an attempt to control it but gained nothing but personal confusion for his efforts. And it is in this rage and its ineffability that The Railway Man reminds us that wars sometimes never end until decades after their official treaty or historical end date even though they might seem to.

We are invited to search for this historical backdrop in modern conflicts. The rage-induced prison of history is clear to see in various conflicts around the world today, but to make the point the case of modern day Iraq would be sufficient. All the actors and potential actors in Iraq are trapped in their own and unique historical anger and memory of war. Nouri Al Maliki, the embattled prime minster is trapped in the history of Shiite oppression under the Sunni Saddam Hussein regime. The Sunni tribes of western Iraq are trapped in the bitter memories of their recent political exclusion, as well as the fears of a recreated sectarian order with them at the bottom. ISIS (who exist in a very angry historical prison of their own. Take note of their constant references to the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement) didn’t start the conflict in Iraq. Both Sunni’s and Shiites are in many ways like Lomax are still fighting the Iraqi civil war of 2006. ISIS merely found a tinder box and set it alight. This is not to say that power, money, ideology, and pragmatic opportunism are not all at play in the conflict as well; it is merely to argue that they play on the field of history littered as it by the anger of a thousand past grievances. The point could just as easily be highlighted by talking about Yugoslavia, where four vicious years of conflict ended with the Dayton accords , which while they succeeded in keeping the peace in Bosnia failed to prevent Milosevic’s sectarian entrepreneurialism from striking elsewhere in Kosovo. Which just like Bosnia used to be part of Serb dominated Yugoslavia, a history Kosovars wanted to escape and Serbs were desperately trying to hold on to.

The irony is that the actors in Iraq share two other characteristics with Lomax: they are both aware of and incapable of accessing their rage, and their historical entrapment is keeping them for actualizing the steps necessary for a collectively brighter future. Nor can intercession by a third party help. Patti whom on some level Lomax appears to genuinely love tries to explain the irrationality in this to Lomax and fails utterly. So what then is panacea to this angry historical entrapment? Baldwin recommends a mutual recognition of humanity (though in fairness he is discussing race and not war); The Railway Man recommends truth and reconciliation but I counsel patience. Talk of post war military interventions by people who aren’t party to the conflict ignores the central lesson that The Railway Man has to offer: the history of war and the prison of rage it constructs can only be breached from the inside.


Yahya Gahnoog holds an M.A in Anthropology and is very interested in the middle east and political violence, as well as films on those subjects.


Photo credit: Andrew Morrell