Historian at the Movies: The Railway Man reviewed

As part of our Historian at the Movies series, Dr Philip Towle from the University of Cambridge, who specialises in the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs), reviews The Railway Man – a true story about a POW who sets out to find those responsible for his torture

Colin Firth in The Railway Man - Screen Australia

Q: Did you like the film?

A: This is a searing film about a group of former soldiers haunted by their suffering on the Burma railway during the Second World War. It is impressive, well-acted, and should make a new generation aware of the horrors inflicted by the Japanese army on prisoners during the conflict.

The bulk of the film is about the psychological problems suffered by the central character, Eric Lomax, and his colleagues after the war. The portrayal of the relationship between Lomax and his second wife, Patti, is touching, and closely modelled on what Lomax wrote in his memoirs. Crucially, Patti encouraged him to seek psychological help for his nightmares, isolation and rages.

Q: Is the film historically accurate?

A: I have no problems with the representation of the suffering of the prisoners of war (POWs), who were forced to build the railway from Thailand to Burma in the hope that the Japanese army there could be supplied by land. Thousands died of malnutrition, over-work and disease.

Nor do I have problems with the way in which the Japanese are portrayed – the years of schooling in which they were instilled with the idea of Emperor worship, the brutality of military training, and the ferocity of the counter-insurgency waged by the Japanese against Mao’s cadres in China all played a part in creating soldiers capable of inflicting the most terrible cruelties without flinching. Lomax’s torture, as shown in the film, was by no means unusual.

Most of the film is not, however, about the war itself, but about the post-traumatic stress disorder experienced by Lomax and his former colleagues, and the way he was able to recover by meeting his former tormenter. He abandoned his plans for revenge, and discovered a common bond in their suffering.

It is difficult to tell how many of the former POWs suffered in this way. Dozens of them wrote memoirs, but they usually ended with their release and transport back to Britain – though some do refer to their inability to describe their experiences, and the unwillingness of people back home to listen to their miseries.

Given that their suffering lasted far longer than soldiers’ experiences in recent wars, and that the POWs’ torment was arguably much greater, one might guess that many more of them were afflicted by mental problems.

But the death rate was so high on the railway that those who survived were tough in mind and body – many of them, like Lomax, lived to a great age. They were kept going on the railway partly through hatred – 'Banzai You Bastards', to use the title of one memoir – but the hatred that was helpful to them in wartime could, as Lomax admitted, be self-destructive afterwards.

POWs I met did not resemble the silent, traumatised group shown in this film – they appeared to be coping well, and had successful careers.

Q: What did it miss?

A: The film did not show the even greater sufferings of the thousands of Malayan Indians tricked into going to work on the railway. It compressed the war so that it appeared as if the prisoners were rescued from the railway itself by the arrival of allied forces after the Japanese surrender.

In fact, the railway had been completed, as much as it was ever going to be, and the main dangers to the POWs came from starvation and disease, Allied bombing and the looming threat that all would be murdered by the Japanese at the end of the war.

Lomax’s psychological treatment after the war benefited from the Medical Foundation for the Care of the Victims of Torture (not mentioned in the film), which gave him the opportunity to talk about his difficulties at length and for the first time. His autobiography shows that this prepared him for his meeting with one of his tormenters, and encouraged him to seek some sort of closure.

On the other hand, to build up suspense, the film suggests that he went to the encounter determined on vengeance, and it was the meeting alone which led him to change his mind. The film also suggests that his tormenter was not expecting to meet Lomax, whereas in reality correspondence had prepared him for it.

How many stars would you award the film?

For enjoyment: *****
For historical accuracy: ***

This is not really a film to ‘enjoy’. The warning at the beginning suggests that it contains scenes of ‘moderate violence’ and torture. The violence is graphic, but anything less would be historically inaccurate, and the film’s impact is great.

Its depiction of the war is fair enough, but the impression it gives of the postwar behaviour of former POWs of the Japanese is too generalised, and the crucial meeting between victim and perpetrator was fundamentally changed for dramatic effect.

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