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Jungle university

A review of To End All Wars


Kiefer Sutherland, Ciarn McMenamin and Roberty Carlyle play POWs in To End All Wars.
  • Kiefer Sutherland, Ciarn McMenamin and Roberty Carlyle play POWs in To End All Wars.

To End All Wars (R)
Argyll Film Partners

Young Scot Ernest Gordon, as portrayed by Ciarn McMenamin in the World War II prison camp epic To End All Wars, joined the armed forces, "to be free."

"I reckon that's why I joined the second war to end all wars," his narrative voiceover tells us. "I stopped reading history and became a part of it." A scholar, Gordon joins Major Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) and a battalion of fellow Scots to ship out to Singapore. There, they are taken captive by Japanese forces and become prisoners of war forced to help build the Thailand-Burma railway, thus assisting the Japanese in their plans to infiltrate India. Their camp, Chungkai, is deep in the Burma-Siam jungle, near the River Kwai.

This is the basic framework of To End All Wars, a worthy entry into the pantheon of World War II horror tales. Filmed several years ago on location in Scotland, Thailand and Kauai, it was screened at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, then was shelved. A limited distribution thrust is making it available to viewers again in the next few weeks.

Gordon's is a true story; so are the excruciating and repetitive physical beatings that are exacted on Allied soldiers by their captors in the film. Joining Gordon, Campbell and their band of brothers at the jungle prison camp is American soldier Reardon, played by Kiefer Sutherland. The Scots call him Yanker, "because he was both an American and a bit of a wanker." Campbell and Reardon want to escape and they want revenge; Gordon wants to survive with his soul intact. So he organizes an impromptu liberal arts college, a nightly tutorial on Plato, Shakespeare and all the literary and philosophical traditions he can elicit to explain man's inhumanity, his will to survive, his inherent dignity, and his remarkable capacity for endurance.

Gordon's form of passive resistance is in direct conflict with Campbell's plans for a coup d'tat. Some characters make it and some don't in this brutal rendering of the hardships endured at Chungkai. By the war's end, no one has escaped the violent attacks on body and soul that crowd and bloody this film.

Gordon emigrated from Scotland to the United States following the war, and eventually became chaplain at Princeton University where he served for 26 years. He became well known for his sermons on forgiveness, and in 1963, penned his memoir Miracle on the River Kwai, on which the film is based.

Before his death in early 2002, Gordon made a historic trip to Thailand where he was reunited with one of his captors, a Japanese officer who had functioned as a translator at Chungkai. In the postwar years, Gordon's captor had become a Buddhist priest.

In a touching postlude to the film, reminiscent of but less manipulative than the graveyard scene in Saving Private Ryan, the real-life Gordon, now reliant on a cane to stand and walk, strolls among long rows of graves, while the smaller Japanese man carefully holds an umbrella over the head of his tall companion, shielding him from the hot sun. It is a bittersweet ending to a tale that is as bitter as they come. Those sensitive to graphic physical violence onscreen will spend a good deal of the film's almost two-hour running time averting their eyes. But there is no averting To End All Wars' central message of endurance and, ultimately, forgiveness. It is driven home with strong performances, some splendid camera work and an unflinching eye for the physical and emotional toll of war.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Opens Friday, May 7 for one week only at Carmike Chapel Hills. Call 594-6000 for times.

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