Monday, 17 February 2014

Anwar Brett

I didn't realise, till watching the BAFTAs last night, that a film journalist colleague of mine, Anwar Brett, had recently passed away. Anwar was a fixture of the junket/press conference scene and chaired quite a few Q&As. A real old-school film lover, he was a regarded critic for local and national press. I didn't know him well but he was super-friendly and a genuinely nice chap. I had no idea he was ill. I thought the BAFTA mention — up there among the Hollywood A-listers — was a classy touch.

Friday, 7 February 2014

Mission Impossible

Lone Survivor, the tale of outgunned Americans on the run in Afghanistan, is now a hit film. Culture meets the one who got away
Jeff Dawson Sunday Times Culture, 26 January 2014

In Marcus Luttrell’s 2007 bestseller, Lone Survivor, an account of his time as a US Navy Seal in Afghanistan, the author makes no bones over what held the biggest fear for him — not the Taliban, not death, but “the liberal media back in the USA”.

On the fateful day of June 28, 2005, Luttrell had been dropped into the Hindu Kush mountains as part of a four-man reconnaissance squad, its mission — Operation Red Wings — to confirm the presence of Ahmad Shah, an al-Qaeda big-beard reportedly holed up in a remote Taliban camp. While on stakeout, high on the frosty slopes, the Seals were stumbled upon by a trio of unarmed goatherds supplying the encampment. Knowing that these men would probably reveal their position, they took them captive and kicked around the moral conundrum.
“The military decision was clear,” Luttrell says. “These guys could not leave there alive.” Yet it wasn’t the Geneva Convention that prompted the Seals to turn the men loose, it was how “termination” might play on CNN. “I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many years in a civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.”
The Seals knew they had signed their death warrant. Sure enough, the goatherds bounded down to alert the Taliban. Outnumbered 10 to 1 by hardened, AK-47-toting insurgents, the Seals were engaged in a firefight to the bitter end. Petty Officer Luttrell has a message for the powers that be: “If you don’t want to get into a war where things go wrong, where the wrong people sometimes get killed, then stay the hell out of it in the first place.”
In the flesh, this farm boy from Texas is not what you expect of a decorated American war hero: a big, lumbering chap with an off-duty goatee, rumpled hair and full-sleeve tattoos snaking down from under his sports T-shirt. He wears shapeless old jeans and battered trainers. As he shuffles into the chichi New York hotel room, he fixes you with dark, cautious eyes, the polite yes-sirs and Bible Belt reserve incongruous in Manhattan. As if to ease his discomfort, he has brought along his golden labrador, Mr Rigby.
Luttrell backtracks a bit on the book’s rhetoric. It’s been misinterpreted. “I’m not a political person. I’m a middle-of-the-road kind of guy,” he insists. It’s just, once politicians have ceded a situation to the military, they should “step out of the way and let us do our job”.
That Luttrell is here is a miracle. Shot numerous times, with a broken pelvis and vertebrae, and shrapnel wounds to his legs, he tumbled down a mountainside, acquainting himself with every conifer and rock en route. Three hours later, already assumed dead by his superiors, he packed dirt into his wounds to stem the bleeding, crawled seven miles to a stream and waited for the Taliban and a videotaped blade to the neck.
Mercifully, he was discovered by Pashtun tribesmen, including Mohammad Gulab, the local police chief and son of the village elder. Under the ancient code of lokhay, the Pashtun were compelled to take in a wounded warrior of any persuasion, no matter that it would — and did — bring the wrath of the Taliban upon them. Six days on, shunted around hiding places, Luttrell was sneaked to US Army Rangers.
For his bravery, he was awarded the Navy Cross, as were, posthumously, his colleagues Danny Dietz and Matt Axelson. His ranking officer and best pal, Mike Murphy, earned a posthumous Medal of Honor, the highest US military decoration. Luttrell’s gong hangs heavily. A Chinook helicopter with 16 backup troops had been downed by a rocket-propelled grenade, killing all on board, which made Operation Red Wings one of America's worst special-ops disasters since the Second World War. Luttrell’s book was his tribute to the fallen.
To the memorial, you can add the film version. Directed and written by Peter Berg, Lone Survivor stars Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell and Taylor Kitsch as Murphy. “They did a good job of capturing the essence of what went down on the mountain that day,” Luttrell says, though he stresses that some of what happened is still classified. But what possessed him to get into bed with Hollywood?
It turns out Berg had earned his stripes, embedding himself with a Seals platoon in Iraq for a month, doing all the necessary spadework, much as he had done for his previous war-on-terror flick, The Kingdom. Knowing the families were all going to see this film, we wanted to get it right,” Berg says. “These men go and fight because they’re told to by people they don’t know in Washington DC or Nato or the UN, and we don’t really have an opportunity to understand what that means. We need to honour not only the men who died, but the seriousness of sending men to war.”
Lone Survivor has been a runaway hit in the US. In its backs-against-the-wall action, bullets don’t eviscerate, but sting and zap like a plague of incendiary mosquitos, death by a thousand titanium-tipped cuts.
Berg has done away with the first half of the book and cut to the action, as the Seals crawl through the spectacular verdant slopes of the Hindu Kush (actually New Mexico). From the ominous vibe that descends to the satellite phone not working and their only means of summoning rescue being an ordinary mobile phone, you know it ain’t good. Crucially and fatally, that phone call can only be made from exposed high ground (for which Murphy sacrificed himself). With the encircling foe taking pops at will, the film has the feel of an old-fashioned western — as Luttrell puts it, “Little Bighorn with turbans”.
He returned to service, but was eventually invalided out. It’s no secret that he found civilian life a struggle. (He has a twin brother who is still a Seal.) When Berg met him, he was a classic example of survivor’s guilt, wallowing at home, his house a shrine to his brethren. He’s married now, happy, with three kids. “I lost my team-mates, families lost a son — but the way we look at it is, they died a good death, a soldier’s death, and you can’t ask for anything more honourable than that.”
That other hero, Gulab, who told the Taliban where to stick it, has visited the Luttrell ranch near Houston. Back home, though, his family has been forced into hiding. Eight years on, Luttrell is still trying to secure him a green card. 

Builder of Bridges

The Railway Man — The moving true story of a British POW on the Death Railway who forgave his torturer is now a film. Our critic on the impact it is having in Japan

Jeff Dawson Sunday Times Culture22 December 2013
In the late Eric Lomax’s The Railway Man, his harrowing memoir of his time as a Japanese POW, the revelatory detail comes not amid the catalogue of inhumanity, but on his return to civvy street. As he resumes his desk job at the Edinburgh General Post Office, Lomax is handed the very same file he had been working on in 1939, before enlistment. “Time had stopped in this fusty government office,” he recounts, “while for me it had accelerated beyond reason.” And, thanks to a snafu over his demob date, Lt Lomax of the Royal Signals had reported for work a day late, bringing an official reprimand and docked wages — a “stain on my character”, he grumbled, that irked him till his dying day.
For Far East POW veterans, there was no Pomp and Circumstance. Shipped back after the V-J Day bunting had been binned, they arrived in a Britain neither conversant with the horrors of internment nor willing to let ignominious defeats such as the fall of Singapore (of which Lomax had been part) skew the triumphal narrative. In the days before post-traumatic stress disorder was a recognised medical condition, they were expected to suffer in silence; to step out of living hells and back into sedate old lives; to bottle it up and “get on with it”.
Lomax’s war had been particularly savage. One of 80,000 Allied troops captured in February 1942, he was transported up the Malayan peninsula to slave on the infamous Burma “Death Railway”. At Kanchanaburi, Thailand, he was caught in possession of a forbidden homemade radio, which he had built to pick up morale-boosting news on All India Radio. It was construed by his paranoid captors to be an instrument for rousing local insurgents, and Lomax was hauled off by the Kempeitai secret police. Over several days, he was tortured and beaten nearly to death.
While his bones eventually mended, his mind never did. As the decades wore on, friends saw only an avuncular man, an orderly Robert Donat lookalike with a passion for steam trains — writ large in the irony of his book’s title. But, privately, Lomax was living a nightmare, his sleep plagued with terrors, his waking hours indulging a revenge fantasy. It was directed not against the thugs who had brutalised him, but at the spindly young interpreter, his interrogator — “For his smug, virtuous complicity,” Lomax seethed. “He was centre stage in my memories; my private obsession... He stood in for all the worst horrors.”
Lomax was unable to speak of his torment, and his mental state cost him one marriage and was proving problematic for Patti, his second wife, whom he met in 1980. With her husband at rock bottom, she seized the initiative. Using information gleaned from his service colleagues, she learnt that Eric’s bĂȘte noire was named Nagase Takashi, and that he was still alive, but frail, and living in Kurashiki. She contacted Nagase and did the unthinkable: arranged a meeting between her husband and the man responsible for his 50 years of suffering. What resulted became the source of an unexpected bestseller; not a confrontation, but a cathartic and moving act of forgiveness on the part of Eric.
Next month sees the release of a new film version of Lomax’s story. An Anglo-Australian co-production, directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, it stars Nicole Kidman as Patti and Colin Firth and Jeremy Irvine respectively as the older and younger Eric. The story flashes between the bright, steaming jungles of Southeast Asia and the Lomaxes’ home on the grey, storm-lashed coast at Berwick- upon-Tweed, where Patti still lives.
As a full-time nurse to Eric in his final years (he died in October 2012, aged 93, after a long degenerative illness), Patti — a sprightly, engaging 76 — admits she was not up to speed with her film stars. Her introductory clip of Firth emerging from the lake in Pride and Prejudice merely rekindled a memory of when her son “fell in the garden pond”. Yet over the 12 years it took to put the movie together, both the film-makers and actors spent a lot of time with the Lomaxes, making this an officially endorsed version of events.
“I thought we’d bought the rights to a book, but we found we’d become involved in the life of a man — we were on a bit of journey with him, really,” says the screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce. “There are not just Erics who came back from Burma, but Erics who came back from Iraq. Every conflict has its Erics. One of the oldest pieces of writing about war is The Odyssey. When it comes down to it, you don’t go straight home from a war, it takes you 10 years and you have to fight loads of monsters.”
This is not the first version of the story to go before the cameras. Nagase was portrayed in the 2001 prison camp film To End All Wars. Indeed, the meeting between Lomax and Nagase at Kanchanaburi was filmed by the BBC, and became the subject of the 1995 documentary Enemy, My Friend?
It was followed soon after by a television drama, Prisoners in Time, starring John Hurt and scripted by the lauded Chilean dramatist Ariel Dorfman, whose Death and the Maiden also deals with a victim confronting a torturer. Patti was not a fan of the TV film. “Oh, that was rubbish.” She hopes the new version will not only paint a more complete picture of Eric’s plight, but provide counterbalance to other misleading dramas about Japanese POWs, most notably David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai, an acclaimed movie but entirely fictitious and despised by former internees, not least for its portrayed collaboration between officers and gaolers.
Lean, though, does get a nod in The Railway Man, when Patti and Eric, middle-aged divorcees, meet Brief Encounter-style in a first-class compartment on the Crewe-Glasgow express, with Patti shown making the moves, rather than the other way round. “I said, ‘You’re making me look like a tart,’” she laughs.
Fans of the book may be surprised at her central role. She’s hardly in the book, not making an entrance until the last 50 pages. “It felt to us that Patti was a much, much bigger part of the story,” says the producer/co-writer Andy Paterson, who had worked with Boyce on the biopic Hilary and Jackie. Also, he points out, there was a fundamental dramatic problem “dealing with a story in which the principal character would not talk”.
There are the other inevitable changes, the time compressions and character amalgamations that come with book-to-screen adaptations. The most significant departure from reality is in the showdown between Lomax and Nagase — set up in the movie as an ambush of the unsuspecting Japanese (played by Hiroyuki Sanada), whereas the TV-brokered reunion came about after a long period of counselling of Eric by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, and two years of correspondence in which the Lomaxes had built up a fuller picture of Nagase and his postwar life.
The torturer had, it turned out, been equally haunted by his actions, swearing to dedicate the rest of his life to the railway’s 100,000 victims. After working with the War Graves Commission, he had opened a Buddhist temple at Kanchanaburi and set up a charity for the railway’s forgotten victims, the local Asian labourers.
He was still not penitent enough for Patti, who had read his 1990 book, Crosses and Tigers, in which he remarked that he felt a moment of spiritual exoneration for his part in the torture of a young British officer — unnamed but quite clearly, by description, Lomax. “I just thought this was absolutely shocking, this horrible little Japanese man saying he felt forgiven,” she says. The only person who could do that was Eric.
Nagase’s speedy reply to her opening letter was a watershed moment for the Lomaxes. “He wrote back very quickly. I couldn’t pick the letter up — I saw it on the doormat, it just looked so dirty to me,” she remembers. But the poetry of it shook them. “I think having received such a letter from you is my destiny... the dagger of your letter thrusted me into my heart to the bottom.” As Eric put it: “Anger drained away; in its place came a welling of compassion.”
In March 1993, the men met at the bridge on the “River Khwae” (such is the tourist value of Lean’s film, the Thai government renamed the Mae Klong river in its honour), accompanied by their wives. Lomax towered over his birdlike opposite number. “He began a formal bow, his face working and agitated,” he recalled. “He looked up at me, he was trembling, in tears, saying over and over, ‘I am very, very sorry.’” And thus did Lomax give him his absolution.
Nagase died in 2011. Patti says the relationship with his family never continued. “I believe they’re not interested.” Recently, when Teplitzky screened his film at the Tokyo film festival, he was warned it might ruffle a few feathers. It didn’t. “In fact, I spoke to a hundred people after the screening,” he says, “and every single one of them said, ‘Thank you for bringing this story to Japan, because none of us know or have ever heard about the Death Railway.’ That’s the more defining thing: these chapters of history have never been taught in Japanese schools.” The film is now going out on twice as many screens in Japan as was intended. Despite his involvement throughout, Eric died just months before the film was completed. While it was being shot in Berwick, however, he defied doctor’s orders to visit the set, the crew carrying his wheelchair out to the location. “That really was Eric’s premiere,” Patti says. He would not have wanted to have seen the completed film anyway, she adds. “He felt it would renew bad memories.”
On that day in 1993, walking around the Kanchanaburi war cemetery alongside the Nagases, Patti had asked Eric whether they were being disloyal to all those young men beneath the soil. His response is repeated in both the last line of his book and in the inscription that now adorns his headstone. “It was burned in my mind. He said, ‘Patti, some time the hating has to stop.’”