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 bête 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.’”