Last night I saw a movie I’ve been wanting to see for a while – the film version of Eric Lomax’s autobiography, The Railway Man. The film tells of Eric meeting his future wife Patricia on a train going up to Scotland. A few days later he engineers another meeting with her and it’s not long before they have fallen in love, married and begun a new life together. But Patricia is in for a shock. Eric has deep psychological problems, fallout from his past. At times he wakes up writhing and screaming, at other times he is distant and angry. Eventually Patricia seeks out his long-time friend Finlay, and she presses him for the truth. What happened to Eric? Finlay begins to tell her about their experiences during the second world war. They were soldiers in Singapore, radio operators, when the country fell to the Japanese and they were captured and forced to work as slave labour on the appalling ‘Death Railway’.
I started watching this film with something of an agenda. I have already seen other films and read books about those who worked on the Burma-Siam railway. I knew that one soldier died for every sleeper laid. There was unbelievable brutality and barbaric malnutrition. The soldiers became walking skeletons, forced to work under the hot sun and the beatings of the guards. They were broken men. And many thousands died. But many survived too. They came home, but like Eric, found it difficult to tell their stories. I have been particularly interested in this story because an uncle of mine worked on that railway. And so, as I watched the scenes playing out on that screen I thought of the reality being portrayed. This wasn’t just powerful because it was Eric’s story. It was my uncle’s story too. Afterwards, talking to a friend about this, I realised how much the film had moved me.
Sometimes stories fly in the face of contemporary culture. And thank God they do. We live in a blame nation, or at least, you might believe so listening to the news some days. Ultimately The Railway Man is a true story of forgiveness against terrible odds. Forgiveness that turned two men’s lives around. It wasn’t deserved, it wasn’t planned that way. But ultimately, as Eric says in the film, ‘Some time the hating has to stop.’ It’s easy for folks like me to say or write about this of course. Forgiveness is the hardest thing. And we haven’t lived the lives of others.
I think not only of Eric’s account, but of the story of two men in another true story from the Death Railway. Miracle on the River Kwai is the true story of Ernest Gordon, who became a Christian after his experiences on the Death Railway, and because of the example of a Christian prisoner in his camp. (A few years ago it was the basis for a film called To End All Wars.)
And I think of my uncle, who was a devout Christian in spite of the terrible experiences he had lived through. And who prayed for the rest of his family every night.