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A Story Of Torture And Forgiveness That Spans A Half-Century


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In 1995, two men whose paths had crossed more than half a century before, met in Thailand: one a Scotsman, the other Japanese. In 1942, the Scotsman, Eric Lomax, had been a prisoner of war and a victim of torture. Takashi Nagase was a Japanese soldier and an English-language interpreter for the men who tortured Lomax. When they reunited, a documentary crew was there to capture an extraordinary moment of contrition and reconciliation.


TAKASHI NAGASE: May I touch your hand?

ERIC LOMAX: Oh, yes.

NAGASE: No, no. I mean, when you were tortured, you know, I measured your pulse.

SIEGEL: When you were tortured, I measured your pulse. Eric Lomax wrote about this in his book, "The Railway Man." He was a lifelong railroad enthusiast, and he and his fellow POWs were forced to work on the notorious Bangkok-to-Rangoon railroad. This was the fictionalized setting for the great David Lean movie "Bridge on the River Kwai." Well, now, "The Railway Man" is a movie, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. Here are Firth and the Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada, as Nagase.


SIEGEL: The director of "The Railway Man" is Jonathan Teplitzky, who is Australian, who joins us from New York. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: This is a story of reconciliation, the impact of which you can only understand in light of how atrociously Lomax was treated. So you had a challenge here, which is a morally uplifting film with graphic torture scenes at the heart of it. How did you approach that?

TEPLITZKY: I guess I approached it with the idea that what the story we were telling, for me, was always about the very best and the very worst of what human beings were capable of. And so I really focused on the idea of what value - and what honored the incredible place that Eric Lomax got to in reconciling with this most hated enemy that he had this incredible pent-up anger and hatred for, for many years. What was it that would best honor his ability to forgive Nagase? It was always of great balancing act to provide the audience with the context of where Eric Lomax began this journey, from being tortured by the Japanese - not going too far to make it, you know, inaccessible for an audience, but also giving them a very clear idea that what he was able to do came from a very, very difficult place, so that the audience understands what he went through, which only adds greater value to what he achieved.

SIEGEL: And you do a lot of rapid cutting between past and present, tricking us so when we cut from a torture scene in the '40s to a flash forward, Colin Firth is a much older man.

TEPLITZKY: I always found this to be a very - even though it has a great scale to it, I always found it to be a very intimate story, and so - where the past and the present, if you like, in a sense link up and inform each other. And so in many ways, in telling the story and - we juxtaposed those two timelines as much as we could.

SIEGEL: I think that "The Railway Man" is going to provoke a lot of after-movie discussion about revenge, justice and reconciliation. Lomax is very generous in his forgiveness. But Nagase was an interpreter, not a torturer. He'd had a religious conversion, become a very religious Buddhist who was devoted to reconciliation. And Japan had been defeated unlike any other country in the history of the world. So I wondered whether this story actually is one of a fairly narrow application, or whether there are implications here for so many other instances of torture and repression revisited.

TEPLITZKY: I don't set out to make a film that provides a definitive message, I guess, but to - hopefully - make a very dramatic film, one that audiences can engage with; but further to that, hopefully provoke some of those issues and discussions and questioning of the things that are still going on now. I mean, waterboarding, for example, which is what happened to Eric, you know, in 1943, is - of course, as we all well know, is still going on today. So hopefully, these questions that are raised by the film get normal people and normal audiences to sort of explore that in a more intellectual and more emotional way than perhaps just reading about it in the news.

SIEGEL: When I first was told about this movie - and it was described to me as British prisoner of war, World War II, slave labor, working on the railway between Burma and Thailand - I said, wait a minute, I've seen that movie. This is one of the great movies of all time, a movie which Eric Lomax was rather dismissive of, "Bridge on the River Kwai." He never saw such well-fed POWs, he said. I gather the actual veterans regarded this as, you know, an adventure movie.

TEPLITZKY: I think "Bridge on the River Kwai" is a great movie, and it probably reflects the time it was made as much as my film reflects the time it was made. I don't even know in 1950s, when "Bridge on the River Kwai" was made, whether there was any understanding then of post-traumatic stress disorders, for example, which is a very big part of our story and about what happened to Eric.

He went through some terrible physical treatment, but it was the lingering emotional and psychological damage that informed his life and defined his life for many, many years afterwards. And I think that it's an issue of the now, and we're beginning only just to understand the effect that when you send young men off to war, even when they're not prisoners of war, that it can only, of course, have deep psychological effect. But with our film, I hope that it tells a very specific story. It honors Eric's story, but it has its tentacles going, you know, into the here and now.

SIEGEL: "The Railway Man" is a movie. This is not a work of history, so there are exercises of dramatic license, as we would expect. And there's one that I want to ask you about. When Lomax went to Thailand in 1995, he was in his mid-70s. This is a much older man, a good 20 years older than Colin Firth either is or plays the character. Why? I realize you'd have to cast the whole thing totally differently to make a man 75. But is there something more attractive about a man in his 50s than a man in his 70s being the subject of all this?

TEPLITZKY: I don't think it's more attractive. I think what it does is in the way that the movie industry works, the way that financing works, the way that just by natural - the natural attrition of life, the pool of actors who can play, you know, mid-50s or whatever, or who can play 70s; you know, you have much more choice. You know, it was so important to find an actor who absolutely fitted into this role as well as someone like Colin.

But I think, you know, fundamentally, it doesn't matter what age the person is. The real essence of the story is - hopefully - true to what happened, which both Eric and Patti Lomax believe it to be. I mean, they were very much involved in the whole process, and read all the drafts of the script. And Eric was still alive when we were making the film.

SIEGEL: Yes. As you've said, Eric Lomax was alive when work began on this, and he was involved with it. Apart from getting the general sense of his story right, were there specific points that were important to him that be included in the film?

TEPLITZKY: (Laughter) The really specific points that were important to him were that we got the train stuff right.


TEPLITZKY: One of the things that made him most happy about the film being made was that the book was going to be re-released, and he could correct one slight mistake in the accuracy of a description of a piece of equipment on a train that is mentioned in the book.


SIEGEL: Jonathan Teplitsky, thank you very much for talking with us.

TEPLITZKY: It's a real pleasure.

SIEGEL: We're talking about Jonathan Teplitsky's movie. He's the director of "The Railway Man," with Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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