TO END ALL WARS

FOUR STARS – Profound

Hollywood has built its reputation and fortune on telling war stories, inspiring audiences with themes of heroism, patriotism, and honor. From John Wayne to Tom Hanks, our entire culture has been steeped in the history and glory of personal sacrifice by noble characters for the good of humanity. 

In "To End All Wars" (limited release in 2001, but available to rent), we witness a story of what it means to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to captors though they are perpetuating the most horrific tortures on prisoners of war. This is the story of the survivors of the 93rd Division of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders based on a true story by Ernest Gordon. Captain Gordon (Ciaran McMenamin) provides an eye-witness account of one of the most transforming simple acts of faith ever told on film.

The story of the 93rd Division is set in the jungles of Thailand where 61,000 Allied POW's were forced to build the Thailand-Burma Railway as Japanese prisoners of war. (This parallels the now well-known story of the "Bridge On The River Kwai.") Rather than focusing on the personal heroism of the soldiers, however, Gordon's biography is a simple telling of the differences in approach that we all take to our enemies, and what one man's faith led others to do. Here is the story of longtime friends and how each experienced a different response to their captors.
As in other wars in other times, the Highlanders had left their homes in Scotland with a sense of pride and honor in their sacred duty to enter World War II. Little did they know that they would be captured within weeks in 1942 after the fall of Singapore. And little did they know how the unfathomable evil of war would become so real to them. The agreements of the Geneva Convention were not recognized here, and prisoners were treated with the kind of contempt witnessed in the death camps of Nazi Germany.

Major Campbell (Robert Carlyle) wants an "eye for an eye." He exhorts his fellow prisoners to resist everything asked of them by their captors, and to use every opportunity to escape. He holds dearly to the belief that each soldier must fuel their survival by nurturing their hatred for what the enemy is doing to them.

Lt. Jim Reardon (Kiefer Sutherland) is an American Advisor from Singapore who believes that survival requires focusing on self-interest and seeking only one's own benefit. He becomes the buyer and seller of favors in order to stay alive. 

But it is Dusty Miller (Mark Strong) who makes a positive difference in everyone's lives by his simple acts of kindness, love and sacrifice. In the end, his personal faith changes everyone, including his enemies. Strife gives way in the camp when one person chooses to rise above the inhumanity and give people hope. Beginning with basic education, Dusty offers classes in Shakespeare, art and orchestra - all from his memory. Even in the midst of immense suffering, each person begins to realize growth.

It is in an act of undeserved grace, though, that we see the most profound transformation. After leading a rebellion in the camp, Major Campbell and a handful of soldiers are lined up in front of the others to each be executed by a shot in the head as a grotesque reminder to the camp of the power, hatred and resolve of the Japanese command. 

One by one the soldiers are executed. When the only remaining person is Major Campbell, the execution is interrupted by Dusty who steps forward and offers to trade his life for the Major's. The reaction by Sgt. Ito (Sakae Kimura), the Japanese commander, is stunned disbelief that someone would be willing to "lose face" for another. And for Major Campbell and the rest of the camp, including the Japanese soldiers, this act of sacrifice for someone so undeserving seems like egotistical madness.

Dusty probably doesn't expect that the high command would choose to execute him by nailing him to a cross as a mocking example to others, but he willingly pays the price. The shock and sorrow of watching Dusty's sacrifice overwhelms everyone who witnesses it. He is the best man in the camp and yet he gives it all away for someone else who has caused nothing but trouble and strife.

"What can a man give in exchange for his soul?" Captain Gordon asks this question over and over as he slowly sees the power of Dusty's act of compassion play out in the lives of others around him. What does it mean to offer redemption through self-sacrifice? (Gordon, who later immigrated to the U.S., became Dean of the Chapel at Princeton University for 26 years.)

In 2000 during the filming of this movie in Thailand, the real Captain Ernest Gordon and the real camp translator, Takashi Nagase, came together for a final act of reconciliation and forgiveness. It is shown at the end of the film as a wonderful reminder that the power of evil cannot overcome the power of forgiveness and love.

Discussion:

  1. The hope for world peace is often placed in either military power or educational objectives. The power of sacrificial love lived out on the cross comes from a very different hopeful place. Do you believe the spiritual power of the cross can actually change the world? Can it end all wars?
  2. The power of the arts to reach the soul is clearly demonstrated by Dusty's efforts to bring humanity back into the inhumane prison camps. Similar to the film "Paradise Road," in which the Christian missionary Margaret Drummon taught music to the prisoners, the power of the arts in this film also heals. Is this true for you? What are the spiritual impacts of the arts on your soul?
  3. The synergy of evil can collect in a prisoner of war camp in part because of the nationally fueled hatred during times of war. Have you ever experienced your country fueling your hatred for people of another nation or race? How did you keep yourself free from this?
  4. The decision of the Japanese commander to use the cross to ridicule Dusty's sacrificial gift only reinforced his faith and created an opportunity for faith among the others. How often do you find it true that evil actually cooperates with its own defeat?
Posted on June 1, 2011 and filed under 4 STARS, PROFOUND.