Monday, June 7, 2010

To End all Wars -- forgiveness and sacrifice

Director: David Cunningham, 2001. (R)

What must we do to end all wars? Though Cunningham's film does not answer the question directly, it does provide a picture of what is necessary. The title refers to something the main character, Capt. Ernie Gordon (Ciaran McMenamin) says in voice-over at the very start. As we see his Scottish regiment marching at home, he says he joined the army to fight in this war (WW2) to end all wars.

This is a low budget film, as is clear from the immediate cut from Scotland to Burma, showing the progression in a series of still photographs. In this way we find that the regiment has seen battle and the survivors taken captive by the Japanese. They are being transported to their new prison camp in the middle of the jungle. The story centers on their survival mechanisms and the lessons they learned during their brutal confinement.

Despite being an independent film, To End all Wars boasts some strong acting from some known actors. Robert Carlyle plays Maj. Ian Campbell, Mark Strong (Sherlock Holmes) is Dusty Miller, and Kiefer Sutherland (24) is the lone American, Lt. "Yanker" Reardon. When the leading officer, Lt. Col. Mclean (James Cosmo) is mercilessly executed on a whim, Campbell finds himself in charge. He is the authority figure, while Miller is the spiritual leader, a chaplain of sorts who creates a makeshift church.

Without being preachy or didactic, To End all Wars develops themes of self-respect, forgiveness, sacrifice and atonement in the midst of cruelty. Early on, the only medical doctor comments to Gordon, after he has been beaten by the guards, "Never look 'em in the eyes when they pass; that's pure defiance. Always look away. Rules of Bushido. . . Their kind of chivalry. Respect and obligation. If you don't respect them, they feel obligated to beat you. Nothing personal." In this POW camp environment, the Japanese eschew the Geneva Conventions but impose their own code of conduct based on respect.

More important than this "respect" of the guards, which can earn a severe beating or worse if ignored, is the self-respect that the prisoners need to survive. Despite hunger, violence and in some cases torture, the prisoners learn to survive by respecting themselves. Gordon and Miller are at the center of this. Gordon, who dreamed of being a teacher, finds himself offering classes in this "Jungle University". At first it is just philosophy, focusing on Plato's Republic, offered to a few men in less than ideal conditions. But it grows to religion and ethics, and even literature when a Shakespeare professor turns up.

We all have dignity and self-worth, even if those around us treat us like animals because they believe this to be so (as the Japanese did). Since we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) we have inherent worth, and are all equal before him, Scot or Japanese, German or American (Col. 3:11). Further, this imago dei inherent in humanity means we can learn and create. It is part of our intrinsic make-up to be curious, to want to learn and grow. Gordon tapped into this and in doing so gave the men the will to live.

When the film enters the second act, the POWs are forced to build a railroad for the Japanese as a supply line through Thailand. Indeed, this is based on a true story, where 61,000 allied prisoners were forced to build the Thailand-Burma railway. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it is. This is the same storyline as in the 1957 Oscar-winning Bridge on the River Kwai (7 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director). Both films were based on the same book, Gordon's autobiography: "Through the Valley of the Kwai" (later renamed "Miracle on the River Kwai" and subsequently renamed to be "To End all Wars"). Though the earlier film was big-budget with much better sets and action, and a memorable score,it had less compelling underlying themes.

As the harsh treatment by the Japanese escalates, Campbell and Miller migrate to two polar extremes with regard to relating to the enemy. Meanwhile Gordon falls in the middle, acting as a fulcrum on this teeter-totter. He is the protagonist, and we watch to see which end of the plank he will be attracted to. Campbell, as the official leader, wants to escape, even though there is nowhere to go. He wants to fight fire with fire, and repay the enemy with eye for an eye (Exod. 21:24). For him, this is war. And to end all wars requires greater strength and violence. Miller, on the other hand, is the spiritual leader, and calls on the prisoners to live like Jesus. He proposes the "turn the other cheek" strategy (Matt. 5:39). Both are British soldiers, but they could not be further apart.

Gordon is ultimately persuaded to the position of forgiveness. When we are hurt we must forgive. Jesus taught that there is no limit on the forgiveness we are expected to proffer (Matt. 18:21-22). Counter to our unredeemed nature, we can only do this if we are spiritually renewed (Col. 3:10). At the end of the film, Gordon reflects in voice-over once again, this time on the lessons he learned in these years. He learned to forgive his enemies and in doing so win some over.

To go one step beyond forgiveness is to offer sacrifice. Two scenes are burned into memory here. In the first, a shovel is counted missing. As the men stand in the baking sun waiting for punishment from their captors, the Japanese officer wants to know who stole it. Slowly stepping out of line, Yankers walks forward. He does not have the shovel, but he sacrifices himself for his fellow prisoners. In this act, he suffers a monumental beating that leaves him permanently disabled. He took the punishment on himself voluntarily.

The second scene goes beyond this. Where Yankers paid the price for no one in particular, as the count was inaccurate, Miller puts himself in the place of a specific person and takes on his punishment. In a tremendously barbaric act, he is crucified as Jesus was. Unlike Jesus he died and remained dead.

Both scenes point to the power of sacrifice. The second scene points to the atoning sacrifice of Christ. Rarely has a picture been so clear of crucifixion as substiutionary in nature. (Gibson's The Passion of the Christ may be the exception.) Here, Miller becomes a Christ-figure, and we realize the cost of sacrifice. This was even more true for Jesus' sacrifice. When he willingly allowed himself to be nailed to the cross, he did so not for his own sins, but for mine, for yours. He took my place. He died my death, that I might live today with him (Gal. 2:20). We cannot get to God except through the cross of Christ (Jn. 14:6). The crosses we wear around our necks are shiny and beautiful. The cross Jesus (and Miller) touched was rough and raw, an instrument of execution.

Miller ends a crucified chaplain. Campbell's heart is hardened by imprisonment; he wants revenge and jungle justice. Gordon's life is transformed by the power of the living word, his encounter with Jesus through the gospel accounts. He went on to be the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton.Three men, three different destinies.

That brings us back to the question the film forces us to consider. What must we do to end all wars? To end all wars requires forgiveness and sacrifice, two weapons more powerful than any that is man-made. But wielding these weapons takes courage and character more than most can handle. In reality, they can only be handled by those empowered by Jesus.

Copyright ©2010, Martin Baggs

1 comment:

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