To End All Wars Movie Review
In 1942, a Scottish division is captured and taken to a Japanese labor camp in Thailand. On the train ride over, Captain Ernest Gordon (Ciarán McMenamin) narrates in voiceover such mind-blowing insights as, "When you surrender in war, you're stripped of your dignity as a soldier." Soon enough, they arrive at the camp, and before you can say "Abu Ghraib," the abuses begin. After a series of The Bridge on the River Kwai-like encounters with the camp's Sergeant Ito (Sakae Kimura), the soldiers' Colonel McLean (James Cosmo) is murdered for refusing to order his troops to build a railroad. His lieutenant, Campbell (Robert Carlyle), witnesses the act and spends the better part of the film seething and plotting revenge. On the other side of the spectrum, Yankee attaché Reardon (Kiefer Sutherland) plays the part Americans usually play in these films - commercial opportunist. À la William Holden in Stalag 17 (or Bridge, for that matter) Reardon barters his way through the camp, finally succumbing to beatings and torture when Campbell turns him in.
Somewhere in between these POW archetypes lies our protagonist, Gordon, who finds enlightenment thanks to the support of fellow inmate Dusty (Mark Strong), who encourages him to use his education to teach the other inmates. In the film's most novel turn of events, Gordon actually organizes a "Jungle University," where he instructs the other prisoners on the finer points of Plato. Other inmates sign on to teach, including a former Shakespeare professor who never misses an opportunity to quote the bard in such a way as to provide the cheesiest voiceover possible for numerous montages.
As the different paths these men take lead them on a collision course with each other, the film piles on symbolism with all the subtlety of the numerous beatings these men endure. When one soldier sacrifices his life for another, he's literally crucified. When Campbell confronts Gordon's class in search of "justice" we actually see the word "justice" on a blackboard in the background. It's enough to make you want to yell out, "Campbell! I found the justice! It's right there!"
If this weren't enough, the voiceover continually chimes in to state the obvious and tell us, just in case we weren't paying attention, what the themes are. Toward the end it lapses into a series of questions -- "Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love one's enemies?" -- that sound like they're coming from the study guide you're supposed to use when you teach this film to your Sunday School class.
Carlyle and Sutherland do as well as can be expected with mediocre dialogue. The standout performances, however, come from McMenamin, who gives his character a depth and intensity far beyond his lines, and Yugo Saso, who deftly underplays the Imperial Japanese Translator that Gordon befriends.
The story To End All Wars tells is a true one, full of all of the themes and dilemmas the voiceover constantly reminds us are at work. It's based on the actual memoirs of the real-life Captain Gordon. The sacrifices suffered by the men involved are not to be trivialized, nor is the trauma the film depicts. However, the unoriginal presentation, which often favors hitting us over the head when restraint would be far more enticing, leaves much to be desired.