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.
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Swinton herself is an ex-boarding school pupil.