A Kwai Education
Ernest Gordon (CiarĂ¡n McMenamin) is one of the men of the Argyle Highlanders who is captured by the Japanese and thrown into a POW of camp. There they discover a whole collection of rules which they must live by as they are forced to help build a railroad running through Thailand. Whilst for some the natural thing to do is rebel and try to escape others must find a way to maintain some sense of who they are as they deal with it being worn away every single day in the hellish situation they have to live in where months blend in to each other and you have a permanent hunger in your belly.
2001 and actors Robert Carlyle, Kiefer Sutherland and Mark Strong all had been in major movies, had box office success and they were appearing in a second world war prisoner of war movie based on the memoirs of Ernest Gordon. That leads me to the question why not only are there so few reviews for this movie but why when I saw it on the TV schedule it was being shown on a lesser channels late at night when fewer people are likely to catch it. Having watched "To End All Wars" I know the answer and it is a shame, but I will get to the answer in a bit.
Now for those who know their movies will have spotted a basic similarity to David Lean's "The Bridge on the River Kwai" and Ernest Gordon's memoirs were the basis for the better known movie. As such we have that basic story of the men building the railway line but we also have the familiar aspect of being a prisoner of war movie so we have the brutal treatment, the character who is hell bent on doing his own thing and so on. In truth you expect nothing less than some familiarity and this is counter balanced by what makes "To End All Wars" as it is a look at how each of the individuals went about surviving time with many seeking to further their education whilst there to maintain their sense of self worth. We also see how some self sacrifice themselves for others which adds another aspect to the movie generally not see in POW movies.
Now all of the above is just great and up to a point "To End All Wars" is very effective but it makes one major mistake it doesn't establish characters. Instead of introducing us to the individual characters it throws us in at the deep end and relying on are fondness for an actor and the punishment we witness to cause an emotional response. As such when James Cosmo gets water boarded we know nothing about his character at the time but we are meant to sympathise with him because of who the actor is. It is the same later on when we witness Kiefer Sutherland taking a huge beating as it is not the character we feel for but the actor.
What this all boils down to is that "To End All Wars" has a lot going for it and is an interesting take on a prisoner of war movie, focusing on what kept the men going. But because it doesn't allow us to get to know the characters first it has issues as to how we connect to them.