Tuesday, June 15, 2004
TO END ALL WARS (2001, USA, David L. Cunningham, Brian Godawa screenplay from Ernest Gordon book
TO END ALL WARS is a film with something to say. Which turns out to be its great strength, as well as its greatest weakness.
I should have loved this film – it's about self-sacrificing heroism in the face of impossible circumstances, the power of forgiveness over hatred, the futile tragedy of war and God's way of peace in the midst of it. And I was pulling for it – ever since reading the glowing article in Books & Culture a couple summers ago, then hearing of the film-makers' travails trying to get it onto big screens or into video stores, I've been wanting this project to succeed.
The premise is a great one, and the story true, inspired by Ernest Gordon's auto-biographical Miracle On The River Kwai. It comes out of the same brutal prisoner of war camps that gave us the deeply affecting BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI. The Japanese are striving to build a strategic railroad link to India, and they are willing to sacrifice their prisoners to build it on an impossible schedule. How will these men stay alive in such extreme and hopeless conditions?
The men begin a secretive "jungle university," teaching one another whatever they know best: the philosophy of Plato, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the radical teachings of Jesus. In so doing, they discover purpose and hope. Screenwriter Brian Godawa draws out the deepest of Christian truths in this horrific but anything-but-God-forsaken setting. There is a spiritual maturity here that very few films achieve. When a man like Ernest Gordon – who survived the camps and went on to serve as chaplain at Princeton University for a quarter century – speaks of the faith, his experience gives him immense authority, and Godawa brings a passion and wisdom to the task of rendering these truths into cinema that is in turn inspiring.
Unfortunately, it may be his very eagerness to convey these insights that undermines the effectiveness of the story he seeks to tell.
In his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, Brian Godawa insists that every film is, fundamentally, an embodiment of a philosophy, and that what Christians who watch films should really be watching – or watching out for – are the underlying worldviews. It almost feels as though he sees a movie as a bottle, and what really counts is the message inside: we need to smash the bottle, sift through the broken glass and dig out the message concealed inside so we can decide whether it's Christian or not.
TO END ALL WARS doesn't require much sifting or digging – the worldview is front and center, displayed in the way he fashions his characters and spelled out in an ever-present voice-over. The film-makers don't want this picture to be described as "a Christian film," but for all its strong language and refusal to solve every problem with a conversion, I'm afraid it still feels like propaganda. That's the real problem with "Christian films" – their preaching. Worse swearing and better theology and production values only provide a higher-quality varnish on what is, after all, still a pulpit. TO END ALL WARS doesn't hand us pat answers, but it hands us answers nonetheless, or at least theme statements, in a way that leaves little room for ambiguity or mystery.
This message-first approach results in a film that is far too easily reduced to a tidy character chart. We realize early on that Campbell embodies The Loyal-But-Driven Military Man, Dusty is the personification of Compassionate Self-Sacrifice, Ernest will have to choose between their two worldviews, and Reardon ("Yanker") will serve as the central character's irascible foil – and there just aren't enough surprises in the journeys of those emblematic central characters to create real interest.
Compare the baffling, but utterly convincing, character reversals in David Lean's KWAI movie, and the agonizing moral complexities that emerge – not to mention the way we are drawn into the story. The KWAI screenwriters don't explain how people ought to be, so much as observe how they are, in all their mystery and complexity. TO END ALL WARS deals with deeper truths, but it tells too much and shows too little.
Still, there is much to praise. I liked all the performances here, testimony not only to the actors but to the director who inspires such consistently good work from his entire cast. Mark Strong is the Christlike Dusty: trained at the Bristol Old Vic and seasoned in productions at the RSC and the Royal National Theatre, he fills even his silences with such a tremendous sense of presence and calm it's hard to imagine another actor in the role. Kiefer Sutherland gets the most unpredictable and dynamic role as the self-interested American whose true allegiance is often in doubt, and he plays him with an opaque changeability that keeps us guessing, providing much of the story's dramatic interest. I was particularly struck by Yugo Saso, who plays the interpreter with tangible compassion and intelligence.
I wanted to like this film more than I was able to. I applaud its sentiments, cheer its substantial theology – suffering before glory, cross before crown – and admire the persistence it's taken to get this labor of love to the audience it deserves. But it's not a story I should have had to stand outside of – not when the film's preoccupations are so close to my heart.
Should you rent TO END ALL WARS? Absolutely – it's far more worthwhile than 90% of the commercial product you'll find lining the walls of your local video store. Am I glad I saw it? Certainly – this is an important story, well worth telling, and I intend to watch it again. Its message of costly sacrifice and hard-won reconciliation is at the heart of the gospel, and the fact that this story is drawn from actual events demands attention. If only the film-makers had stuck to telling the story, and let the message take care of itself. If only they believed that dramatic action can speak louder than words.
PS Lots of people like this movie better than I did. There's a very good Books & Culture article that redresses the balance.
Available at Videomatica
Originally published at Christianity Today Movies
I didn't much care for this one. But since that's a minority opinion among Christian cinephiles, here's a word or two from the other side...
To End All Christian Films
A movie that takes evil seriously.
Books & Culture, July/August 2002, Vol. 8, No. 4, Page 6
Can a Christian film use the "f" word? Well, that's one question. But it begs another: what, exactly, is a Christian film? By my lights, it has become all too fashionable for sophisticated Christians to sneer at Christian artistic efforts. And yet, just between us evangelical chickens: how have things gotten to where reasonable folks will sneer at the mere mention of the phrase "Christian art," as if the juxtaposition of the words were somehow inherently cackle-inducing?
The movie that prompts these questions is To End All Wars, a powerful film that tells the absolutely harrowing tale of a group of Allied POWs conscripted by the Japanese to build the Burma-Siam railway during World War II. Based on a true story told by Ernest Gordon in his book, In the Valley of the Kwai, this movie is bloody, violent, and profound, portraying a raw, full-throated Christianity of the sort that hasn't been much in evidence since, say, Dostoesvsky. It is emphatically not the cinematic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
As the story goes, Gordon, played with an inner luminosity by Ciarán McMenamin, is a 24-year-old captain of the 93rd Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a decidedly Scottish outfit. Their commander is Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Mclean, played by the extraordinary James Cosmo. In anything Cosmo does he practically bursts out of the screen into a theater near you. He is the sort of sixtysomething tough- guy who might eat Jack Palance and Sean Connery for breakfast with kippers.
When Mclean and the 93rd are captured, they quickly realize that their Japanese captors will accord the Geneva Convention the same respect they accord Marquis of Queensbury Rules. When Major Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) receives a brutal beating, Mclean explodes in protest and is promptly brutalized himself. Afterward, the bleeding Mclean croaks his plan to his "good boys": they will make their escape as soon as he has healed. But some weeks later, after another impolitic outburst, the great man is killed by his captors, and the futility of escape from this isolated hell becomes quite clear.
Later, Gordon himself is savagely beaten for forgetting to bow to a guard, and is sent to the prison "hospital," known as the Death House, a miserable roach motel wherefrom none return. But a Christian POW, Dusty Miller (Mark Strong), attends to Gordon, giving him his own meager rations and quite miraculously saving his life. Soon thereafter one of the other POWs, knowing Gordon had planned to become a teacher, asks him about the meaning of all their sufferings. Gordon, still smarting from his time in the Death House, isn't interested in answering philosophical questions just yet. But Miller prods him to engage the man, to try answering these questions. "When a man loses hope," says Miller, "he dies."
So Gordon decides to start what he calls a jungle university. There, amid the ghastly stench of the Death House, where the Japanese will not bother them, Gordon kindles hope and life. He begins to teach a few willing pupils, starting with Plato's idea of justice. It is at once completely absurd and quintessentially, achingly human, this handful of broken POWs stirring in their tomb, in their Platonic cave, if you will. But they will not stay here for long studying the shadows within, for Sunday is a-comin', if I may mix Platonic and Christian metaphors (it's been done before). The pathetic group of them there inevitably evoke various archetypal images, from the Fiat Lux of Genesis to the light coming into the world in John's Gospel to Jesus' resurrection. In this cradle and crucible, meaning meets meaninglessness and throttles it, and Life says to Death, be thou removed.
Soon the lessons expand beyond Plato. Another prisoner teaches Shakespeare, and another teaches the men how to play music on instruments that they themselves have fashioned. It is moving and fanciful, and it all happened.
The fatally embittered Major Campbell will have none of this treacle. When he sees that the classes are giving the men another hope besides escape, he despicably tells the Japanese about the school, and they break it up. All the books, a Bible among them, are confiscated.
But Gordon and Miller don't pay Campbell back for his vicious betrayal. They somehow manage to love him, thereby heaping hot coals upon his head. It is to the film's inestimable credit that it can portray Christian love palpably and effectively. But this is only possible because it has portrayed evil effectively first.
We live in a culture where actual evil is almost never portrayed except to give us a frisson of something amid the nothingness, where it is still believed not to exist at all—pious 9/11 caveats notwithstanding—and where the bumpersticker aphorism, "Mean People Suck," is about as out-on-a-limb as most folks are willing to go in that judgmental direction. The innocents who cling to this attenuated version of what the Spanish call realidad would do well to sit through this movie, because the evil level in it is about two-and-a-quarter headspins shy of The Exorcist—and it is all the more affecting, because these horrors are not sensationalistic spookhouse shenanigans but solid, documented, historical facts.
And yet there is something literally demonic in the cruelty and inhumanity of the Japanese soldiers here depicted. Their code of Bushido—a hypermoralistic worldview that is unspeakably racist, unspeakably cruel, and utterly power-worshiping—is what gives the contrasting biblical outlook such relevance and resonance and punch, that gives the few heaven-sent beams of light a cavern of blackest darkness in which to play.
What Christian films—and Christian "art" in general—have lacked is a willingness to portray evil convincingly. It was Milton's Satan and Dante's Inferno that made them two of the most powerful Christian artists of all time. Because they understood evil and did not shrink from it, their depictions of goodness had power. In order to be redemptive, art has to convince us there is something real from which we need redeeming.
Conversely, much secular art in the last half-century illustrates confusion and pain brilliantly but provides no antidote. The screeching hell of marital discord in Woody Allen's Husbands and Wives puts the viewer as close to seeing the need for God as any "Christian film" ever has, but stops there. Ditto John Updike's anti-paeans to adultery and suburban ennui; he limns the darkness all so well, so perfectly—too perfectly—and then splits for the golf course. We get universes of darkness without light, and from Christian "artists" we get watts of light without darkness. So it seems a little chiaroscuro is generally in order. Early on in the movie, at Mclean's funeral—which is a genuine Christian funeral rather than the papier-mâché facsimiles Hollywood usually gives us ("dearly beloved…ashes to ashes, dust to dust," and so on)—Miller reminds his fellow prisoners that "there is suffering before glory, there is a cross before the crown." That says it.
Kiefer Sutherland's character, Lieutenant Jim Reardon, is the only one in the film who himself makes the journey from darkness to light. Sutherland portrays the quintessential American, brash and independent to a San Andreas fault. Like some zonked-out Vietnam War GI 25 years ahead of his time, Reardon is content to hang back and groove on the rubble, as it were, figure out how to get by while everyone else sweats about the nasty situation. And so he engages the local black market, procuring rice alcohol and other amenities for himself—and if his selfish self-sufficiency hadn't backfired on him, he might have built a tidy capitalistic empire in the moral darkness. But it backfires badly, and then we see his other quintessentially American traits: heart and soul. Yet we are more inclined to sing "Amazing Grace" than "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Reardon's journey and much of this film can be tough to watch, but when at the end of the movie Gordon's voiceover poses such questions as "At what price mercy?" and "Who is my neighbor?" we don't cringe, we engage. He, and the movie, have well earned the right to pose them. Earning this right separates this film from what is usually termed a Christian film.
Directing his second feature, David Cunningham bobbles the ball here and there: the dramatic arc can be a bit squirrely; the music prods us in spots; and the unshirted brutality might have been pulled back a whisker or three. But to hell with these nits; this is a powerful and profound movie, one that deserves praise and attention and discussion and emulation. The way I reckon, it is the Christian film to end all Christian films. Glory, hallelujah. Onward.
Eric Metaxas (www.ericmetaxas.com) is the author of many children's books, including Squanto and the Miracle of Thanksgiving (TommyNelson).