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

No comments: