Captured Allied troops’ forced-labor construction of a railroad through Thailand and Burma inspired David Lean’s screen classic “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” That same WW2 chapter gets less-than-inspired new dramatization in “To End All Wars.” Grim in theme yet seldom effective or convincing in execution, pic (which has been kicking around the fest circuit since Telluride preem last year), is an earnest misfire unlikely to make much theatrical impact before hitting home formats.
Unlike “Kwai” — which took heavy liberties with historical fact in the service of action — “Wars” aims for brute accuracy, being based on a memoir by surviving prisoner of war Ernest Gordon. Latter (played here by Ciaran McMenamin) was a young captain in the elite Scottish Highlanders division when he and other primarily British troops fighting in southeast Asia were captured by invading Japanese forces, mid-1942. Herded off to a remote jungle prison camp, they were soon drafted to slave endlessly on railroad tracks that would never realize their Axis goal: Nippon conquest of India.
After opening-credits montage showing the unit in kilted full-dress glory on home turf, pic jumps straight to their march to the camp deep within Burma-Siam. Cocky Maj. Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) immediately provokes captors’ wrath, prompting a severe beating. Yet worse punishment follows for the company’s beloved chief commander, Lt. Col. McLean (James Cosmo), when he protests the flaunting of Geneva Convention POW guidelines.
The internees soon begin to understand that their keepers operate under very different codes of honor from their own; official hierarchy and subservience are paramount, the value of individuals and interpersonal loyalties almost non-existent. Most rigid upholder of these standards is cruel head guard Ito (Sakae Kimura). His perpetually drunken and peevish superior Capt. Noguchi (Masayuki Yui) is no angel, either. Sole sympathetic member of the Emperor’s Army is young guard Takashi Nagase (Yugo Saso), who was partly educated in Britain.
Still, some find ways to make this excruciating existence more bearable. Lone Yank captive Lt. Tom Rigden (Kiefer Sutherland), creates a one-man black market in home-brewed alcohol — though when he’s found out, the consequences are merciless. Brit trooper Dusty Miller (Mark Strong) sets up a meditation altar and covert adult-education “jungle university.”Campbell, meanwhile, persists in plotting an escape, or insurrection. This singular obsession induces a sense of bitter rivalry toward the saintly Miller, with the prisoners’ collective loyalty — not to mention their lives — at stake. Eventually, disaster strikes both factions, with Miller’s self-sacrificing response resulting in an all-too-Christlike death.
While incidents may well be factual, “To End All Wars” unfortunately lacks the finesse to play them out as anything but hyperbolic set pieces that are brutal without being truly moving. As scripted by Brian Godawa and directed by documentarian David L. Cunningham (whose sole prior narrative feature was the well-received ’98 Hawaii teenpic “Beyond Paradise”), this drama comes off at once cluttered and heavy-handed.
Dramatic personnel (especially the Japanese performers) come off one-dimensionally, with any character arcs imposed rather than developed.
Despite decent production design and Hawaiian location usage, there’s little sense of time passage or geographical scale; both are relegated to occasional updating intertitles.
Worse, the film grows more “inspirational” as it goes along, with its creeping sense of forced, pat uplift egged on by John Cameron’s orchestral score, which does not spare the dreaded celestial choirs. (Celtic thrush Maire Brennan provides yet more of the latter with ethereal solo warblings.)
This is not the finest hour for any of the actors, who are seldom allowed to ring notes shy of full emotional extremis. McMenamin’s voiceover narration as well as much dialogue runs toward the glib homily.
Lenser Greg Gardiner over-relies on the hand-held path to ersatz immediacy that’s by now commercial cinema’s reigning technical cliche. Other tech and design credits demonstrate resourcefulness on a slim (given the story demands) $14 million budget.