To End All Wars

To End All Wars, based on the book by Ernest Gordon, premiered on BBC2 Saturday night. The story of a group of Scottish POW’s forced to work on the Burma railroad, the film is really a meditation on faith, hope and grace in the face of overwhelming brutality and degradation.

The idea of grace is powerful. I think to a degree we all work on a principle of Karma – you reap what you sow, an eye for an eye, justice be done. Karma underlines philosophies, religions, codes of honour – you follow the rules, and good things happen to you, you break those rules and you deserve everything you get, be it a kicking in the pub car park or eternal damnation. The rules change, the consequences change, but no matter what you do, Karma’s gonna get you in the end. There’s something comforting about it.

To End All Wars offers a different slant on that. The commanding officer of the POW’s (played by Robert Carlyle) and his opposite number within in the prison camp are locked in a cycle of honour, obligation and retribution, fuelled by both a soldier’s sense of duty or the code of Bushido. Against all this backdrop, the majority of the prisoners follow Ernest Gordon and Dusty Miller in participating in a ‘jungle university’, performing both symphonies and Shakespeare and holding discussion groups, where Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek is held in stark contrast to the acts of brutality and slavery endured by the prisoners.

For me, there are two key scenes in the film. The first involves a character played by Keifer Sutherland, a selfish American who, having been caught running the camp’s black market, is staked out in the burning sun. This almost forces him to change, driving him to participate in the jungle university along with the rest of the camp. Later, it’s announced that a spade has gone missing. Unless the culprit owns up, everyone will be punished. Sutherland’s character steps forward, even though he’s innocent. He’s beaten with a spade until he’s paralysed from the waist down.

The guards then admit they’ve miscounted and there was never a theft.

This scene foreshadows a second; Carlyle’s character has been captured leading an escape. Most of the escapees have been executed when Dusty Miller, leader of the university and proponent of turning the other cheek, steps forward and whispers to the commander of the guard. Carlyle is released; Miller is taken out to the graveyard, where, as per an illustration in his Bible, he is crucified.

Two men take on someone else’s punishment, and suffer vicious and brutal consequences as a result, and yet it’s their decision, their courage, their faith and decency that allows them to retain their humanity. Carlyle and the camp commander are last seen on liberation day, Carlyle brutalising the commander, who then commits ritual suicide. Grace lead to a kind of freedom even before the camp’s liberators arrived; karma kept its victims locked in a cycle of anger, rage and destruction.

I guess I’m not making a great job of explaining the power of this idea – after all, Carlyle’s character survives, while Miller is killed – but Carlyle survives because of Miller, because of an innocent sacrifice, and that makes all the difference. Grace is turning the other cheek, stepping forward to take another’s punishment, music in a prison camp. It offends our ideas of karma and justice, and yet somehow it’s more powerful and moving and liberating than those concepts could ever be.

And so I guess that’s the story for a world of suicide bombing and fundamentalisms of every stripe. Maybe the principle question shouldn’t be ‘why do people hate?’; not ‘what makes a Hitler or a Bin Laden’, but ‘what makes a Mandela, or a Ghandi, or a Martin Luther King’. Maybe we need to spend a little less time trying to figure out Lex Luthor and trying instead to encourage a few more Clark Kents.

Grace isn’t weakness, it’s not sitting meekly in the corner of a urine-sodden prison cell. It’s singing to assert your humanity, a sharing of your rations. And it’s a loosening of the chains, and a jailbreak, of sorts. And in the aftermath of the July 7 London bombings, the City of London Boiler Room arranged for a gospel choir to sing at Liverpool Street Station.

Grace makes beauty out of ugly things.”

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