Forgiveness in The Railway Man

Justine Toh reflects on the matters of forgiveness and reconciliation raised by The Railway Man

With the passing away of Nelson Mandela in late 2013, and Colin Firth’s new film The Railway Man now in cinemas, matters of forgiveness and reconciliation are in the public eye. The stories of Mandela and Eric Lomax, upon whose 1995 autobiography the film is based, share excruciating experiences of decades-long suffering as well as awe-inspiring moves to extend grace and forbearance to their former enemies when primal human impulse would seek retaliation instead.

Given recent commemorative efforts paying tribute to Mandela’s life, his story is likely better known than that of Lomax. After the fall of Singapore in 1942, where Lomax (played by Jeremy Irvine) was serving as a British Signals Officer, Lomax as well as some 60,000 other Allied soldiers, and as many as 300,000 Asian labourers, were used as slave labour to build the Burma-Thai Railway that would keep the Japanese army supplied. The construction of the ‘death railway’, as it came to be known, was a titanic endeavour that stretched for over 400km through rock and tropical jungle that the men had to carve out with nothing but hand tools and in sweltering conditions where dysentery, disease, and malnutrition were rife.

Lomax comes to the attention of the Kempeitai, the Japanese military police, after they discover the makeshift radio he built to keep track of the war. It doesn’t help that Lomax, a self-described “railway enthusiast”, was also mapping the progression of the railway in vain hopes of passing on this intelligence to Allied forces. In response the Kempeitai interrogate and imprison Lomax, who manages to survive despite the terrible treatment. His hate burns against Takashi Nagase (played by Tanroh Ishida in the past and Hiroyuki Sanada in the present), the army interpreter who becomes a figurehead for the torture Lomax endures.

While Lomax wasn’t imprisoned for the 27 years that Mandela was incarcerated, The Railway Man makes clear that his wartime experience has held him captive long after the end of hostilities. His late-in-life romance with Patti (Nicole Kidman) is hijacked by trauma that manifests in violent rages as well as determined silences that freeze out her gentle enquiries. The role of Lomax as troubled veteran well suits Colin Firth who has cornered the market on playing stitched-up gents whose taciturn exteriors belie the torment raging within (see A Single Man, The King’s Speech, even his portrayal of Darcy in Pride and Prejudice.) Once Lomax discovers that Nagase is alive and showing tourists around the site of his former misery, he travels to Thailand to confront his enemy a half-century after the war. The scene is set for revenge, as you might expect, and yet Lomax’s ultimate response is one of startling forgiveness that enables him to reconcile with his former interrogator.

These moments pack a powerful punch, but so extraordinary is the real story of Lomax and Nagase that it dwarfs the merits of the film. The Railway Man portrays Nagase as reluctant to confront the horrors of the war. In a scene that reverses the interrogator-interrogated roles between Lomax and Nagase, the former corrects any attempt the later makes to fudge, through euphemisms, the events of the past. What happened wasn’t a ‘tragedy’, Lomax avers, but a ‘crime’ and soldiers didn’t simply ‘die,’ they were ‘murdered’. The scene demonstrates that for justice to be served the truth must be told; yet the film takes a few liberties of its own in this area. It turns out that after being confronted with the horrors of the war, the real Nagase was disgusted with his own conduct and became a tireless campaigner for peace and reconciliation between former Japanese soldiers and Allied prisoners, despite opposition from many of his countrymen. Nagase then published Crosses and Tigers, a memoir describing his remorse over his and his country’s actions, and how he remained haunted by the brutalisation of one particular prisoner-of-war. The real Patti then wrote to Nagase identifying her husband as that individual, which opened the door for the two men to correspond before eventually meeting more than 50 years later.

Forgiveness is not cheap. When the real Lomax met Nagase he did want to kill him. Yet, disarmed by the letters Nagase had sent and the sorrow and regret of the man in the flesh as they met on the bridge on the river Kwai, Lomax found himself, surprisingly, acknowledging the man’s suffering as well as his own: “We both survived.” Nagase apparently said after that meeting, “I think I can die safely now.” Later, Lomax wrote Nagase a letter assuring him that while he would never forget what had happened, Nagase had his total forgiveness. If that isn’t astonishing enough, the two ended up becoming friends, remaining in contact until Nagase’s death in 2011. Lomax died in 2012.

The story of Lomax’s real-life encounter with Nagase bears out the power of forgiveness to release people from the destructiveness of hate. In Exclusion and Embrace Yale theologian Miroslav Volf writes that forgiveness arrests the cycle of violence and retribution that often sees “yesterday’s victims [become] today’s perpetrators and today’s perpetrators tomorrow’s victims.” Strangely enough, both victims and perpetrators of violence can be set free when victims choose forgiveness over revenge or, in Volf’s words, demonstrate the ‘will to embrace’ rather than exclude the other. And yet embrace—full reconciliation—is only possible once the truth has been told and justice done. That Nagase accepts responsibility for the past and his role in it enables Lomax to show him mercy.

Stories such as that of Lomax and Mandela can’t help but activate a deep response in us. Victims who forgo their rightful claims to vengeance and manage to rise above the all-too-human tendency to lash out in retaliation seem more than mere mortals. It helps, of course, when victims like Lomax are faced by repentant perpetrators like Nagase. Which begs the question: what of wrongdoers who don’t see the error of their ways? To reach out to them with a gracious spirit must be to border on the divine.

But such transcendent possibilities are foreclosed in our disenchanted age stripped of both gods and monsters. Many of us settle, then, for Lomax and Mandela as secular saints. Still, for some the ability of these men to ‘turn the other cheek’ allows a glimpse into a redemptive reality where the ability to show grace to wrongdoers is not dependent on their moral fibre—or lack thereof. It is announced by the Apostle Paul: ‘While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Ultimate forgiveness, in the cosmic sense suggested by those words, hinges on what one does with such a claim.

Justine Toh is the Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity