David L. Cunningham’s To End All Wars is based on the true story of Ernest Gordon, a proud Scottish soldier captured by the Japanese with the rest of his regiment (and a number of soldiers from a variety of countries) during the Second World War. Gordon and his fellow prisoners are beaten and starved, considered the worst possible cowards by their captors (due to their own Bushido ideology of death before capture), and forced to build a railroad through thick jungles. Cunningham’s film, adapted from the late Gordon’s memoirs, concentrates on the relationships among the desperate Allies, as their divergent backgrounds help them to understand their fellow prisoners.
Though we get to know quite a few of the prisoners, the film focuses on four protagonists—explosive Major Campbell (Robert Carlyle), spiritual Dusty (Mark Strong), egocentric Yankee Lieutenant Reardon (Kiefer Sutherland), and academic Gordon (Ciaran McMenamin). Their different responses towards their new lives as POWs are evident immediately upon capture.
Major Campbell, who observes as regiment Colonel McLean (James Cosmo) is murdered, wants to flee the camp rather than go down in flames like his mentor. He wants to stay alive at any cost. He seems initially motivated by an intensely personal anger at his captors, and his escape plan engulfs him, so that he can barely think of anything else; he loses comrades when some of the other prisoners refuse to go along with him for fear of certain death.
American Lieutenant Reardon attempts to make prison life work to his advantage, bartering with the enemy for food, water, and cigarettes. Eventually, his black market savvy works against him; following severe punishment, he is forced to reevaluate his cocky and ethnocentric sensibilities. Dusty, on the other hand, makes peace with the Colonel’s death and the pain of war, based on his deep religious beliefs.
To End All Wars explores separate and collective struggles to survive, the prisoners’ strengths and weaknesses. The film takes time to develop these characters. At the same time, numerous scenes in the film are completely shocking, though never excessively graphic, inviting physical reactions from viewers, by putting us inside the soldiers’ mindsets and situations.
Watching these men as they are pushed to the very edge of sanity by repeated brutality is hard going, especially in the final confrontation between prisoners and captors. Yet, Cunningham never takes his portrayal of war so far as to distract from particular, “human” issues. Where the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan, in which many nameless and faceless soldiers are killed in battle may well be shocking, it only reconfirms for the audience that “war is hell.”
To End All Wars takes a different approach; it concentrates specific points of view and the ways they might be radically changed by unthinkably difficult circumstances. This is poignantly evidenced in the final shots of the real life Gordon, reminiscing (and even laughing) with the POW camp’s translator Takashi Nagase (played in the film by Yugo Saso). To End All Wars is not about seeking vengeance or attaining a viscerally explosive victory. It’s about forging relationships out of trauma and courage. It looks at how men survive war, and, even more movingly, how they can forgive each other any (perceived or real) misdeeds, based on the closeness gained through their shared dire experience. This makes it an especially resonant film for the present moment.