'The Railway Man' Explores Torture Forgiven But Not Forgotten

Screenwriter Andy Paterson talks bringing Eric Lomax's best-selling memoir to the big screen.

Hiroyuki Sanada and Colin Firth star in "The Railway man."

Based on the story of Eric Lomax, "The Railway Man" follows a former World War II prisoner of war (Colin Firth) who confronts a Japanese translator (Hiroyuki Sanada) who participated in his torture.

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As he recounted in his 1995 best-selling memoir “The Railway Man,” Eric Lomax was able to forgive the Japanese translator who tortured him when Lomax was a British World War II prisoner of war. Having spent more than a decade bringing Lomax’s book to screen, the filmmakers behind the movie "The Railway Man" certainly believe Lomax’s brutal experience should not be forgotten, particularly as it speaks to contemporary discussions surrounding torture and PTSD.

“We knew that we had to show enough of the brutality to do justice to what these men had been through,” says the film’s screenwriter and executive producer Andy Paterson, who has been working on the film version of Lomax's story since he read the book in 1999.

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When Lomax was 23, his unit surrendered to Japanese soldiers in Singapore and he was forced to work on the Burma Railway in Thailand, an intensely laborious project that became known as the Death Railway. Lomax was found to have made a radio receiver out of spare parts and his captors interrogated him, imprisoned him and subjected him to an extended period of what Lomax described as “beatings and half drownings.”

Lomax was liberated in 1945, but be was haunted by the experience decades later, where the film begins it story. The scenes in "The Railway Man" showing the brutality inflicted on Lomax and his fellow prisoners are brief – Paterson estimates that entirety of the film’s violence takes up a total of four or five minutes--- but they are affecting.

“We tried to keep it down to the barest minimum,” Paterson says of the film's depiction of torture, calling it a “debate we argued frame by frame to the very end.“

Film subject Patti Lomax, left, and producer Andy Paterson, right, attend the New York premiere of "The Railway Man" on April 7, 2014, in New York.
Patti Lomax and Andy Paterson pose at the New York premiere for "The Railway Man."

In his book, Lomax graphically described being waterboarded, and the filmmakers attempted to get as close to the real experience as possible in a fictional setting. Jeremy Irvine, who plays the younger Lomax, described the shoot to the Huffington Post UK:

“There was one take when I let it go on a couple of seconds too long, and ended up throwing up a load of water," Irvine said. "The whole movie rests on what [Lomax] went through. It gave me a wonderful appreciation – we did it for 3 days – Eric went through 2 weeks like that, and continued to be tortured for three years.”

The political implication of showing the practice is not lost on Jonathan Teplitzky, the film’s Australian director, who told the Hollywood Reporter, “This kind of maltreatment has incredible resonance for contemporary times … Waterboarding has a very strong tentacle to the modern day, and we were very conscious of that.”

In addition to having Eric Lomax and his wife Patti’s full participation in crafting the film, the filmmakers worked with famed human rights advocate Helen Bamber, the founder of Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture whose career in treating trauma stretches back to her care of child orphans of the Holocaust.

“The Railway Man” comes as politicians debate the release of a report that details some of the CIA's actions under George W. Bush, including the use of waterboarding, the official practice of which President Barack Obama ended in 2009.

As the Huffington Post noted Monday, many media outlets still shy away from calling the technique torture. But for Paterson, after working on the film, the distinction is clear:

“If nothing else, you may want to debate whether it should be used or not, but at least have the decency to call it torture,” Paterson says,

The torture debate is not the only topical issue “The Railway Man” explores. Much of the film, as did the book, focuses on Lomax years later (played by Colin Firth) as his experience still traumatizes him and threatens his relationship with his second wife Patti (Nicole Kidman). It is Patti who pushes Eric to face the demons of the past, which culminates in Eric finding the translator (played by Tanroh Ishida in the WWII scenes and Hiroyuki Sanada in the later years) and ultimately forgiving him.

Paterson says after years of struggling with writing the script, it was only when he and his co-writer Frank Cottrell Boyce gave more weight to Patti’s perspective were they able to reframe the narrative in a way that worked cinematically.

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“The more we got to know them the more I was convinced that her story was crucial,” Paterson says. “She represented the millions of people who deal with the fallout of war, the families that deal with for decades that never get any recognition for what they do.”

Eric Lomax passed away in 2012 at the age of 93, but Patti is joining the press tour in the hopes of raising awareness about the psychological injuries late husband suffered.

MarketWatch looked at what PTSD cost the families of veterans, and found that while a year’s worth a treatment reaches thousands of dollars, the price tag grows even more once other factors related to PTSD – like substance abuse, family therapy and even divorce – are brought into the equation. A recent RAND study estimated the families of American veterans provide an unpaid service worth $15 billion in treating veterans' physical and emotional wounds.

“When you are contemplating war – and sadly, we still do – then, you have to add in the balance sheet the aftereffects, which I don't think we do.” Paterson says. “I don’t think there’s any requirement at the moment on politicians to in any way add in the legacy of what will come back, because human beings are not every good at dealing with the horrors they face in war."