To End All Christian Films
A movie that takes evil seriously
by Eric Metaxas
(This is a review of “To End All Wars”, a film released in 2002. The review appeared in Books&Culture in July 2002.)
Can a Christian film use the “f” word? Well, that’s one question. But it begs another: what, exactly, is a Christian film? By my lights, it has become all too fashionable for sophisticated Christians to sneer at Christian artistic efforts. And yet, just between us evangelical chickens: how have things gotten to where reasonable folks will sneer at the mere mention of the phrase “Christian art,” as if the juxtaposition of the words were somehow inherently cackle-inducing?
The movie that prompts these questions is To End All Wars, a powerful film that tells the absolutely harrowing tale of a group of Allied POWs conscripted by the Japanese to build the Burma-Siam railway during World War II. Based on a true story told by Ernest Gordon in his book, In the Valley of the Kwai, this movie is bloody, violent, and profound, portraying a raw, full-throated Christianity of the sort that hasn’t been much in evidence since, say, Dostoesvsky. It is emphatically not the cinematic equivalent of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
As the story goes, Gordon, played with an inner luminosity by Ciarán McMenamin, is a 24-year-old captain of the 93rd Battalion of the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders, a decidedly Scottish outfit. Their commander is Lieutenant Colonel Stewart Mclean, played by the extraordinary James Cosmo. In anything Cosmo does he practically bursts out of the screen into a theater near you. He is the sort of sixtysomething tough- guy who might eat Jack Palance and Sean Connery for breakfast with kippers.
When Mclean and the 93rd are captured, they quickly realize that their Japanese captors will accord the Geneva Convention the same respect they accord Marquis of Queensbury Rules. When Major Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) receives a brutal beating, Mclean explodes in protest and is promptly brutalized himself. Afterward, the bleeding Mclean croaks his plan to his “good boys”: they will make their escape as soon as he has healed. But some weeks later, after another impolitic outburst, the great man is killed by his captors, and the futility of escape from this isolated hell becomes quite clear.
Later, Gordon himself is savagely beaten for forgetting to bow to a guard, and is sent to the prison “hospital,” known as the Death House, a miserable roach motel wherefrom none return. But a Christian POW, Dusty Miller (Mark Strong), attends to Gordon, giving him his own meager rations and quite miraculously saving his life. Soon thereafter one of the other POWs, knowing Gordon had planned to become a teacher, asks him about the meaning of all their sufferings. Gordon, still smarting from his time in the Death House, isn’t interested in answering philosophical questions just yet. But Miller prods him to engage the man, to try answering these questions. “When a man loses hope,” says Miller, “he dies.”
So Gordon decides to start what he calls a jungle university. There, amid the ghastly stench of the Death House, where the Japanese will not bother them, Gordon kindles hope and life. He begins to teach a few willing pupils, starting with Plato’s idea of justice. It is at once completely absurd and quintessentially, achingly human, this handful of broken POWs stirring in their tomb, in their Platonic cave, if you will. But they will not stay here for long studying the shadows within, for Sunday is a-comin’, if I may mix Platonic and Christian metaphors (it’s been done before). The pathetic group of them there inevitably evoke various archetypal images, from the Fiat Lux of Genesis to the light coming into the world in John’s Gospel to Jesus’ resurrection. In this cradle and crucible, meaning meets meaninglessness and throttles it, and Life says to Death, be thou removed.
Soon the lessons expand beyond Plato. Another prisoner teaches Shakespeare, and another teaches the men how to play music on instruments that they themselves have fashioned. It is moving and fanciful, and it all happened.
The fatally embittered Major Campbell will have none of this treacle. When he sees that the classes are giving the men another hope besides escape, he despicably tells the Japanese about the school, and they break it up. All the books, a Bible among them, are confiscated.
But Gordon and Miller don’t pay Campbell back for his vicious betrayal. They somehow manage to love him, thereby heaping hot coals upon his head. It is to the film’s inestimable credit that it can portray Christian love palpably and effectively. But this is only possible because it has portrayed evil effectively first.
We live in a culture where actual evil is almost never portrayed except to give us a frisson of something amid the nothingness, where it is still believed not to exist at all—pious 9/11 caveats notwithstanding—and where the bumpersticker aphorism, “Mean People Suck,” is about as out-on-a-limb as most folks are willing to go in that judgmental direction. The innocents who cling to this attenuated version of what the Spanish call realidad would do well to sit through this movie, because the evil level in it is about two-and-a-quarter headspins shy of The Exorcist—and it is all the more affecting, because these horrors are not sensationalistic spookhouse shenanigans but solid, documented, historical facts.
And yet there is something literally demonic in the cruelty and inhumanity of the Japanese soldiers here depicted. Their code of Bushido—a hypermoralistic worldview that is unspeakably racist, unspeakably cruel, and utterly power-worshiping—is what gives the contrasting biblical outlook such relevance and resonance and punch, that gives the few heaven-sent beams of light a cavern of blackest darkness in which to play.
What Christian films—and Christian “art” in general—have lacked is a willingness to portray evil convincingly. It was Milton’s Satan and Dante’s Inferno that made them two of the most powerful Christian artists of all time. Because they understood evil and did not shrink from it, their depictions of goodness had power. In order to be redemptive, art has to convince us there is something real from which we need redeeming.
Conversely, much secular art in the last half-century illustrates confusion and pain brilliantly but provides no antidote. The screeching hell of marital discord in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives puts the viewer as close to seeing the need for God as any “Christian film” ever has, but stops there. Ditto John Updike’s anti-paeans to adultery and suburban ennui; he limns the darkness all so well, so perfectly—too perfectly—and then splits for the golf course. We get universes of darkness without light, and from Christian “artists” we get watts of light without darkness. So it seems a little chiaroscuro is generally in order. Early on in the movie, at Mclean’s funeral—which is a genuine Christian funeral rather than the papier-mâché facsimiles Hollywood usually gives us (”dearly beloved … ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” and so on)—Miller reminds his fellow prisoners that “there is suffering before glory, there is a cross before the crown.” That says it.
Kiefer Sutherland’s character, Lieutenant Jim Reardon, is the only one in the film who himself makes the journey from darkness to light. Sutherland portrays the quintessential American, brash and independent to a San Andreas fault. Like some zonked-out Vietnam War GI 25 years ahead of his time, Reardon is content to hang back and groove on the rubble, as it were, figure out how to get by while everyone else sweats about the nasty situation. And so he engages the local black market, procuring rice alcohol and other amenities for himself—and if his selfish self-sufficiency hadn’t backfired on him, he might have built a tidy capitalistic empire in the moral darkness. But it backfires badly, and then we see his other quintessentially American traits: heart and soul. Yet we are more inclined to sing “Amazing Grace” than “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”
Reardon’s journey and much of this film can be tough to watch, but when at the end of the movie Gordon’s voiceover poses such questions as “At what price mercy?” and “Who is my neighbor?” we don’t cringe, we engage. He, and the movie, have well earned the right to pose them. Earning this right separates this film from what is usually termed a Christian film.
Directing his second feature, David Cunningham bobbles the ball here and there: the dramatic arc can be a bit squirrely; the music prods us in spots; and the unshirted brutality might have been pulled back a whisker or three. But to hell with these nits; this is a powerful and profound movie, one that deserves praise and attention and discussion and emulation. The way I reckon, it is the Christian film to end all Christian films. Glory, hallelujah. Onward.
To see this review at BOOKS&CULTURE, click here.
Copyright © 2002 by the author or Christianity Today International/Books & Culture magazine.