It is the story of several WWII POWs captured by the Japanese and forced to build a railroad through the Southeast Asian jungles. The story is told from the point of view of Ernest (Ernie) Gordon (played superbly by Ciaran McMenamin, who also narrates), a young lieutenant with the Scottish Argyles, which sounds similar to our American Green Berets. The unit is captured by the Japanese and taken to a pow camp. One pow already there is seen in a makeshift church. Dusty is played by Mark Strong and makes an incredible portrait of a Jesus-follower, although I'm not quite sure that the name of Jesus was ever mentioned. Dusty quotes Jesus on several occasions, and eventually befriends and mentors young Ernie. Ernie had always wanted to teach, and at Dusty and several other pow's encouragement, starts Jungle University, teaching Platonic philosophy and a number of other things to the men there. At first it is done in secret, but eventually the Japanese guards are so impressed with the gospel transformation in the men and their ethics, their work, their sacrifice, that they allow the classes to happen in public.
The anti-hero character contrasts greatly with the teachings of Jesus transforming these men through Dusty and Ernie's characters. Major Ian Campbell (Robert Carlyle) watched his captors murder his colonel, and he wants revenge. He is constantly battling Ernie and Dusty on the meaning of justice, with several great references to Jesus' sacrifice. Ian is recruiting men to his cause throughout the movie, but many defect from him to Ernie because of the love, the mercy, the hope, found in those men.
The night of the graduation ceremony of Jungle U. Ian and his small band kill 2 guards and try to take over the camp. They are caught and stopped, and the next day Ian watches his men be shot to death. The Japanese officer who killed his colonel is about to behead him with a sword, when Dusty comes forward and offers himself to suffer in Ian's place. We are left to debate whether he does this for the Japanese man's sake or Ian's sake or both, but regardless, the Japanese accept his offer and he is crucified while Ian goes free.
If this was the typical Christian propaganda flick, Ian would have at this point converted to Christ on his knees and spent the rest of his life preaching on some street corner somewhere. But the reality of the mix of redemption and sin, mercy and judgment, is palpitable in this movie. Ian is unmoved, in fact, even more enraged. For Ian, mercy will forever be for cowards.
Ian is contrasted by Lt. Jim "Yanker" Reardon (Kiefer Sutherland). Yanker is a blatant capitalist, manipulating everyone and everything he can to make money in the camp. He works all the relationships, guards, pow's, locals, and more to ply his trade. One night Ian rats him out to the Japanese and he's caught. The captors string him out along the ground in sun and rain for days. He is broken through the experience, and profoundly changed. At one point later in the movie he even sacrifices himself to save the camp from being punished, becoming paralyzed in the process.
I don't know that I have ever seen a better portrayal of the messiness of mercy and redemption mixed with the sin of the world. I will warn you that the movie is a graphic presentation of war and violence, but in contrast with the mercy and hope found by those who follow the teachings of Jesus, it is incredibly truthful and artistic. And redemptive.
- Are we supposed to really follow the teachings of Jesus like turning the other cheek and loving our enemies?
- If so, how do they apply in times of war?
- Someone recently forwarded me an email stating that the goal of Islam is to rule the world, and that "The history of the world is the history of civilization clashes, cultural clashes . All wars are about ideas, ideas about what society and civilization should be like, and the most determined always win . Those who are willing to be the most ruthless always win . The pacifists always lose, because the anti-pacifists kill them." How does following Jesus' teachings fit into this idea?
Keep the dialogue going...