Tuesday, February 20, 2007

To End All Wars

I watched yesterday "To End All Wars", a movie a friend recommended. It may well make it onto my all-time fave list, although I may not ever want to see it again.

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.

Some questions:

  • 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...


ctuna said...

Ernest Gordon wrote a terrific book on his experiences as a Japanese POW, "Through the Valley of Kwai." Tells of the prisoners finding faith, God, and meaning in an environment that others (e.g., Simon Wiesenthal in "The Sunflower") felt deserted by God.

Gordon writes, "[On the voyage home after liberation] I was musing by the rail when I noticed John Leckie standing next to me. “Well,” he said, “it’s all over. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. True, it was rough. But I learned an awful lot that I couldn’t have learned at university or anywhere else. For one, I’ve learned about the things of life that are real and for another, I’ve learned it’s great to be alive.”

It was easy for me to see how he could make such a remark. The experiences we had passed through deepened our understanding of life and of each other. We had looked into the heart of the Eternal and found Him to be wonderfully kind."

Wish I had that kind of faith.

Victor said...

It strucked me that this story provides an actual scenario where violence and brute force are overtaken & defeated by "turning the other cheek" (ie.Jesus' teachings). However, it was at a great price and "loss." In the Christian faith this ultimately only finds meaning in Christ's own sacrifice (i.e. Stephen's death) and the life/salvation it provides. It's more than just an existencial/social final gift. "To live is Christ and to dies is gain."

Arnie Adkison said...

Another friend replied to me offline yesterday with a great comment. He's from a Mennonite tradition, and here's two of his comments:

1. Those who uphold pacifism have to struggle not to lose the ability to be assertive or to work actively for justice. Starry-eyed idealism is a major problem.

2. Those who eschew pacifism have to struggle with a meek as a lamb Savior, who does not return violence for violence and thereby redeems the world. (yes, I know he turned over the money-changers temple --- see #1 above and observe he didn’t kill anyone).

I would agree with you Victor, and with my friend here.