Friday, December 27, 2013

To End All Wars - Movie Review

As a Christian, I always enjoy a movie that features questions about the infinite, and To End All Wars certainly does that. It has wonderful ingredients. A good premise, decent production values, and great music. Several very prestigious cast members (Robert Carlyle, Kiefer Sutherland, James Cosmo and Mark Strong being the best), do their best with less than intriguing characters.

It goes to show that just because a movie is rated R and features brutal violence, doesn’t mean it can’t be preachy. Immediately, after a brief, clumsy introductory sequence narrated by Ciaran McMenamin (inexplicably casted as the main character) we are plunged with the small band of Scottish soldiers into a 1942 Japanese POW camp. We know nothing about these soldiers, and for the rest of the movie, we don’t learn anything else. That’s almost true. They have little to no personality, and as Mark Twain pointed out, it's hard to care about the death of a character who never lived in the first place. Briefly, I was interested in Robert Carlyle’s conflicted Major Campbell, but he quickly morphed into a predictable character with a foreseeable end.

After the opening sequence, the plot for the first twenty minutes works exceedingly well, as the soldiers begin to experience what life is like outside the comfortable, honorbound confines of their Western Christianized culture. But after that, it degenerates into a series of events loosely connected by the Message. Bad thing happen. More bad thing happen. Jesus good. Me sacrifice for brother. More bad thing happen. Of course, the film’s message is exactly right, and hardly slips into sugar-coated prosperity Gospel theology, but because characters are so completely allied with ideas there is nothing approaching suspense. The good guys win, and there’s never any doubt who the good guys are.

If we didn’t know, Ernest’s invasive voice-over certainly makes it clear. He drives the point home every time we’re wishing we could just observe the point being worked out before our eyes. Show, don’t tell. While occasionally offering interesting observations, we could’ve gotten away without the voice-over.

Still, it has its moments—I will certainly watch it again. As a piece of history, the building of the railroad was prime material, though again, under-used. James Cosmo might be the film’s most dynamic character, though his part is brief. Mark Strong’s last scene was very good, though the events leading to it are predictable. I’ve got to give him this: the director gets terrific emotional performances from the actors. The willingness to delve into the minds not just of the Scots but the Japanese is admirable, and lends To End All Wars a new level of complexity and understanding that it could have maximized, instead of borrowing much of its style from the much better Empire of the Sun and harping on the lessons it’s trying to teach. As a spiritual tale, it is far, far from the feel-good theology currently popular, and makes for a refreshing change.

Rated R for brutal war violence, torture, and some foul language. 

3/5 stars

Hannah Long

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