collin
Tuesday, 17 April 2012

MR FIRTH & THE WAR HERO

A POW saved from his demons by his loving wife and a meeting with his former Japanese tormentor is Colin Firth’s next role. We investigate the poignant story

Written by Sarah Chalmers

One Wednesday morning, earlier this month, Oscarwinning actor Colin Firth and rising star Jeremy Irvine boarded a train at London’s King’s Cross, bound for the pretty seaside town of Berwick- upon-Tweed. The King’s Speech star must have cut an incongruous sight as he disembarked in the Borders market town, but Firth insists the man they were on their way to see is the one who is truly ‘incredible’.

For that day, Firth and Irvine were on their way to visit the home of author and former POW Eric Lomax and his beloved wife, Patti. There, the actors talked animatedly to Lomax for four hours about a forthcoming film of the war hero’s life in which Firth and War Horse actor Irvine are to star – they will both play Lomax at different points in his life.

Now a youthful 92, Lomax is at peace with the world, living in a beautiful part of the country with a devoted wife and an enduring love of all things connected to railways.

But for much of his life he was deeply scarred and traumatised by nightmarish memories of his time as a Japanese POW during the Second World War. Indeed, his salvation only came when he met one of his torturers face to face in 1993 and forgave him. This extraordinary meeting, facilitated with the help of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, was documented in Lomax’s poignant 1995 autobiography, The Railway Man – and will inspire the new film, which is to be directed by Jonathan Teplitzky.

Colin-02-590Eric Lomax today, at 92

Lomax has always loved trains. Indeed, it was entirely fitting that one of our greatest screen stars – who can surely afford air travel – should journey to meet Lomax by a mode of transport that has coloured every aspect of this inspiring man’s life. Even as a youth, growing up in Edinburgh, the young Eric was fascinated by railways, and the East Coast main line in particular, which ran through his hometown.

Indeed, it was this interest – with an accompanying attention to detail and captivation with engineering – that would sustain him during the darkest hours of his adulthood, and, in some respects, also contribute to them.

After a brief stint working in the Post Offce, 19-year-old Lomax volunteered for the Army and became a Royal Signals Officer attached to the 5th Field Regiment Royal Artillery. When war was declared, he was sent to the Far East and was among thousands captured by the Japanese during the fall of Singapore in February 1942.

He was sent to the infamous Changi POW camp and from there to work as an engineer on the Siam-Burma route, dubbed the ‘Death Railway’. The work, in searing temperatures, was monotonous and backbreaking, reducing once fit, healthy young men to walking skeletons, starving and riddled with disease. But it paled into insignificance compared with what was to come. In a bid to remain sane – and follow the progress of the war – a group of prisoners, including Lomax, had fashioned a crude radio from scrap materials that they concealed in a coffee tin and listened to in secret at night. But in August 1943, the Japanese discovered the radio in a random search of the camp, and Lomax and his accomplices were subjected to a brutal onslaught that stopped just short of killing the men.

One after the other, the men were beaten; some 900 blows in total were rained down on five men (while the maker of the radio had been taken elsewhere for his torture). The vicious assault left Lomax with two broken arms, a broken hip, nose and several ribs. Invisible to the naked eye were the mental scars that would take many years to heal fully.

Colin-03-590The 'Death Railway' on the Siam-Burma route, where Lomax was sent to work during the Second World War; as a young soldier; his moving 1995 biography

Interrogated by a 25-year-old Japanese interpreter named Takashi Nagase, he was then sentenced to five years’ hard labour in Singapore, where he remained until the war ended. Before he left, Nagase whispered to him in broken English, ‘Keep your chin up.’ With hindsight, the utterance could be seen as a sign of compassion, but at the time Lomax focused all his hatred on the one person he could put a face and voice to. Repatriation brought no relief from the horrors he had endured. In the 1940s, little was understood about the POWs’ experiences, and they were afforded no special treatment. Some even dismissed them as ‘shirkers’.

And so, like so many of his generation, Lomax internalised his pain and rushed into an ill-fated marriage with a childhood sweetheart he barely knew, spending much of his time working abroad in a hopeless attempt to escape his demons. But he was dogged by nightmares in which Nagase’s voice demanded to know who his accomplices were, and consumed by bitterness about his fate and hatred towards those who had perpetrated it. His marriage collapsed – and he looked set to end his days alone and angry.

But then a chance meeting on a train with a woman 20 years his junior, a woman who would become his second wife, changed everything. With the help and support of his beloved bride, Patti, Lomax sought counselling from the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. Slowly he began to accept that he could never truly live the remainder of his life unless he let go of the past.

Colin-04-590

‘Remembering is not enough if it simply hardens hate,’ he said. Unbeknown to him, Nagase was also tormented by his own part in the wartime suffering of Allied soldiers. Determined to atone for his actions, and that of the entire Japanese army, he launched a project in 1976 to foster reconciliation between Japanese torturers and the men whose lives they had all but destroyed.

A newspaper article on Nagase’s endeavours led Lomax to read the Japanese interpreter’s book in which he detailed Lomax’s own horrific torture and revealed how ashamed he felt of his countrymen for perpetrating it.

Patti took it upon herself to write to Nagase, and in 1993, almost 50 years after their first encounter, the two men met again in Japan. Seeing how ashamed the weeping Japanese man was, and realising that he, too, was a victim, set Lomax on the road to recovery.

Colin-05-590Eric Lomax with Osamu Komai in July 2007. His father, Captain Matsuo Komai, was responsible for the murder of two of Eric’s friends

In a remarkable show of fortitude – which will doubtless reduce cinemagoers to tears when the film, which is just now going into production and will also star Nicole Kidman, is released next year – Lomax forgave the man he had spent half a century hating.

‘Meeting Nagase had turned him from a hated enemy, with whom friendship would have been unthinkable, into a bloodbrother. If I had never discovered that behind that face there was also a damaged life, the nightmares would always have come from a past without meaning,’ Lomax wrote of the emotional encounter. ‘Sometime the hating has to stop.’

It is a truly inspiring and remarkable story – and one that Colin Firth will surely bring beautifully to life.



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