Home / Features / The Railway Men

The Railway Men

The Railway Man

THE RAILWAY MAN is based on Eric Lomax’s best-selling memoir and a series of meetings, over many years, with Lomax and his wife, Patti.

The film tells the extraordinary and epic true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who is tormented as a prisoner of war at a Japanese labour camp during World War II. Decades later, Lomax discovers that the Japanese interpreter he holds responsible for much of his treatment is still alive and sets out to confront him, and his haunting past. Directed by Jonathan Teplitzky, and starring Academy Award-winner Colin Firth, Jeremy Irvine, and Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman, the film is a powerful tale of survival, love and redemption.

 ‘The ordinary former Far East POW has probably never talked to anyone about his experiences. The victim of torture most certainly does not talk.’ Eric Lomax.

To many, the little that is known about the Death Railway comes from the David Lean film, The Bridge On The River Kwai – a great film, but an acknowledged work of fiction. In fact, Lomax commented that he had “never seen such well-fed prisoners of war.”

There was in fact no bridge over the River Kwai, because there was no river called the Kwai. The film itself was shot in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka. Much later, to satisfy a growing tourist demand to visit such a bridge, the Thai authorities changed the name of a river crossed by the only remaining prisoner of war built bridge, at Kanchanaburi.

To Churchill, the Fall of Singapore, on February 15th 1942, was “the greatest disaster ever to have befallen the British Empire”. Outnumbered, outgunned, with little air support and with virtually no knowledge of fighting in jungle terrain, the Allied forces stood little chance against an organised enemy, who confounded expectations by advancing down through the Malayan jungle instead of attacking from the sea. 25,800 British and 18,000 Australian servicemen were amongst the 200,000 men who found themselves prisoners of the Japanese.

The defeat of the Japanese navy at the Battle of Midway in June 1942 effectively shut off the sea route to the Indian Ocean and triggered a decision to complete a rail link from China to India, to supply the Japanese campaign in Burma. The missing piece of that line was the 415 km section from Thailand into Burma, a route that would soon become notorious as the “Death Railway.”

Death Railway
Death Railway

The British had considered building this line forty years earlier but abandoned it due to the difficult terrain – carving through mountains and jungle – the climate, health conditions and the sheer difficulty of the logistics. The Japanese Government was not a signatory to the Geneva Convention and deemed that anyone taken prisoner forfeited their rights and was considered to have changed sides. They therefore made the decision to put the Allied prisoners of war to work on the railway.

Conditions were horrific. 6,648 British and 2,710 Australian POWs are known to have died, with many more left traumatised by their experiences. Many Allied survivors are keen to stress that the local Asian workers suffered the harshest treatment.

Eric Lomax  was one of 80,000 British-led allied troops to be captured and imprisoned by the Japanese – 5,000 were killed in action before the eventual surrender. Along with other POWs, Lomax was marched to the Changi prison (built by the British in 1936). From Changi, Eric and thousands of other POWs were transported en masse by train to Kanchanaburi in the west of Thailand, where they were forced to construct sections of the Thai-Burma Railway.

Born in Edinburgh in 1919, Lomax had worked for the Post Office but trained as an engineer and served as second lieutenant in the Royal Corps of Signals at the onset of war. Thanks to this engineering background, he was spared the often fatal work on the frontline of construction. Instead he was kept back to help design and engineer the railway. With moral low, Lomax and his fellow soldiers constructed a basic radio receiver, which enabled them to share news of the war from the BBC World Service.

But the radio that brought hope to many starved and exhausted workers was discovered, and Lomax was singled out for torture and interrogation by Takashi Nagase – at the time masqueraded as an interpreter, but was later uncovered as a Japanese intelligence office. He was subjected to cruel and unusual punishment at Nagase’s hands.

After a spell with the Colonial Service in Ghana, Lomax returned to Scotland and began working for the Scottish Gas Board and Strathclyde University, but like many soldiers during WWII, his experiences of torture and death haunted him. In an astonishing twist, his wife Patti managed to track down his torturer, who was still in Thailand and had become a tour guide at the very place Lomax had been imprisoned. Lomax made the extraordinary decision to meet him and found Nagase to be repentant. The two shared memoirs and became friends, visiting one another on several occasions.

(Left to right) Jeremy Irvine, Eric Lomax, Colin Firth
(Left to right) Jeremy Irvine, Eric Lomax, Colin Firth

The producers of the new film – Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson – worked closely with Lomax when developing The Railway Man. Their first meetings with Lomax were only two years after the book was published. Originally expecting Lomax to retell the story in his book, they realized that they’d “come into a story that was still unfolding. Suddenly a man who had blocked out the world for decades was a public figure, expected to share his most intimate secrets.”

Colin Firth, who plays the older Lomax (Jeremy Irvine plays the younger) had actually known a man who’d been on the Death Railway. He says, “he was actually our local Labour parliamentary candidate and it was often told how this is something he carried with him and that he’d actually had some sort of experience of reconciliation. It all connected.” Firth and Irvine also met Lomax in the lead up to filming.Talking about the poignant relationship between Lomax and his wife, Nicole Kidman explained, “I’ve always believed that people fuse through pain. People don’t fall in love, or really find deep love when everything is good. When you really find it is when you have to go through pain together. And if you choose to stay together you really find something much deeper.”

Eric Lomax visited the filming set, but sadly died in 2012.

The Railway Man is at cinemas now. Eric Lomax’s memoirs are available from Amazon here.

About Rebecca Rideal

Rebecca Rideal
Founder and editor of The History Vault, Rebecca is a historian of seventeenth-century England, a former specialist factual television producer, and the author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

Check Also

Medieval Textiles

Many modern people think that clothes in the Middle Ages were drab, grey-brown things. Archaeological …