To End All Wars
To End All Wars is a film with something to say. Which turns out to be its great strength, as well as its greatest weakness.
I should have loved this film: It's about self-sacrificing heroism in the face of impossible circumstances, the power of forgiveness over hatred, the futile tragedy of war and God's way of peace in the midst of it. And I was pulling for it, ever since reading the glowing article in Books & Culture a couple summers ago. Then after hearing about the filmmakers' travails trying to get it onto big screens or into video stores, I've been wanting this project to succeed.
The premise is a great one, and the story true, inspired by Ernest Gordon's autobiographical Miracle on the River Kwai. It comes out of the same brutal prisoner of war camps that gave us the deeply affecting Bridge on the River Kwai. The Japanese are striving to build a strategic railroad link to India, and they are willing to sacrifice their prisoners to build it on an impossible schedule. How will these men stay alive in such extreme and hopeless conditions?
The men begin a secretive "jungle university," teaching one another whatever they know best: the philosophy of Plato, the poetry of Shakespeare, or the radical teachings of Jesus. In so doing, they discover purpose and hope. Screenwriter Brian Godawa draws out the deepest of Christian truths in this horrific but anything-but-God-forsaken setting.
There is a spiritual maturity here that very few films achieve. When a man like Ernest Gordon—who survived the camps and went on to serve as chaplain at Princeton University for a quarter century—speaks of the faith, his experience gives him immense authority, and Godawa (a Christian) brings passion and wisdom to the task of rendering these truths into cinema. Unfortunately, it may be his very eagerness to convey these insights that undermines the effectiveness of the story he seeks to tell.
In his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films With Wisdom & Discernment, Godawa insists that every film is, fundamentally, the embodiment of a philosophy, and what Christian filmgoers should really be watching—or watching out for—are the underlying worldviews. It almost feels as though he sees a movie as a bottle, and what really counts is the message inside: we need to smash the bottle, sift through the broken glass and dig out the message concealed inside so we can decide whether it's Christian or not.
To End All Wars doesn't require much sifting or digging—the worldview is front and center, displayed in the way he fashions his characters and spelled out in an ever-present voice-over. The filmmakers don't want this picture to be described as "a Christian film," but for all its strong language and refusal to solve every problem with a conversion, I'm afraid it still feels like propaganda. That's the real problem with "Christian films"—their preaching. Worse swearing and better theology and production values only provide a higher-quality varnish on what is, after all, still a pulpit. To End All Wars doesn't hand us pat answers, but it hands us answers nonetheless, or at least theme statements, in a way that leaves little room for ambiguity or mystery.