Most survivors of the notorious Thai/Burma “Death Railway” kept quiet about what happened to them in the War. At least, they were quiet in the daytime. Their nights were filled with rages and nightmares. Decades on, Eric Lomax broke his silence. Soldier that he was, he turned and faced his demons - both psychological and real. With the help of a remarkable woman, Eric sought out and confronted Takashi Nagase, the officer who had presided at his interrogation and torture. He told the story in The Railway Man - an astonishing memoir that twists around one horrible irony: as a boy, Eric had been enthralled by the great steam trains that piled in and out of Edinburgh’s Waverley Station. As a young soldier he saw his comrades worked to death, and was himself tortured on the Death Railway.
Once he had broken his silence, Eric was passionate about sharing all he had learned - that we are better, stronger than we think are, that being vulnerable is part of that strength, that love can bring you back from the very darkest place. So it was an unnerving, solemn moment for us when - in the Railway Hotel in York - Eric entrusted us with the making of the film of The Railway Man. We did all the things you would have expected us to do. We went with him to Edinburgh to visit all his old stamping grounds - his school, his place of work, the bridge where he watched the trains go by. We went to his childhood home. The young couple who were living there had found a toy train under the floorboards. It was surely Eric’s.
We went to Tokyo and recorded interviews with Takashi Nagase. We visited Eric’s home in Berwick-upon-Tweed and pored over his unrivalled collection of Bradshaw’s Railway Time Tables - some of them so ancient that they showed the times of horse drawn mail coaches as well as trains. We went for walks along the sea front. Whenever he came down to London he would visit our offices in Soho. We thought we had bought the rights to a book. We found that we had become part of the life of a man. A great and complicated and important man. It’s hard to make any film but The Railway Man was particularly hard. It was hard to write the script - to find the balance between the darkness of its heart and the light of its conclusion. To find a happy ending that did not seem pat, to find a way to do justice to the horror without it overwhelming everything else. As time went by we saw Eric changing. When we first met him the book had not long been published, his historic meeting with Nagase was a recent event. As the years went by we saw him become something of a public figure, grow comfortable in that role, become more relaxed about talking about what had happened.
As more time went by we saw him grow older, more frail. The trips to London stopped. The World changed as fast as Eric did. Eric’s confrontation with Nagase was more or less unprecedented at the time. Now Truth and Reconciliation committees are part of the process of how we build nations. On the other hand, the torture to which Eric was subjected seemed like a remote and barbaric chapter in human history when we first met Eric. Now water boarding too has somehow become part of the mainstream.
As the years went by we silently shifted from “we’re going to make this film soon” to “we have to make this film before Eric dies.” Sometimes we lost faith in ourselves. Sometimes we lost faith in each other. But Eric never lost faith in us. And we never lost faith in the story. The hardest thing of all of course was how to cast Eric. They simply don’t make them like Eric any more. Many of the obvious candidates - Michael Redgrave, Robert Donat, Roger Livesey - were long departed. The only actor we could think of who had those vanishing qualities - grace, understated strength and intelligence - was Colin Firth. He took the train to Berwick with us. He sat in Eric’s front room. He looked through those ancient railway timetables. They laughed. When Eric laughed he would raise both hands and cover his mouth. His blue eyes would crinkle and twinkle. It was probably that giggle as much as the script that bound Colin to the movie.
So we were finally shooting the movie. It was such a joy, a relief that we sometimes forgot what a dark tale we were telling. Members of Eric’s family turned up to the set most days. There was a rolling reunion around the catering van, delivering delightful insights into the man but also reminding us of the huge burden the families of the prisoners of war carried. We took care to schedule one day of shooting near Eric’s house so that he’d be able to visit the set and swank a little about being played by Colin Firth. We spent the morning at the bottom of his street but he was too tired and shivery to come out. So Colin went and had lunch with him, taking his co-star Nicole Kidman. This pepped him up enormously so he put on his bobble hat and woolly muffler and insisted on coming out to see what was going on. By then we’d moved to the top of a steep hill overlooking the harbour. It took a team of sparks to hoist his wheelchair onto the location and navigate him through the tracks and wires and cranes. It was a little bit Fitzcarraldo and a little bit Heath Robinson. When we’d settled him by the monitor, he pointed to the dolly track on which the camera was mounted. “I’d be fascinated to learn,” he said, “what gauge that track is.” Going home afterwards, Eric said “this was one of the best days of my life”.
While we were in the edit, Eric passed away. We were heartbroken to lose him. All the more so because we were just a few of weeks short of us getting the film into a state where he could see it. We’d promised Eric he’d see that film one day. Had we broken our promise? Thinking about it now, it was probably a mercy. Eric Lomax’s great achievement was to have survived the darkest place and to have left it behind. Why would he want to revisit that in dolby stereo and technicolour? What could we add to what he already knew? His greatest victory was that he was able to shake off the dark shadows that had hunted him and to die with heart full on friendship and cake, love and steam trains.