Bruce and I watched a powerful film last weekend called “The Railway Man,” starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman. It’s a dark but ultimately redemptive tale, based on a true story of Japanese treatment of a British Army officer captured in Singapore during World War II.
The film was interesting in light of a section I’m now working on for my biography of Eliza Scidmore. The chapter looks at her last book, As the Hague Ordains, a novel about POW conditions in Japan in 1905 during the Russo-Japanese War. It was her only work of fiction.
Eliza was in the Far East on a reporting trip when the war broke out. She got permission from the Japanese War Ministry to visit sites around the country where Russian prisoners were being held, in temples, schools and community centers. One of the four places she visited was Matsuyama, on the island of Shikoku along the Inland Sea. That’s where the book is set.
The topic of POWs interested Eliza because the First International Peace Conference, held at The Hague in 1899, had produced accords governing humane treatment of war captives. One provision called specifically for belligerent countries to treat prisoners of war “as regards food, quarters and clothing, on the same footing as the troops of the Government which has captured them.” Eliza was curious to see how they were being carried out.
Photograph of prisoner-of-war camp in Japan, from “As the Hague Ordains” (Henry Holt and Co., 1907)
At all the POW camps she visited in Japan, Eliza found the treatment of Russian prisoners exemplary. Even local residents acted sympathetically to the captives, plying them with cigarettes, plums and fans when they arrived on the island.
Because the POW issue was complicated to report in a magazine article, Eliza said, she wrote a novel instead. “I didn’t think people were likely to read a serious article about prisoners of war,” she told a reporter, “but they might do so if the issue were presented in lighter form.” The book purports to be the journal of a Russian officer’s wife who goes to the bedside of her wounded husband in Japan.
“The Railway Man” shows a very different picture 40 years later, when brutality at many POW camps made war a living hell even off the battlefield.
The main character in “The Railway Man,” Eric Lomax, is one of thousands of Allied prisoners of war sent to help build the Thai/Burma railway under hellhole conditions. He cobbles together a secret radio to bring news and hope to his colleagues. When it’s discovered, he’s accused of being a spy and brutally tortured.
Back home in Scotland, the experience has left him traumatized, threatening a late-in-life marriage that offers a chance at happiness. After learning that the young Japanese officer who tormented him is still alive—giving tours of the old torture camp, no less—Eric sets out to confront him.
Not an easy movie to watch, but one of great human drama, historical insight and good acting.
Order of the Sacred Crown medal (also known as Order of the Precious Crown)
As the Hague Ordains was first published anonymously—reflecting perhaps Eliza’s nervousness at trying her hand at fiction, or to preserve her integrity as a journalist.
Soon after she was revealed as the author in 1908, the Emperor of Japan awarded her the country’s Order of the Sacred Crown. “She wore it,” one friend recalled years later, “when the appropriateness of the occasion overcame her modest inclination to parade her honor.”