THE RAILWAY MAN
Notes on A Railway Man, By Frank Cottrell Boyce
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 version of his book.
We did all the things you would have expected us to do. We went with him to
Edinburgh to visit all his old stomping 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 was 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
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
As time went by we saw Eric changing. When we first met him the book had not
long been published and 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 and become more relaxed about talking about what had
As more time went by we saw him grow older and more frail. The trips to
London stopped. The world changed as fast as Eric did. Eric's confrontation with
more or less unprecedented at the time. Now Truth and Reconciliation commissions
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 waterboarding too has somehow become part of
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 and 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 harbor. 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 that it had been one of the best days of his
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
Technicolor? 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.
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