Plot: What’s it about?
“To End All Wars” was not at all what I expected. Secure in the conceit that most any film worth seeing had surely been spotted by my movie-going radar at least once, I was not entirely enthusiastic about this release upon first viewing it. The cover art didn’t help my initial assessment, looking more like a quick cashing-in of Kiefer Sutherland’s stardom (complete with top billing for Robert Carlyle) than a case for a film with any real substance behind it. Well, once again, it pleases me to say that I was not only wrong, but egregiously so. This is far more of a character study of allied POWs in a World War II Japanese prison camp than the cheap action film I was expecting. But what’s more, this film actually has a point (quite the rarity these days). To be sure, this is a low-budget picture, but I actually found that fact to help the story if anything, lending a documentary feel to the movement that might have been lost with a glossy Hollywood overhaul. Indeed, David L. Cunningham is no stranger to the docu-genre, a fact pointed out in both the included commentary track and behind-the-scenes featurette. If anything, I came away from this film with a greater sense of a part of the second World War that has been largely overlooked and rarely filmed. Acting is solid all around. Thankfully, the two Japanese leads give the English-speaking actors a run for their money. Given the subject matter on hand, this is a major blessing to the production. Kiefer Sutherland (Yanker) is a standout as usual, infusing his character with more depth in his small role than the two real leads have in presenting respective archetypes (more on that later). One word of warning, though: this movie is especially rough-going if you love Jack Bauer as much as I do.
This is marketed on the case as the story of four main characters amongst the allied POWs in the camp, but I really felt that this was more of an operatic piece than a specific study of each man’s struggle against oppression. Don’t get me wrong, there are thickly-etched lines drawn here in abundance, and I did enjoy the contrasts and parallels between certain characters (both blatant and subtle) throughout the film, but on the whole, I got the lasting impression of an ensemble movie. I believe this fact to be to the film’s credit, however, as even peripheral arcs have resonance and affect the whole. I found myself involved with many more individuals’ stories than I’d thought I would be, and there is an undeniable power in much of this picture that was more than I had hoped for or anticipated. What sets this film apart from other war and prison films that I’ve seen is a dramatic left turn in its second half that takes the story somewhere introspective and almost passive – an admittedly far cry from where I assumed this story would take me. I did appreciate the message of love and forgiveness present here, and I do give Cunningham a lot of credit for trying to do something both daring and unexpected. I was surprised by the direction this movie took, and surprises are always good in my opinion, especially in movies which seem on the surface to be a breeding ground for mindless entertainment.
That being said, I have to take issue with something that has bothered me since I watched this film a few days ago. If I had no choice but to break this film down into two characters, it would be Gordon and Campbell. Gordon fights his war by starting a school for the men and nurturing the hope that these men have to stay alive. He becomes a distilled pacifist as the film goes on, preaching Christian values and his own, special form of justice to his fellow prisoners. As a counter-balance, Campbell is the quintessential soldier. He’s the one who won’t take any of this abuse lying down and wants to organize an escape plan right from the start. He’s not a humanitarian by any means, taking most any opportunity to pick off Japanese soldiers and expedite what Gordon calls “his dangerous plans”. My problem lies in the film’s use of these two men as moral devices even to the point of excluding any sense of objectivity and common sense. By the end of this picture, the story has taken us to a place that is so dramatically one-sided as to be condescending – possibly even insulting. I also think the film might have played better had it dispensed with the obviously manipulative score from scenes that could have gone two different ways emotionally (and in my case, I sometimes did go the other way and felt a bit annoyed at times). But then, this movie has a lesson to teach, and its single-mindedness ultimately takes an unfortunate turn toward literal metaphors and obtrusive symbolism. I respect this film a great deal and I believe there to be many moments of greatness to be found in what is ultimately as derivative a picture as I expected, albeit presented in a completely unexpected way. First time director Cunningham has produced a solid and impressive first film, although he would have done well to acknowledge that while the war changed the lives of men like Gordon, it was the lives of soldiers like Campbell that changed the war.
Video: How does it look?
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, “To End All Wars” looks extremely nice on DVD. This is an impressive if subdued transfer (if that makes sense), making due with the near-monotone color palette and punishingly dark photography. Considering what is here to work with, it’s amazing that this transfer didn’t crumble under the pressure of what could have become a muddy, murky mess of a presentation. The images are sharp and detail level is just excellent, even in the film’s many recurring night scenes. I noticed few compression problems and edge enhancement is thankfully kept to a minimum (although its presence along with some occasional and very slight blocking causes this to rate slightly lower than reference level). Balance is hard to gauge on a film such as this. If I had to guess, I’d say skin tones tend to veer toward the unnaturally yellow side, but then we are talking about a film about generally filthy prisoners. This could very well be a perfectly accurate rendering. Black levels are solid and contrast right on. This is a very good transfer that is sure to please any fan of the film. Subtitles are avilable in English and Spanish (why none are available in Japanese, of course, is anyone’s guess).
Audio: How does it sound?
The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround audio track presented here is on par with the video. It’s not given much to do considering the relatively subtle nuances present through most of the film, but it is a nicely atmospheric mix that encompasses the viewer nicely. I was never drawn out of the film, and the top and bottom ends seem to be balanced quite well (though the one quick shout from Campbell toward Yanker did seem to break up a bit in the high-end on my system). When the action does kick in, this track does not disappoint, with highly aggresive surrounds and a thoroughly convincing overall soundstage. Your subwoofer will even get a bit of a workout toward the end of the film during some of the bombing sequences. Not the most expansive track I’ve heard, but a good effort nonetheless. On the whole, I was impressed with the quality of the presentation of this film, and this audio track does a fine job of complimenting the video.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Director David L. Cunningham’s commentary track for this film is quite good and well worth a listen for those of you into quieter, more technically-oriented efforts. This isn’t as anecdotal as I prefer, but there’s a lot of interesting information to be found here despite that. What’s even better is that there are virtually no lapses into silence to be found during the entire running time. This is a guy who likes to talk, making this track is quite consistently engaging. The behind-the-scenes documentary is also quite good (and far and away better than I had anticipated). This is a fairly detailed look at production from all sides, and I was very impressed with the quality of this piece. This is most certainly not your typical piece of DVD fluff. There’s some real substance here, and anyone who enjoyed the film will enjoy seeing this at least once. Great work. Lastly, we have a trailer that is so completely out of place on this release as to be utterly laughable (though I can’t imagine it being otherwise on any other disc). I’ll leave that one a surprise for those of you who like such things, but I warn you: “it will scare you to DEATH!”