To hell and back

To hell and back
Sydney-born director of The Railway Man, Jonathan Teplitzky.

Hellfire Pass was the name given to a stretch of the Death Railway on the Thai-Burma border. It is a cutting, a groove notched into the rock of a hill, which allows a rail track to be laid. Its name came from how, at night, the flickering torches illuminating the emaciated bodies of the toiling men, many of whom would die, made the area look like a depiction of eternal suffering.

The pass has come to represent the horror of the prisoner-of-war experience on the Death Railway. More than 6,000 British and close to 3,000 Australian prisoners died in its construction. As many as 20 per cent of all Australian wartime deaths took place in POW camps like the one at Hellfire Pass.

For The Railway Man, Sydney-born director Jonathan Teplitzky filmed the POW camp scenes in Queensland, but the railway construction sequences were shot in Thailand. Hellfire Pass is shown when the young Eric Lomax, whose experiences form the basis of the film, catches a frightening glimpse of the life ahead of him when the pass appears through the bars of the train hauling him and other prisoners taken in the surrender of Singapore.

He tells Life! on the telephone from Australia: "The scenes of the building of the railway were all shot on the actual Thai-Burma railway. We were about 60km north of Kanchanaburi. The further north you go, the less of the railway exists. A lot of the land was overgrown and we had to dig it out of the jungle and reclaim it for the scenes.

"But the passes that you see - Hellfire Pass and the others - they are the real passes which were cut through rock by the prisoners." It was powerfully moving for cast and crew to be shooting at the site of events which shaped Lomax's life.

Lomax, who died in 2012 aged 93 in the midst of the film's production, was consulted on The Railway Man along with his wife Patricia. Both gave details not included in his best-selling memoir of the same name to screenwriters Frank Cottrell Boyce and Andy Paterson, says Teplitzky, who is in his 40s.

"The film ended up being partly an adaptation of his memoir and also drawing a lot from those conversations which they had with the screenwriters over the years. For example, a passing event in Eric's book would, we realised, have great emotional and psychological implications," he says of his fourth feature film.

In the course of talking to the Lomaxes, the screenwriters would discover that Patti (played by Nicole Kidman), who had trained as a nurse, had played a crucial part in Lomax being able to talk about his post-war mental anguish. Her role is not discussed at length in the book, Teplitzky adds.

Being able to address and articulate that he was tortured and still suffered its psychological residue decades after the war was a huge step for a man steeped in military tradition, a fact the film highlights.

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