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The powerful new film, To End All Wars, set on the Thai/Burma Railway of Death during the war, features Australia’s John Gregg as Dr ‘Christ of the River’ Coates. The cast and crew formed a unique bond during filming, as Gregg tells Andrew L. Urban.

When Australian actor John Gregg auditioned for the role of Dr Coates in the war drama, To End All Wars, he had no idea who Dr Albert Coates was, other than a Australian prisoner held captive by the Japanese during World War II, together with a contingent of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who were forced to build the infamous Thai/Burma Railway of Death in the valley of the Kwai river.

“When I got the role, I rang Tim Bowden (ABC journalist and ex war correspondent) and asked if he knew anything about him. He gave me a contact and I ended up talking to one of the men who survived the very same POW camp, and when I told him I was playing Coates, he said, ‘oh, we called him Christ of the River’ – so suddenly I find that it’s not just another part – but a legendary figure.” Dr Coates later became Sir Albert Coates.

"relished the role"

Gregg, a suitably gallant looking actor with extensive theatre, tv and film credits, relished the role even more, knowing the character better, after considerable research. He took a bundle of books with him to Hawaii where the film was shot in the crater of an extinct volcano on Kaui. “I also spoke to his sister and his son – who’s a pathologist – and discovered this extraordinary man, who was a friend of Ernest Gordon…I saw several letters they had written to each other.”

It was Captain Ernest Gordon’s book (Through The Valley Of The Kwai) of his experience in the POW that is the basis of To End All Wars. But where the book and the film differ from many other war dramas set in Japanese prison camps, is that the emotional journey is toward forgiveness and reconciliation. Considering the brutality meted out to the prisoners under the infamous and ancient Japanese bushito code, this is a remarkable element well served by the film. 

Perhaps some of that Christian attitude seeped through the entire cast and crew on the shoot, because John Gregg recalls how unusually close everyone was. “We all mixed and bonded so heavily it nearly killed me!” he says with a smile. “We all stayed together and there were no cliques, no groups, no differentiation. Actually, I remember Kiefer Sutherland calling it a fluke, that everyone was so close.”

Sutherland plays the sole American prisoner in the camp, Lt Tom Reardon; Ciaran McMenamin plays Gordon and Robert Carlyle plays the angriest of the prisoners, Major Ian Campbell. 

"to the more noble notions of human behaviour"

The film traces the brutal life at the camp, the backbreaking task of building the railway and how Gordon almost dies. Nursed back to life, he takes to teaching as a means of survival and keeping his sanity, and the lessons go beyond facts – to the more noble notions of human behaviour, and finally to the concept of mercy and forgiveness.

Nobody in Australia seems to know why the film has not had a theatrical release (it is released through 21st Century Pictures on VHS and DVD on November 27, 2002) considering it has well known stars – not to mention that it’s a fine film. Through 2001, the film screened at the Telluride, Toronto, Mill Valley and Hawaii Film Festivals, where it was nominated for the Best Feature Film award.

Gregg explains how director David L. Cunningham, with a strong documentary making background, was determined to cast all the characters out of the countries of their origin, rather than simply find expats in Los Angeles. That’s how Gregg himself was cast; others came from Japan, the UK, Scotland – and Sutherland from America. “You can see from the film how he works… he’s always prepared to listen. It’s an experienced cast and he needed their experience. And he’s made a fine film with a fluid look…it becomes quite formal when we’re inside the huts where the Japanese officers are, and then gets loose and wilder when we’re back outside.”

"a great experience"

The seven week shoot involved many night shoots, sometimes in the rain. “But it was a great experience. And it’s a rare thing, but many of us are still in contact. It was one of the most joyous jobs I’ve had.”

Published November 28, 2002

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