John McCarthy

Following the recent home entertainment release of The Railway Man, HeyUGuys was privileged to have an opportunity to speak with British journalist John McCarthy. From 1986 to 1991 McCarthy was a victim of torture – one of the journalists held prisoner during the Lebanon hostage crisis. The story of the crisis was brought to the screen in the 1993 film Hostages in which Colin Firth played McCarthy.

Now The Railway Man sees Firth appearing as the older Eric Lomax. It is perhaps one of those coincidences cinema and life is famous for, but it is one that links the three men .

One recent Monday morning John took the time to speak with us about his friendship with Lomax, and the importance of The Railway Man as both entertainment, but also as a deeper exploration of the past that brings history and the present day hurtling towards one another.


Why a career in journalism? Was there that one inspirational moment?

Well actually no; I’m afraid it’s far more mundane than that. Back when I was at university I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to do. I had a couple of jobs filling advertising space in trade magazines, but to be perfectly honest I wasn’t very good at it. I happened to have the luck of being at university with a guy who was already working as a journalist for UPITN [United Press International Television News], where he got me a job as an office temp.

We were based in ITN’s headquarters, and just feeling the buzz of an environment where the international news was coming in, and seeing people covering stories, turning it around and putting it out, I was bitten by the news bug. So within three or four years of arriving there I got a job as a journalist.

You have a very personal connection to both the book and the film [of The Railway Man] as you were a victim of torture. When did you first read Erik Lomax’s book?

I read it soon after it came out, though I had already met Eric a few times before then. As well as being supported by the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, he had also been working with them. Now it has changed its name to Freedom from Torture, which is less of a mouthful. But Eric and his colleagues, other former Far East POWs had been meeting with Helen Bamber who set up the Medical Foundation.

So I met Eric because he was involved with the charity, and at the time I got to know him he had just finished the book. I remember reading it and it feeling rather strange. I had already met him, and he was the loveliest, most gentle character you had ever met. He was softly spoken and just so sweet that you couldn’t imagine that he had been through anything unpleasant in his entire life. He seemed your absolute typical late middle aged gentleman. So having already met him and obviously having known about the story, when I read the book in detail it was extraordinary to think that we had met. To think I had shook his hand, and we had chatted. My experiences were similar to his, but to see what he and his comrades had been through as prisoners of the Japanese.

It is a fantastic book and they have done extremely well condensing it all into a flowing movie. But it was a devastating experience to be able to think as I read the book of the actual man. To see him in my mind’s eye and think how that fellow went through all of this, and now he’s this older chap who’s still a lovely character. It was extraordinary.

People are like chapters of a book, and of course there is the old expression “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” You can’t know someone until you delve into their personality or their past. Your encounter with Eric seems to speak of the importance and value of taking the time to learn a person’s story.

I believe that’s important because you can read headlines about things, and you can literally look at someone and think that’s what they are like. But my experience of meeting Eric, and as it happens talking with other people at Freedom from Torture, is that you realise in walking down the street in London as I did today, you don’t know anybody’s story. I don’t where they come from or what their story might have been. I don’t know whether they have lived in London all of their lives or whether they’ve come from somewhere else. There are an extraordinary number of stories, and rather than judging people that is an important lesson to consider. It is that idea of there is so much of your story I still do not know.

I wonder what the reaction was in the theatre, because I only recently watched it at home on DVD.

When you looked at the faces of the people as they left, when you looked into their eyes you could see that this film had touched them in some way. They weren’t talking, and if they were only a few words were spoken. But you could see the emotional impact, and to see a film have that effect upon an audience is special.

Absolutely, and thanks for telling me because I haven’t had a chance to see it with a group of people. My wife and I watched it together, just the two of us, and we were struck with shock and awe. But thank you it’s nice to know that.

On a dramatic level, the film simmers throughout. It doesn’t try and become overly dramatic, but rather it just allows the truth of the events to be the heart of the drama and in so doing it asks us to connect with the story that unfolds.

I think that is very true, and of course having read the book it was interesting for me watching the film and thinking oh, I don’t remember their life together quite like that. Even though it has to get through the story quickly because it’s a film rather than a three hundred page book; it does do one thing brilliantly. Rather cleverly it gives that sense of the man who on one level is still himself, who is still that very gentle man; the middle aged Lomax obsessed with railway timetables, but who’s got this extraordinary cloud hanging over him all of the time. It controls his body right through and through, and I remember watching those scenes, and Eric telling me that all his life there he was working quietly in an office or whatever he was doing, and he was thinking kill the Japanese, kill the Japanese, kill the Japanese. So as you say there is that brooding sense of what’s going on here?

There are moments where he almost becomes menacing because he’s so strange, and we are left to think why? But then when we get to the jungle where they are building the railway we realise, “Yes, that’s why.” This is in the back of his mind all of the time and it’s incredibly powerfully and cleverly done.

Film needs to be entertaining but it can also paint a picture of experiences and situations that we cannot begin to imagine. A victim of torture yourself how well does it strike the balance of entertainment with a deeper exploration of the subject?

Well it does that brilliantly, and it is such an important story. There is an awful amount of violence in today’s television and films. So often it is used for entertainment or titillation; used to keep us watching, whether it is a Bond movie or whatever it may be. The appalling violence in The Railway Man is very real. It’s visceral and it’s important for it to be there. It is important for us to be shocked, to think of this young man and his colleagues going through what they went through, so that then we can understand how that affects people deep into middle age. Eric was lucky that he had the redemption of working through that, writing his story and especially going back there and meeting with [Takashi] Nagase and reconnecting with him. It’s terribly important.

We still hear so much about the Second World War through films such as Saving Private Ryan. But the story about the war in the Far East is less familiar. Yet the horrors of torture, particularly in terms of modern politics with what is going on around the world, it is important to understand it, and understand what it was like because of how many of those practices continue. It wasn’t just some loony Japanese army out there in the 1940s. Those things carry on, and this is what it does to simple, ordinary nice people. This is a very important part of the movie because it draws you in, and you want to watch it. It’s about an ordinary bloke who goes through extraordinary things, and thankfully he does come out of it the other end, but in a very surprising way.

Film is capable of looking beyond these events as an experience to try to understand the deeper consequences. This is something that film can do, which serves an important purpose for society.

That’s true, and The Railway Man does that. On the one level it is a very interesting movie – it’s entertaining, brilliantly acted, and in particular the young Jeremy Irvine is fantastic. So it’s got all that you need whether you watch it at the theatre or at home on DVD. But it has this profoundly important aspect. Whilst it is a human story it has a political comment about the way we run the world, and the effects of not running the world correctly or letting bad things happen. So from that perspective yes you’re right. It reflects on some of the things that a few years ago people wouldn’t have been making a film about, and perhaps we certainly wouldn’t have been putting big stars into something that’s as impressive and as important as this.

The Railway Man is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.