HISTORY doesn't only repeat itself as farce: it also returns as drama, documentary and news. To mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the war in Asia, the BBC tried all three approaches. Charles Wheeler provided the establishing shots with a clear, sombre documentary about the horrendous battle for Burma (The Forgotten War, BBC1). Then, on News 45: VJ Day (BBC2), Sue Lawley recalled the first flush of that momentous evening by reading a silly spoof version of the headlines from 50 years ago. And finally, in an attempt to give an intimate resonance to all this remote, large-scale anguish, John Hurt impersonated the former PoW Eric Lomax in an earnest film (Prisoners of Time, BBC1) about a man struggling to cope with the memory of torture.

It is not the first time film-makers have had Hurt to thank for the rough edge he brings even to a soft-centred script. On this occasion his sad, foxy features were just right for a man haunted by 50 years of bad dreams - we could sense an alert intelligence beaten down and turned inwards by old wounds.

The film was certainly good-looking, and enjoyed the contrast between the lush invigorating greenery of modern Thailand and the stark horror of the wartime memories. Unfortunately the screenplay, co-written by the much-vaunted Chilean playwright Ariel Dorfman, gave Hurt plenty of reasons to look wounded. It often happens that real-life stories are too true to be good, and in this case Ariel, true to his name, had washed some of the stains out of the original, turning a miraculous coincidence into a formulaic parable about the value of forgiveness.

Lomax's excellent book, The Railwayman, describes his lifelong obsession with the voice of the Japanese interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who interrogated him beside the River Kwai. For seven days, the wheedling English voice filled his head, as a crude NCO broke his arms and choked him with a hosepipe. When he learned that this very interpreter had become an evangelical apologist for his nation's crimes, even building a shrinein Thailand, he yearned to meet and shame him.

It is an amazing story, told with genuine humility. And the film made much of the contrast between public and private apologies. Indeed, it was poignant to contrast Nagase's desperate plea for forgiveness with the week's diplomatic kerfuffle about Japanese "remorse". The idea that states can apologise involves a conception of clear, collective national will which few people apart from diplomats and generals actually hold. In the film, Nagase rustles up a surprise camera crew to meet Lomax, and makes a public avowal of guilt. Lomax marches off in a huff. "Do you know what he did to me?" he cries. "Ask him!" We were meant to see it as a sorry sign of clenched British reticence - as if all he needed was a therapeutic, air-clearing chat.

This was frankly disingenuous. The scene with the camera crew never happened, and is indeed an exact reversal of Lomax's own plan: he was the one collaborating on a documentary. But the film was anxious to present the men as duellists, giving the story an epic dimension it didn't need. When they met on the infamous bridge, they walked slowly towards one another, with no one else in sight, like gunslingers heading for a showdown.

In the book, Lomax is reconciled with Nagase in a Kyoto hotel. The film wanted something more sensational. It took the two men back to the torture chamber and gave them a shouting match. Nagase tried to shelter behind his 50-year-old rationalisation - I was only obeying orders, it was the Emperor's fault - but Hurt hit him with a clean punchline: "It wasn't the Emperor in this room," he said. "It was you."

It was a bad scene - a trite exorcism. But Hurt gave it a distinguished edge by recovering at last a degree of martial swagger and self-confidence. We could see, in the way Lomax came to life, that this place was in some awful sense home - the scene of his greatest triumph, the time when he saw the worst things and found the bravery to survive them.

Still, you couldn't help feeling that the only point of the story was that, implausibly, it was true. And this was the trouble: the script's many departures from the original provided all the bad moments. In a way they exposed the limitations of the medium. We saw Nagase writing to Lomax's wife - played with uncomprehending compassion by Rowena Cooper - a letter which ended: "The dagger of your letter has stabbed me to the bottom of my heart." In real life it ran: The dagger of your letter has thrusted me into my heart to the bottom." It is twice as expressive - the language buckles under the weight of ignorance as well as emotion. But you can see why the film had to smooth it into cliche: on voice-over it would have sounded patronising.

Charles Wheeler's documentary, a much more modest enterprise, had its feet firmly planted in facts. Wheeler narrated the calamitous story of the war in Burma with dry seriousness: an army that went 10 days without food, divisions cut off from their own forces when their commanders blew the bridge that was their only route to safety, prisoners tied to trees and used for bayonet practice. But he was also able to include plenty of bracing first-hand accounts. One former PoW complained about his captors: "Sometimes you had this little geezer, maybe five foot three, knocking the hell out of you, and there was nothing you could do." It was more expressive of a world subverted - with its out-of-date certainty that a good big'un will always beat a good little'un - than anything in Prisoners of Time.

As for the so-called "news", well, enough said. The only thing you thought, watching Sue Lawley reading out the 50- year-old headlines in the modern style, was how vacuous the modern style is. It would have been much nicer to have seen the actual news from the night in question - but this requires us to imagine a time when the television news did not exist, which takes some doing. The "modern style" is all we have, and it goes like this: "His Majesty and the Queen and the two princesses appeared for the fourth time, with the crowd still demanding more." It's history with hindsight, and it shows how dangerous it is to give busy reporters time to refine their platitudes.

Maybe they thought, as they showed the royals "braving the rain without umbrellas", and showed the same firework about five times, that they were satirising the wartime obsession with royalty, but what's different now? Sue Lawley couldn't quite keep a straight face. She knew she wasn't reading the news, only playing the part of a newsreader, and there was no mistaking the glossy smiley wink in her voice. The reporters were just as bad, forced as they were to serve up cartoons without irony: "The King and Queen," we heard, "delighted crowds by travelling in the open state landau." God bless'em. The best you could say, in the words of Emperor Hirohito, is that the idea developed not necessarily to the viewer's advantage.