Friday, February 4, 2011

#33 A Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

"One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity."

In the largesse that was the Second World War, certain conflicts will spring almost immediately to the mind of the average American. These include, on the Western Front, battles such as D-Day, The Invasion of Italy, Operation Market Garden, and the Battle of the Bulge. If you’re lucky, they may also have heard of Stalingrad, The battle for Berlin, and…perhaps even El Alamein! In the Pacific theater the average American has probably heard of Iwo Jima, Midway, Pearl Harbor, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, and perhaps the leaving, and subsequent retaking of the Philippines. The common theme of these battles, with the exclusion of a few Soviet ones here and there, and perhaps one British one, they are almost exclusively American battles, and specifically (Pearl Harbor excluded), American battles which the Americans won. This sort of common perception of World War II among Americans brings to mind for me, and certainly lends credence to a certain webcomic I read recently, drawn by Kate Beaton at which slyly noted about World War II that, “America sends its best hunks to save the Earth,” and that “Ugly people and other people may have fought against the Nazis but we can never know for sure.” It’s a very funny observation, and one that certainly has merit, and while she in this comic was referring specifically to common perceptions of WWII Europe, I think it’s even more notable in the Pacific Theater. While Americans certainly fought and died in large numbers to defeat the Japanese, what often goes forgotten is that other nations fought the Japanese during this time as well. So my long introduction brings us finally to the movie for today, The Bridge on the River Kwai, which takes place in WWII, but rather than concerning itself with the standard Nazi killfest, instead deals with the often unsung British soldiers who fought the Japanese in Burma. This movie was well known to me long before I started this little project of mine – it being a favorite of my dad’s – before this point I don’t believe I had ever seen the movie all the way through before now. Having seen it now, though, I must say, it was a very good film, and one that I am sure I will cherish fondly for a long time to come.

The movie begins by showing graves on the side of a railroad, a train passes, and we are then presented with the title screen, “The Bridge on the River Kwai. The camera then follows the train down the railroad as we pass very starved looking men working on building the railroad. The train reaches the end of the line, and we hear some very forbidding, ominous music playing. We then cut to a pair of people who are sitting around digging a grave. The camera shows us that there are many, perhaps thousands, of similar graves in the area. The two stop when a Japanese officer arrives, one of the two men, an American, attempts to bribe the Japanese officer to get the two of them onto the sick list. The Japanese officer takes the bribe, and then leave. The American then returns to grave digging. He gives a sermon for the dead soldier, whose name, rank, and life he could not remember. We are snapped from this peaceful reverie with the arrival of a new body of soldiers, marching in orderly fashion, and whistling the famous, easily identifiable tune of this movie. The regiment arrives in a prison camp, and order themselves in military fashion. The soldiers are then greeted by the head of the camp, Major Saito. Saito tells the camp that they will be building a bridge over the River Kwai, a bridge that must be finished by mid-May. He also tells them that hard work will be rewarded, laziness punished severely, and finally, he tells them that everyone shall work as equals. The head of the regiment, Colonel Nicholson takes issue with this, and informs Saito that forcing officer POWs to work goes against the Geneva Convention. Saito says he does not care, and that all officers must work.

Later that night, the officers meet together in a manner similar to the later-released (and unafilliated) The Great Escape, to decide what they are going to do. Nicholson believes Saito understands that officers will not work, and that an escape commission will not be necessary. The next day Saito tells the British soldiers that their officers will work. Nicholson staunchly refuses, and tensions come to a head as Saito attempts to force Nicholson to work through threats. Nicholson stands his ground though, and all the officers are thrown into the oven. Shortly after this, the American, Shears, who has been watching from the sick bay, makes his escape with his partner grave digger, and a British officer. The officer and the grave digger were shot and killed, and Shears was pushed off a cliff and into the river. Meanwhile at camp, the officers languish in the ovens and the soldiers work to sabotage the bridge, Saito begins trying to reason with Nicholson, but all of his threats and bribes were turned down; he will not back down on his principles. Finally, the threat of a much delayed bridge forces Saito to stand down, he relents and lets all the officers out with the promise of not forcing them to work. Meanwhile, we learn that Shears survived the fall and wound up in a Burmese village, where he is nursed back to health, and sent on his way. After a long journey, he is picked up and brought to the city of Colombo in Ceylon. There he has been relaxing for a number of weeks before he is met by a British officer who wishes to see him about what he saw in the prison camp.

Meanwhile, Nicholson has taken a survey of the bridge, and determined that the Japanese are doing it all wrong. He decides that the British are actually going to build the bridge, and that they are going to do it right. They tell as much to Saito, who has broken over losing out to Nicholson, and has collapsed under the pressure of finishing off schedule. Back in Colombo, Shears visits the British officer, and discovers that he is part of a covert ops regiment, and they want to blow up the Bridge on the River Kwai, and therefore need his information about the terrain around the prison camp. The officer tells Shears he will have to go with the squad to help direct operations overland. Shears, who we learn is a coward, tries to get out of going back into action, but the British officer forces him to. After assembling a squad, the troops land in Burma, losing one of the 4 squad members in the drop. The men decide to continue all the same, and so they make their way to the camp. After some time marching through jungle, and the serious injury of the head of the squad, the men arrive at the camp, just in time to see the bridge finish, with the first train set to be passing over on the next day. The squad set up explosives, but Nicholson, who has come to see the bridge as his legacy, sees the charges and warns Saito. Eventually Nicholson, Shears, Saito and all but the injured officer are killed, but the Bridge is blown up, by Nicholson as with his dying gasp he falls on the plunger.

The acting in this movie is absolutely fantastic. Alec Guinness, who plays Nicholson, is absolutely fantastic. I love the very subtle change that overtakes him throughout the course of the movie. He starts out as a lofty and principled British officer, who chooses to save his battalion by surrendering. He’s principled, he believes in order, making sure his men remain forever soldiers, and strongly believes in the tenets of the Geneva conventions. However, by the end of the film, the bridge begins to override everything he once held dear; eventually forcing the officers to work after all, and finally, even forcing the sick to work on the bridge. The end of the film, in which Nicholson finally realizes this change is touching, and really is the climax of the film.

I also rather liked William Holden, who plays Shears. The sign of a great coward in film is one who you think may be a coward, but are not entirely sure of. Anyone can go on camera and just try to run away and say standard cowardly things like a large ham, but a great coward is one where you think he or she may be a coward, but are not entirely sure until he is forced to choose. William Holden plays his role like this. When you first meet Shears, he doesn’t at all appear cowardly, rather, he appears as someone who has been weathered by years in a prison camp, and his experience has taught him to be cautious, practical, and selfish. As the movie progresses, you begin to guess that he’s both disingenuous and a coward. This makes the climax all the better when Shears, a man who is dragged kicking and screaming back into Burma, performs the ultimate sacrifice, giving up his life in order to make sure that the mission succeeds. The change in character was both natural and very well played by Holden.

The final actor I liked in this movie was Sessue Hayakawa, who played Colonel Saito, and boy did I like him. When I first saw him, I naturally expected him to be stereotypical harsh prison guard with a character with about as much depth as a puddle after a light drizzle. This is absolutely not so, though. If anything, Saito is one of the best developed characters in the movie. Through the course of the film you can see the fear of failure, and the pressure to succeed starting to get to him. He’s not actually a bad guy, he’s just terrified of failing because he does not want to die. Hayakawa portrays this character superbly. On the front he appears to be a tough, cold-hearted killer, but you can tell that this is all a fa├žade. One of the best scenes in this film is when Saito relents and releases all of the officers. The British prisoners return from work to see this and begin to cheer for their officers. The scene then cuts to show Saito alone in his room, huddled up and crying. It really humanizes the presumed villain, and helps show that not every Japanese officer was evil, it really humanizes the war; it was very touching.

The directing in this movie was pretty good. The cinematography was excellent; the movie demonstrates this right from the get go in the opening title, which I already described earlier on in this review. There were also a couple really cool transitions in the movie, for example one scene in which the camera pans from the action to the sun, and then from the sun down to another scene, it was very effectively done. The explosion scene is very cool, definitely a nice explosion, and watching the train going over the bridge at the end was very satisfying; making it seem like what the agents died for was not in vain. Director David Lean does an especially good job with the scene in which Shears and another agent are setting the charges on the bridge. This scene is contrasted by a scene of the British soldiers celebrating the completion of the bridge which Lean shows concurrently, cutting back and forth between partying and setting charges. What’s really neat about this is that the charge laying makes a scene which should be joyous and euphoric into a scene of tenseness and irritation. Additionally, this splitting has the benefit of making the charge laying scene all the more tense by taking you away from the action, leaving you to guess whether or not they’re going to get caught, and puts off the answer for another few minutes. It was really awesome. Additionally, Lean makes excellent use of dramatic irony in this film at the end, when Shears and his compatriots arrive at the bridge and it appears as though the Japanese have coerced the British and are abusing them harshly, when in reality the British under Nicholson have basically taken over the camp, and want to build a bridge to last for generations to come. This irony is better still because, even though Nicholson is acting traitorously by aiding and abetting the Japanese, you still feel sympathetic to his cause, and at least in some ways, want the bridge to last as well. This means that when the time comes to blow up the bridge, you still aren’t entirely sure who you should be rooting for, it’s very effectively used irony.

I also like the way in which this movie seems to be a number of different movies at once. At the beginning of the film it appears to be an escape film. Then as it progresses it appears as though Kwai is going to be about a regiment of British soldiers enduring the harshness of Japanese atrocities common in POW camps during WWII. Then it appears as though it’s going to be an escape film again, detailing the escape of Shears. THEN it appears as though the film is going to be about how the British prisoners saved the life of Saito by building his bridge, and the repercussions. THEN it turns into a standard action film as a reluctant Shears joins up with covert ops troops to take out the bridge. THEN it turns into some kind of action film with the underpinnings of some kind of romance between Shears and his Burmese guide, and between another operative and his Burmese guide. FINALLY, the film turns out to be a tragedy as most of the main characters are killed off in spectacular fashion.

This was an awesome film. It had everything you can expect from a film of its type; good action, entertaining dialogue, great pacing, and a whole bunch of tension. I believe this film was on the list for a number of reasons. The first is awards. This movie won 7 Oscars, which is an incredible number by any reckoning. Moreover, this film has one of the most iconic tunes that exists today; one of those tunes that everyone knows, but not exactly where it came from. But above all that, this movie is on the list because it is a damned good film. Not only is it of high technical quality, but it is enjoyable to watch, and any time a movie can be good critically and be a joy and a pleasure to watch, it is definitely deserving of praise.

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