March 30, 2011

#36: The Bridge on the River Kwai

I'm not entirely sure what qualifies David Lean's 1957 Best Picture winner The Bridge on the River Kwai as an American film, given that its director, its star, its story and the bulk of its financing all came from the United Kingdom. It's even based on a French novel. William Holden is American, but as far as the rest are concerned, there's not much Yankee to be found. In fact, the film places eleventh on a parallel list by the British Film Institute! Its place on a list of great American films is a mystery to me, but the former adjective describes it well enough to qualify it onto any list of great war films.

Company: just me again. I have a hard time finding anyone who will watch a three-hour war movie with me on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. One of the many quirks about this blog.

Cuisine: fried egg on wheat toast with sliced cherry tomatoes and my mother's bean salsa recipe that I've now perfected. You're welcome. Oh, and plenty of coffee.

The film recounts a largely fictional story based in a factual and horrifying context: the construction of the Burma Railway during World War II. After the Japanese had captured Singapore and had military strongholds in much of southeastern Asia, they built a long railway from Bangkok to Rangoon in order to support and send supplies to the large Japanese army stationed in Burma. As a result, British POWs are marched into an internment camp somewhere in western Thailand, led both in step and in annoying whistle-song by Colonel Nicholson (Oscar winner Alec Guinness), and told that they will be enslaved and forced to build the titular bridge, essentially to aid the enemy. Oh, and there's basically no chance of escape. Major bummer.

"You speak to me of code? What code?!"

All these orders come from General Saito (a fantastic performance by Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa), a merciless tyrant with more pride in his work (if that's possible) than the British commander, Nicholson. Two very stubborn men face off: Nicholson hands Saito a copy of the Geneva Convention, which clearly states that all POWs with the exception of officers (hem hem) can be made to do physical labor. Saito throws it to the ground in disgust and snaps Nicholson's stick-thing. Oh snap. Nicholson picks up the papers calmly and stands again at attention, never letting his temper get the best of him. A better man than I, he is.

(Saito also says at one point "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," which is also quoted repeatedly by the character in The Shining played by Jack Nicholson, whose last name is shared by Alec Guinness's character in this movie. Connection, to and from!)

But knowing that he and the hundreds in his command have little chance of escape, he has little choice but to hold his ground. As a patriotic and noble Englishman, he has two alternatives: build the bridge and help the enemy, or stand firm and refuse to participate. The latter will bring almost certain death, as is evidenced by two forms of torture, pictured above (standing at attention all F-ing day) and below (being locked in "the oven" without food or water in the scorching sun). His refusal to work and adherence to the Geneva accord locks his generals in ovens, too, while the rest of the men slave away at the bridge, working as slowly as they dare and sabotaging whatever they can.

Although Saito stands firm ("You will not speak to me of rules," he shouts."This is war! This is not a game of cricket!"), he knows that he needs the army's help: if he and those he commands don't finish the bridge by a certain date (here, May 12), he will have to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. Impass.

When Saito makes up a reason to finally relent (the anniversary of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905), the real work starts, and the British generals are put back in charge. Nicholson's pride wins out over his patriotism, as he convinces the rest of his soldiers to honestly build a quality bridge, this time with better materials and in a more solid river foundation upstream from where the Japanese commanders chose to break ground.

Meanwhile, one U.S. soldier named Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the dense jungle, happen upon some compassionate villagers, and send himself on a river voyage, where he contracts some disease or another from drinking river water and is finally found and rescued by allied forces who airlift him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). While he's relaxing on the beach with beautiful women and awaiting his return to America, he's informed that he has no choice but to return to Thailand with allied British patrolmen whose mission is to the destroy the bridge. Oops. Back to it.

It's not going real well.

Now we have parallel plots: Nicholson and Saito, coming to a common understanding, unite to complete the bridge, and Shears and his comrades parachute back into Thailand in order to blow it up. The rest of the film documents the inevitable end to which these simultaneous stories come.

Holden turns in a thrilling performance, especially in his "big scene" in which his commanding officer asks to be left behind after an injury:

Shears: "You make me sick with your heroics! There's a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills - they go well together, don't they? And with you it's just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman... how to die by the rules - when the only important thing is how to live like a human being."

I feel like this sentiment comes out of nowhere a little -- we're nearly two hours into the film and suddenly the moral comes out? Perhaps it's been there the whole time and we the audience have been too horrified by the injustice to see the simpler universal theme that's buried under everything else. Is it a critique of the nearly insane sense of pride felt by these top officials, a pride that trumps all else, including patriotism, and the sense of right and wrong?

Once the bridge is complete, Nicholson has a quieter epiphany, staring down the river Kwai.

Nicholson: "There are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really..."

It's a gorgeous monologue in a heartbreaking performance by Guinness. Has it all been for nothing? Not just the bridge -- but the war? His own sense of duty and honor for England? And of course, the best moment of the film...

"What have I done?"

I love Guinness's flat line reading here -- so horrified that it's almost not even a question, but a sentence, a statement of the horror that he's just realized. And the ending, of course, is "madness! Madness!!"

It's interesting to examine the war films placed on this list -- by my count, dozens (even if you don't include atypical war films like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which is a fantasy film but still has plenty of war in it) -- and what they say about America's relationship to conflict. I found several parallels between this film and The African Queen -- not just that our heroes are British, but also the pride and patriotism that directly inspires destruction and vengeance. What does Kwai's inclusion on this list (especially when it's not specifically American in any way outside of Mr. Holden) say about our love of war?

I love when a film inspires me to forge on. And no more war, for at least the next few. Woody Allen's not really interested in that, he's got his eye on one miss Annie Hall, up next.


  1. Let me know if you need a copy of Annie Hall. It's one of my favorites!

  2. I would love to get a copy of it! It's up next!