THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

bridgeOur most recent Oscars winning movie was The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957 British-American war film directed by David Lean. The film stars Alec Guinness as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, the senior British officer; Sessue Hayakawa as Japanese Commandant Colonel Saito; William Holden as survivor and US Navy Commander Shears; and Jack Hawkins as British Major Warden. The film starts when a train full of British soldiers arrives at a Japanese labor camp under Saito’s control. Saito informs the group that regardless of rank, they will all have to perform manual labor to build a bridge over the nearby River Kwai to connect Bangkok and Rangoon.

This does not sit well with Nicholson, who explains repeatedly to Saito that the Geneva Conventions expressly exempt commanding officers from manual labor. However, Saito is having none of it. The two begin to engage in a battle of wills – with their men looking on. Shears is already at the camp, observing from afar and quite often trying to get out of as much work as possible.  

The David Lean streak continues here at Red Carpet Roulette. And we can’t have a David Lean movie without Alec Guinness. And while William Holden’s name is at the top of the poster, this really is Guinness’s show. (His name, by the way, is an anagram for ‘genuine class’.) I find Colonel Nicholson to be one of cinema’s more compelling characters. He refuses to legitimize Saito’s disregard for the laws of war with his own cooperation – even in the face of torture and possible death – and Guinness sells this as a sort of ultra-British stolid fanaticism. If on the homefront they are adopting an attitude of “keep calm and carry on,” Nicholson faces his captor with a strategy of “decline to submit and politely remind the enemy that he is a war criminal.” It’s impossible for the audience, like the men under his command, not to cheer him on as a righteous warrior. The scene where Saito concedes to Nicholson’s terms is gold. Saito ‘magnanimously’ rescinds his demand that the officers work under the pretense of a patriotic holiday and Nicholson stumbles out into the arms of his cheering men. Cut back to Saito in his office – crying.

The film departs for a time from the camp as it follows escapee Shears to British headquarters, granting us distance to view the perversion of Nicholson’s obsession with proving himself the better of Saito. He becomes the head of the camp in all but name and is monomaniacally devoted to building the bridge. His legalistic mind concocts rationalizations, blinding himself to the fact that he is assisting the enemy’s war effort; in effect transitioning from hero to tragic villain.The author of the source novel, Pierre Boulle, served on the staff of Vichy French Admiral Jean Decoux, a wartime collaborator who may have inspired the character of Nicholson. In a larger sense, the intensely principled but ultimately misguided Nicholson is a stand-in for those who have sought a noble end, but along the way found their actions perversely betraying the principles they set out to serve: the French liberals who declared the Rights of Man only to implement a reign of terror to achieve them, or the Bolsheviks who found themselves forcibly suppressing popular movements, and so many others before and since.

This all leads me to think of the Strike Anywhere lyric I love so much: “I will try every day/to kill the sleeping cop in me.” What Mouse is touching on here informs much of what lies at my greatest fear about individuals’ capacity for revolution and true freedom: this nagging fear that in our innermost hearts we all are too deeply entrenched in a politics of domination to ever truly rid ourselves from desires to oppress, to exert control, to become that which we have hated and warred against. Seeing Nicholson’s obsession with the bridge and almost erotic relationship with it is disheartening, to be sure.

Now back to Shears. After his arrival at the British headquarters in Ceylon, he finds himself content to rest up and heal, taking great comfort in the company of a stunning young nurse. British Major Warden interrupts a date he is on with said nurse to inform him that the U.S. Navy has transferred him over to the British in the hopes that he can help assist in a mission to destroy Nicholson’s bridge. Shears has no interest in his role – taking the group back to the place he escaped from. However, he is the one with direct knowledge of the area, and as such is an asset.

In a panic to get out of the whole affair, he confesses to Warden that he is not actually an officer, but merely “borrowed” clothing of an officer before his escape. He thinks this will mean they won’t transfer him. He realizes he is stuck when Warden retorts with the information that they’ve been aware of his lie all along; in fact, the U.S. agreed to the transfer in order to not have to deal with the embarrassment of his lies about being an officer. He has no choice – he can retain the privileges that come with being an officer if he completes the mission, at least. He sucks it up as best he can, and heads out on the mission with the group back to the site of the bridge.

I like Holden as Shears, but the “shirker who comes through as a hero” is a little more standard for action movies. And Hayakawa’s Saito deserves praise as well. But it’s Nicholson that I have to keep coming back to. Katy, I know you found his end of collapsing onto the detonator a bit much, but his whole final act up till then is so perfect: finding the wire and following it down the river, coming face to face with Shears again, and his final tragic instant of realization. Then we get the best train crash since The General. If the Academy Award for Best Picture is intended to reward movies for going big, then blowing up an actual bridge with a locomotive crossing it is a decent way to shoot for the Oscar.

I suppose so. I wonder if this film really was shot in Burma – now I will have to go look it up. I guess I didn’t give enough credit for the scene with the bridge blowing up. It is pretty good. And you are right – a final and tragic instant of realization is always a good piece in a story. This is also a sad tale of getting wrapped up in the idea of being “good at your job” when your job is in fact hurting other people. That is a timeless cautionary tale.

I think part of why I get a little disappointed when I hear our next Oscar film to review is a war film is that so often these films do not have strong or interesting women as characters. That was the case in this film. It’s a little hard when there is not a single woman whose character is developed. I did enjoy this movie more than I thought I would, though.

These movies have been a real sausage fest. Suppose David Lean made a movie with actual female characters, wouldn’t you want to watch that? And Alec Guinness, of course.

Also nominated in 1957:
12 Angry Men
Peyton Place
Sayonara
Witness for the Prosecution

Next film: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

 

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