29 May 2010

As Subtle as a Punch in the Nose But No Less Effective -- The Bridge on the River Kwai

Remember the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) when Butch, played by Paul Newman, has to fight the towering hulk Harvey Logan (6'9" Ted Cassidy) for control of the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang? Before the seemingly one-sided battle is to begin Butch insists they clarify the rules. "Rules? In a knife fight?" asks the incredulous Harvey. Long story short, Butch kicks him in the nuts and the fight is, for all intents and purposes, over.

That scene pretty much sums up David Lean's 1957 classic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

The late 1940's and 1950s was a time when Hollywood started cranking out message films. Some are now dated like Gentlemen's Agreement (1947) and others seemingly eternal like 12 Angry Men (1957). Then there's a film like Kwai which masquerades (quite successfully I might add) as an epic. It's got scope, breath taking cinema photography and grand performances from a celebrated cast.

At its core, however, Kwai is an earnest little film (albeit tucked neatly inside a blockbuster) with a powerful message about the insanity of war. Indeed the last line of the film is the exclamation "madness!" Which is being repeated for full effect in case you missed it the first time or had dozed off for much of the picture.

A central question in Kwai regards the rules of war. Rules? When people are killing one another? Might as well talk of guidelines for the insane. Caught amid the rules and the killing is the presumptive hero of the film, its lone American, Shears (William Holden). "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," he says to Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) a by-the-book officer leading a group of saboteurs that includes Shears. This is the character that most of us can relate to. Shears may be a cynic but he is a witty, handsome one with a touch of everyman to him. And he expresses sentiments we can relate to: the primacy of living to see another day.

Alec Guinness as Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa Col. Saito are the films other principal characters. The former is the quintessential spit and polish British career officer and the latter and at times sadistic and at times befuddled "enemy" officer. They are both extraordinarily stubborn men and Kwai is like other films of the era in its disdain for such rigidity, unless by chance it is in the cause of social justice. In this film, it ain't.

Kwai,of course, is the story of a Japanese POW camp in the heart of the Burmese jungle in the heart of World War II. The Japanese didn't have a whole lot of  respect for soldiers who let themselves be taken alive and anyway they needed a bridge built for train transport. The prisoners would work on the bridge and like it. Fine, the Brits are game but Nicholson balks when Saito insists that the officers work too. That, the good colonel points out, is in violation of the rules, specifically the Geneva Convention. "Don't speak to me of rules!" Saito retorts, "this is war, not a game of cricket." This is no mere clash of cultures, this is war time. Consequences for such differences are magnified many fold.

Meanwhile while this clash of wills is going on, Shears has daringly/stupidly escaped into the jungle in a desperate attempt to find his way back to fellow allies. Miraculously he does so and finds himself recuperating at an allied base replete with booze and lovely nurses. He's escaped hell and landed in heaven. But this is war time, fella, and there are no free passes. Aware of Shears' unique knowledge of the area and that a bridge is being constructed, a British commando squad recruits him help blow the bridge to smithereens. Go back!? The very idea is insane. But as he's only been posing as an officer the Brits have him over a barrel.

Said bridge is being rather nicely constructed by the Brits fully cooperating now that Saito has caved on the issue of officers' working. In fact Nicholson is quite determined to construct a proper bridge; the building of which will help the morale and discipline of his men and leave a legacy they can all be proud of.

Hold on a sec.... Aren't the British essentially helping their enemy's war effort? Yes, there's that.

The film's climax is one of the greatest conclusions to a story ever filmed. The bridge is completed, on time, the commando squad arrives and sets its demolition aiming to blow the bridge during the inaugural crossing of an enemy train. But as Major Warden has repeatedly warned, "there's always the unexpected." Of all people it is Nicholson who sees the tell tale signs of sabotage and alerts Saito. 

So here you have the allies trying blow up a Japanese bridge built by allies for the Japanese and it is an allied officer trying to put the kibosh on the whole deal. Madness indeed.

One allied soldier is thus put in the rather awkward position of having to kill Nicholson, something he's reluctant to do, being on the same side and all. Shears enters the fray and is gunned down but not before confronting Nicholson with a simple but angry "You!"

"What have I done?" Nicholson finally wonders before the most ironic way to resolve a sticky situation you'll ever see.

I've omitted one character from this discussion that being Major Clipton, an officer and a doctor who observes all the goings on with detached bemusement. It is he who repeats "madness" to drive home the film's essential point.

Sometimes its illuminating to get simple messages in complex forms. In Kwai not only is this case but we get a highly entertaining story with vivid characters. We aren't left wondering what the film is about but marveling at and enjoying the manner of its delivery.

Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from Pierre Boulle's novel (which was loosely based on actual events) by two writers who were blacklisted at the time, Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. These two brave men had refused to name names during the McCarthy hearings. Part of the insult added to this injury was that they did not receive the Oscars for best screenplay Kwai earned. Actually they did get them, but they were by that time dead. Madness!

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