Thursday, February 26, 2015

CANON OF FILM: "THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI"

THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957)

Director: David Lean
Screenplay: Carl Foreman (Uncredited Originally) and Michael Wilson (Uncredited originally) based on the novel by Pierre Boulle



I know some war historians, professional and amateur who bring up such things as the real prisoners-of-war in the movie having built numerous bridges and built them everyday, as they got destroyed everybody. But, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" isn't war, it's a movie. And it's not about the mundane activity of building a bridge per se, it's about how these soldiers built this bridge. At least that's what I remembered. It seems that way because the building of the bridge and then the destroying of the bridge is such a viscerally striking and memorable part of the film, especially for film people who really know the accomplishment that the film documents. Shot in what's now Sri Lanka then-called Ceylon, simulating the look of Burma during WWII, the movie curiously doesn't begin that way, with a shot of workers digging graves along railroad tracks. An American, Commander Shears (William Holden) takes a lighter from one of the dead in order to bribe his way into being sick and not fit for duty for the moment. He will try to escape shortly after Colonel Nicholson (Oscar-winner Alec Guiness) arrives with his battalion. What's striking is how much the battalion will only listen to Nicholson and when he insists on such civilities on obeying the Geneva Convention meaning that officers don't do hard manual labor. Commander Seito (Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakama). This battle of wills is a struggle between one mad men against the other. One who's willing to kill in order to get what he wants, the other willing to die, and neither man has to break. Once Nicholson finally wins the battle of wills and survives the hotbox, he gets his soldiers in line and starts building the bridge, then they start building it on the correct spot, and better than the Japanese ever could. The idea, at least in Nicholson's mind is that, even during capture, the British soldiers will remain soldiers and be the best example and produce the best they can, even while they may be and remain prisoners-of-war. It's quite an undertaking to build the bridge, and they in fact do. This is not a special effect, something that younger audiences may not fully realize or contemplate. It's actually startling the film got made at all. Not just because of the technical construction achievement and the incredible set up of recording the bridge's construction, which also means that they had to shoot the film is some form of sequential order, something that's rarely possible and especially with an epic like this, highly ill-advised, Holden makes his way through to an army hospitable, only to find himself going right back to the island as he's the only person who survived being there and knows enough of the area that he could hypothetically help them go in and take over the camp and destroy the bridge. The strange thing is just how personal we get into the characters personality and perspectives. It's hard to remember that David Lean never did make an epic before this film. "Lawrence of Arabia", "Doctor Zhivago", "A Passage to India", all those films would come later, but up until now, this had been the David Lean of "Brief Encounter" and "Great Expectations". He was interested more at this point in the revealing of great characters, particularly in those so willing to believe in their own perceptions of reality that once reality hits in, it can in essence vehemently destroy them, whether it's a love affair fantasy that can only be for an afternoon or the belief that one could love you more than they actually do, or that the building of a bridge can somehow be a greater accomplishment than the war that's doomed to destroy it. In some sense, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is those favorite David Lean types but on a larger scale, much larger. The sentiment of what that bridge means is far more important than the bridge itself to Nicholson, which is what inevitably helps Seito get won over by him and trust him that his determination and command of his troops is more powerful and effective than his methods.

Yet none of this matters if the film doesn't look and feel real. They build a real bridge in the middle of the jungle just to blow it up. There were epics before, scenes that amaze us, but many of them were on sound stage. You burn the sets from "King Kong" and you got the burning of Atlanta in "Gone with the Wind", "The Bridge on the River Kwai" looks and feels like another world, both real in the location and surreal in the actions of the characters, a combination that can only happen in the military, but it's also one that has to be found and not simply created. This hadn't been shown on film before and rarely has such an accomplishment, both as a piece of entertainment, nor as cinematic accomplishment been seen since. It won seven Oscars including Best Picture, as well as every other accolade it seems to be able to get, only Hayakawa's Supporting Actor nomination lost that year, to Red Buttons's performance in "Sayonara", a more traditional military sprawling Hollywood epic, about Japan that was shot mostly in America and is nowadays mostly forgotten. Shame that was Hayakawa's only Oscar nomination for one of the first major Asia stars in Hollywood. "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is the great cinematic accomplishments of all-time, a masterful example of every part of the filmmaking process and proof that we'll never stop whistling the Colonel Bogey March will probably never leave your mind after hearing it whistled so much.

Madness. The madness of war, the madness of filmmaking, just pure madness.
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