Thursday, July 19, 2007
Bridge on the River Kwai (Britain, 1957, David Lean)
Wherein Ben and I, whenever we feel afraid, we whistle a happy tune. And could there be a more misleading movie poster?
Another title from Jacob's to-see list derived from his must-see book. A nice change for me because this is the first such selection that was new for me. I am betting that you have had occasion to watch TBOTRK but even if you have not, the film is so famous, I cannot think that you are unfamiliar with the plot. Whatever. I'm not going to get into it anyway.
There are a number of things about Kwai (that's a better abbreviation than TBOTRK) that totally surprised me. In the first place the propaganda aspects are very slight. Perhaps by 1957 the deep indoctrination about the meaning of WWII was so firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, there was a little space to tell a relatively nuanced tale in that setting. When certain things are just taken for granted, a bit of eccentricity is allowed. And I have to say that Kwai is quirky. Other than it's above average running time which sends a signal of self-importance, the film is actually quite modest in scale, not conducted in such epic proportions. So it is a bit odd that it was such a massive blockbuster.
Whatever the conditions surrounding it's creation and reception, Kwai is not a typical war movie insofar as it does not depict battle at all. It belongs to a sub-genre, the prisioner-of-war setting. But Kwai is not a typical POW movie either. These center on the the ongoing plans and reoccuring attempts to escape, which in turn allow for all sorts of suspense and action. Kwai is not about this at all. Granted, the plot requires an escape by an individual early on. But after this is put in place and as this character's plot line is subsequently pursued, the story is about being in the camp, not getting out of it. And by the way, with regard to the single escape by William Holden's character, the film has the implicit wit to admit that it is implausible and later on, when he is compelled to return to the camp, the film has even greater wit in admitting almost explicitly in the dialogue that this is a ludicrous turn of events.
This wit in the script is what raises Kwai out of the ranks of the ordinary. It is not the sort of postmoden irony we expect today, but is rather coming out of good old fashioned dramatic values, which is to say that it is in keeping with the characters, especially Holden's, who constantly cracks wise, but Alec Guinness' character has his own wry sense of humour. What is more, the performances by the leads, including the guy who plays the Japanese warden, are very good, with Guinness especially doing some brilliant stuff, not the least of which is with his body movement.
I am attending to characterization because, in my view, for all the obvious this-is-an-epic story about life and death and the equally t-i-a-e cinematography out in the glorious tropics, Kwai could be a play. It really is character-driven. What is interesting is the psychological make-up of the principals. They conform to nationalist stereotypes but in an interesting way insofar as these types themselves are given internally contradictory depth.
Holden is the pragmatic American who verges on cynical, reflecting a working-class survivalism that threatens to become little more than opportunistic individualism. It is only be impostering an officer that he scrapes by and it is only be being bureacratically trapped that he returns to his duty as a soldier. This may sound standard enough today but I reckon at the time the reluctance of muscular Mr. America to be a hero for Uncle Sam was novel indeed.
Racism attends the film only in that the Japanese in general are shown to be incapable of engineering the construction of a bridge or calculating how to best extract labour from their prisioners. But the Japanese warden himself is not some two-dimensional "Jap" who knows only barbaric cruelty to others in order to prop up what he considers honorable for himself. He suffers from some personal incompetence as a leader of men, in part the result of his having been educated in England. He is culturally confused and vacilates between (supposedly) Eastern and Western codes of conduct. He is, in short, more of a tragic figure than a villain.
But it is really Guiness' character that steals the show and this is because the man pushes the whole British nobility paradigm into the realm of twit psychosis. This he does without passionate fireworks but rather plucky determination to the nth degree. This is a guy who definitely can't see the forest for the trees, such a stickler to principle is he. At bedrock he is a career officer who understands everything about the army and its rules and nothing about war and its realities. Up to a point, his devotion to the formalities of military organization serve him well but when the point arrives, this turns inside out and he must confront the essential content of military activity.
In the end, there is some cool suspense and the bridge blows up real good, quite a real-life special effect. But like I said before, even without this narrative and cinematic payoff, the best quality of the story could have been presented in a play. Because in the end, all three of the principals die. (A fourth principal lives but he is the least worthwhile psychologically, really a vehicle for the plot.) That the three main players perish levels the playing field and allows a secondary character to utter the prouncement that concludes Kwai: "Madness, madness." What is interesting about this is not that it constitutes a moralistic declaration by the film that war is futile. As I've already suggested, it's taken for granted that WWII was necessary and won by the good guys. Instead, the madness, madness seems to be confined to the particular persons in the story, individuals so confused about what they are doing, it borders on craziness.
Two nice touches. When the Japanese camp commander is yelling at his engineer about the schedule for constructing the bridge, they refer to a calendar. It's an American one for the GIs, one of the classic proto-Playboy girlie pin-ups. More worthwhile, the paratroop commando squad to destroy the bridge has only four men. In their campagin they are assisted by an equal number of Burmese locals, all of whom are women except one. Sure they are all young and pretty and there's a bit of sexual chemistry between them and our fine handsome men. But they are shown to be integral to the operation and utterly unafraid. Refreshingly progressive portrayal.
And Then There's Dan:
So, yeah, this is a Big Budget war film (it cost 2.8m, which was an astronomical number at the time) that took nearly a year to film in jungles of Sri Lanka. And as Werner Herzog would do decades later in Fitzcarraldo, Lean committed to a physical recreation of the film's central action (and conceit). So, just as Herzog had his crew haul that boat over that hill, Lean had his men construct the titular bridge. So, if you knew nothing else about TBOTRK, you could be excused for believing that everything about the film screams megalomania and self-indulgence. Even the fact that it won the Oscar for Best Picture is hardly enough to allay fears that the film was sure to be bloated and self-congratulatory. After all, didn't Around the World in 80 Days win the Oscar the year before?
And yet, what a truly worthy Oscar winner this is. For all the money spent in the production of this epic, the film is really about the relationship between the Japanese (Col Saito) and British (Col. Nicholson) commanders. Each man faces not only the terrible tasks that war asks you to undertake, but also faces up to the entire weight of their history and culture, as well as to the expectation that in their positions they will maintain and uphold the ideals thereof, while in the end realizing the horrors and futility of the entire endeavor. And, most interestingly, the film does not ask you to take sides with the British in this struggle. Instead, Lean's film seems more inclined to have you feel Saito's pain, and in this we may have something truly radical. A World War II film wherein we are asked to empathize with the guys that history has judged and found wanting? Given the general similarity of viewpoint in Letters from Iwo Jima, you have to wonder if Clint Eastwood doesn't owe something of a debt to Lean's fine film.
It is not often that you have a war film about the Good War that refuses to glorify the efforts of the supposed Good Guys. In fact, the film moves beyond simple even-handedness and into a place that must have made some moviegoers at the time a bit uncomfortable. The film is positively empathetic towards the Bad Guys, specifically Saito (great performance by Hayakawa, before I forget), whose torment and uncertainty about his role in the war is intelligently and sensitively developed. Nicholson (Alec Guinness is the prototype of stiff-lipped upper class Britishness), on the other hand, becomes increasingly erratic and belligerent in his attachment to the "noble" rules of wartime engagement, to the point of making sociopathological decisions to allow his men to die as a matter of "principle." Later, Nicholson's refusal to concern himself with the consequences of his men's actions as they build this bridge for their Japanese captors speaks well to the general madness of war as well. There's no real commitment to a greater good, only piecemeal efforts to help get you through another day.
Even the film's desaturated colour palette reflects Lean's determination to deglamorize war. The muddy greens, grays and browns that fill the jungle and the men imprisoned within it scream not of a greater glory, but of inevitable demise. Lean's stately compositions do occasionally draw attention to themselves (the guy knew how to manipulate widescreen) but generally contribute to the sense of
And lastly, while William Holden (and I'm a big fan of his) gets plenty of screen time, he is hardly in the picture for me. He does get in some good digs at the war machine, and those lunatics who sit at its helm, "…crazy with a kind of courage. For what? To die like gentlemen? When the only important thing is how to live like a human being." Still, his value is mostly as a quipster and plot-progressor, with a little romance tossed in on the side. He's the concession to a demographic (You can almost hear the studio arguing, "If this is gonna sell stateside, we need an American in this picture! We need romance! And some action! Is Bill Holden available?")
TBOTRK was the first war film I ever saw that challenged my assumptions about who was Good and Bad, and that asked me to empathize with the supposed Devil. If for nothing else (and there's plenty else, thankfully) you have to give it up to David Lean. Barely a decade removed from the war, this is a pretty bold position to stake.
Well, shucks, I was trying to say that the film really isn't all that spectacular and exciting and over-the-top. And I was also saying that this is a good thing. Except for the big money shot at the end and perhaps the big commando crawl leading up to it, the scale of the film is not so huge. Perhaps I am just naive about the demands and costs associated with filming on location, a tropical location, a tropical foreign country location. No matter. We agree that the film succeeds as much as a character-driven drama as it does as an epic, if not more so.
You draw attention to the film's desaturated colour palette and this is helpful for me. If I had been watching a VHS rather than a DVD, I would have sworn that the tape was washed out. As it was, I wondered if the DVD transfer was from a diluted print. Eventually I came round to the notion that it was supposed to evoke the scorched earth of the prision camp and the burn-out of everyone in it. This seemed to be confirmed later by the look of the allied base and then the commando travels through the lush vegetation complete with a waterfall bathing scene, all much richer in hue.
I find your treatment of William Holden's position in the proceedings also very useful. It adds considerably that Guiness recognizes Holden immediately prior to gasping, "My god, what have I done?" But this coming-full-circle is hardly essential. Guiness can still wake up (too late) and gasp the line as long as his falling dead body lands on the detonator (in time). You are so right that all of the business involving Holden is sort of fifth-wheel, an excuse for a bit of extra action and some gratuitous sex; I say old boy, we can't cut the Yanks out entirely.
As for your reading of the larger themes at work, I will go along with your assessment that the film is progressive about humanizing the enemy. I approached this thesis myself in terms of the characters being culturally and psychologically complex. Mind you, I am not as impressed as you are that this sort of moral sophistication was in place by the time Kwai was made. The primacy of the British perspective informing the film and the addition of Holden as a bone for American dogs to chew is all very well. By 1957, however, the British empire is a dead duck and it's US hegemony in spades. After a decade of US capital investment in Japanese industry, the shift was away from the medium profit margins of domestic reconstruction there to the grand profit margins of exporting "Made in Japan" to the American market. So the Japanese were listed among The Good Guys, especially in contradistinction to those evil chinks and gooks who were communists.
More contentious for me is your feeling that Kwai offers an even more general humanism in the form of a blanket condemnation of war. This I believe is misguided. Forgive me for quoting myself: "Perhaps by 1957 the deep indoctrination about the meaning of WWII was so firmly entrenched in the popular consciousness, there was a little space to tell a relatively nuanced tale in that setting. When certain things are just taken for granted, a bit of eccentricity is allowed." Actually, the film is not that eccentric with respect to the humanization of the Japanese, as I just addressed above. What is quirky is the drama hinging on military careerists who - to quote myself again - "understand everything about the army and its rules and nothing about war and its realities." There is absolutely nothing in Kwai that asks us to question war in general, never mind criticize WWII in particular. Indeed, the drama of the film is predicated on taking the accepted meaning of the war for granted. For it is precisely Nicholson and Saito who lose sight of this accepted meaning. The "madness madness" is ascribed to these characters specifically and not to the war as such.
In mainstream English-language cinema, truly radical opposition to war in 1957 remained confined to WWI. But the genius of the film I have in mind is that it goes beyond a particular war or even war in general to a deeper level of abstraction, giving a class analytical critique of militarism itself. Thank you Kubrick for Paths of Glory.
And Finally Dan:
Well, to be honest, it has been a very, very long time since I last saw this film, and memory can be a tricky thing, so I'll have to take another look at the dvd before committing myself to a life and death struggle with you (I refuse to sumo!) over the film's stance on war. And while you are right that it doesn't hold a candle to Kubrick's film when it comes to getting to the root of war's many hypocrisies, I still think that the "madness, madness" line is about more than just the struggle between these two men. The men, after all, represent their countries, their countries histories, cultures and attitudes towards war. At least, must like the two vying officers in The Grand Illusion, they represent their respective nation's upper class's understanding of war. And because they come up pikers in the end, you've got to think that there's some critique of the entire endeavour stuck in the mix.
But, like I say, without another viewing of the film, I wouldn't stake my honour on this interpretation. Even if I had any. Honour, that is. Interpretations (among other things) I am full of.