Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Bridge On the River Kwai

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 36
Year: 1957
Writer: Michael Wilson, Carl Foreman (adaptation), Pierre Boulle (novel)
Director: David Lean
Star: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is really two movies, one a masterpiece and one unnecessary. The masterpiece half follows the explosive relationship between a Japanese Colonel and his captive British Colonel over the building of a bridge on…*checks film title*…the River Kwai. The unnecessary half tracks a lying liar who has escaped the prison camp and must return to blow up the bridge.

Let’s start with the good half. A group of British soldiers have been captured and march into the Japanese prison camp in perfect formation while whistling a happy tune. Many of them have no shoes and are injured, but they still keep it up anyway. The scene reminded me of a moment from the original “Lord of the Flies” (made several years later in 1963) where the choirboys march across the beach after the plane crash, but it works better here. The group is led by the seemingly by-the-book Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness, amazing), and he immediately butts heads with the camp leader Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa, just as amazing). Saito needs the British soldiers to build the bridge, but Nicholson reminds him that, according to the Geneva Conventions (a copy of which he just happens to have on him), prisoners-of-war cannot be forced to do manual labor.

Saito needs the bridge built before a specific date or face committing ritual suicide, so he tosses Nicholson in a horrifying twist of the Greek Brazen Bull – a cramped metal box that slowly becomes scorching thanks to the hot sun. Days pass and both men refuse to give in…it’s an amazing battle of the wills. Finally Saito relents, and Nicholson oddly then chooses to go forward and build the bridge anyway (not just that, but build it as well as possible), claiming it will help with soldier morale. It slowly becomes apparent that Nicholson has gone mad.

This section of “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is brilliant. There are beautiful, small touches, like the aforementioned fact that Nicholson just happens to have a copy of the Geneva Conventions on his person, and a small beat where we see Saito crying uncontrollably once he gives in. The writing couldn’t be better, and Guinness and Hayakawa are two of the best matched nemesis’ in the history of film. The film walks this amazing tightrope, because we understand who both of the characters are and yet every time they are onscreen they inevitably surprise us with their actions.

This is all so great that it almost makes you forgive the second story. A guy named Shears (William Holden) escapes from the same prison camp Nicholson is in, is rescued and pretends to be a Colonel for awhile to get better medical treatment. He’s soon caught and then blackmailed into going back into the jungle to blow up the bridge that Nicholson is building.

I get it, I do. Structurally, the idea of these two stories running parallel for awhile and then inevitably converging with the destruction of the bridge is very strong. But the Nicholson/Saito stuff is just so good that anything else just pales in comparison. It’s not that the Holden scenes are “bad,” they are well enough written and beautifully shot, but they just don’t have to be there. The movie would have worked just as well if we see Holden’s character escaping and then hear nothing from him until he and his band of soldiers arrive again to explode the bridge.

Perhaps a major part of it is that I just don’t like Shears’ character. Holden plays an asshole very well (see: “Sunset Blvd” and “Network”) but why are we supposed to care about this guy? He doesn’t care about anything other than getting home and getting laid, and his turn at heroism at the film’s climax doesn’t work. Watching the movie again, I was shocked to see that the major twist in the storyline (he stole a dead soldier’s identity!) was directly lifted in Don Draper’s character in “Mad Men.” Homage or unabashed rip-off? Hard to tell, especially since Shears is so similar to Draper’s character in general.

As I write that the entire storyline is unnecessary, I must admit that there is one great scene in Holden’s storyline. He and the other soldiers are bathing when several Japanese soldiers attack them. A bomb is set off, and literally thousands of birds take off from the jungle trees while a chase through the forest happens below. Seeing all those birds over the trees is an image I’ll never forget.

Of course, this is a David Lean movie, so there are plenty of similarly breathtaking images. He’d always had a great handle on the visual before this, just look at his Dickens’ adaptations “Great Expectations” and “Oliver Twist” or the underrated, heartbreaking “Summertime,” but “The Bridge on the River Kwai” seems to be the tipping point in his career where everything went gigantic all the time. What’s amazing is that he’s one of the few directors who can give you grandeur without losing touch with his characters, and that’s why all his later films hold up much better than their VistaVision!/Cinemascope! contemporaries.

The film climaxes with the bridge exploding in a scene that is eerily reminiscent of the train crash in “The General,” and I must admit that Keaton did it better. I think it’s because Lean cuts to several vantage points during the crash, whereas Keaton just kept a single camera running. The editing, which was meant to underline the grandeur of the moment, actually manages to undercut it.

Despite my problems, I’d take a movie that reaches for so much and falters a bit over a movie that is content with just being “good” any day. And the problems with this film aren’t from laziness or tedium, they stem from the creators trying too hard. Even with the whole William Holden storyline pulling it back, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a great movie. There are too many moments of genius throughout to be anything but.

My Score (out of 5): ****

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