Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Bridge on the River Kwai

What have I done, taking so long between reviews? Oh right, doing stuff in meatspace. So, this was one of those films that I had always heard was a masterpiece, but seeing as it's a masterpiece that is just shy of three hours long, it's one I never got around to watching. I was actually really surprised to see it was on the Film Registry, because I had thought it was a purely UK film and thus ineligible. Turns out it was a joint effort with a British production company and an American distributor. That may explain why the character of Shears was made an American when he's British in the original novel - we Americans do love seeing the British in WWII pictures, but only if there's also a really plucky American somewhere about. Which may account in part for the popularity of WWII pictures over WWI pictures. America wasn't in WWI for long, so the most compelling stories often don't have a role for a Steve McQueen-type to hop onto a motorcycle and look really cool, while the British are being all stiff upper lip and saying devastatingly witty things. That's how this dynamic is supposed to work, and when we don't have an American lead in our war movies, they just don't become American classics. I thought War Horse was an excellent picture, for example, but it seems to have been mostly forgotten, and I think part of that is because American audiences of war pictures like to have an American to root for, and not just for the last few minutes of the movie. So, throughout Bridge on the River Kwai, we've got three main stories going: the daring escape of our charming American, Commander Shears (played by William Holden, who appeared in three other preserved movies: Sabrina, The Wild Bunch, and Sunset Boulevard), the battle of wills between Colonel Nicholson and Colonel Saito (with Nicholson played by Alec Guinness, who also appeared in three other films on the Registry: Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back), and the ultimate building and destruction of the bridge. The film has had it's fair share of controversy, since the historical accuracy actually played the Japanese prison camps for the Burma railway as far too lenient, even with the lines of graves and the memorable hotbox, and because everyone involved in the building denied that a man like Nicholson could make it to Colonel, let alone build the bridge without getting shanked. However, putting that aside, it is a truly great piece of film-making. The only flaws I really saw were technical flaws in shots and color, and it can't have been easy to shoot in the jungles of of Sri Lanka in the 1950's. Plus, the DVD I had wasn't any sort of re-mastered cut, so the colors are all kind of washed out. The night scenes are very obviously day scenes with a dark filter over the camera, but that's just nitpicking at this point. The movie is effective as a dramatic piece, where pride and devotion to duty drive a man completely mad, to the point of full collaboration with the enemy in time of war. Nicholson's last little speech, when he's leaning over the beautifully built bridge and reflecting on 28 years of service that have little to show except this monument of engineering... suddenly, you can see that he's not seeing collaboration, but seeing his only monument. His men cheered for him surviving the hotbox, but his feat of will to maintain the Geneva Convention on a technical point is not the sort of thing which leaves monuments. Yet in the end, his monument is only the hearts of his men. The only thing of worth he has done is be remembered by them. The mutterings answered by "The old man knows what he's doing" are probably answered for the men who didn't stay to see Nicholson desperately try to stop the destruction of the bridge. Instead, they saw him construct something the Japanese felt pride in and were trusting enough to send their VIPs over, only for it to be blown up. Is that then to be the legacy of Nicholson - a man redeemed by death? Or would the muttering of "What's he playing at?" continue, and the men believe they had built the bridge under the orders of a traitor? That is what makes a truly great film, where you can sit awake after watching and ask yourself questions like that. I didn't get into the character of Commander Shears because I frankly don't find his plot arc that interesting. I actually found the parts with him rather tedious and felt they slowed down the movie - I didn't care what happened to him, I wanted to see what was happening between Nicholson and Saito. That's not William Holden's fault, as he was an excellent actor. That's more a testament to Alec Guinness, and the unique sensitivity he brought to this role. Even if this movie is just shy of three hours, you owe yourself those three hours to watch it.

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