Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) - David Lean

A British colonel consumed with foolish pride butts head with a cruel Japanese prison commander intent on completing a strategic railway and bridge over the River Kwai in Burma during WWII.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a superb achievement, where all elements of film come together to produce the most satisfying action-adventure film ever made. If not as visually stunning as Lawrence of Arabia, on the whole it is director David Lean's best epic. It involves two parallel story lines, one the psychological drama between two strong-willed protagonists, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) and Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) over how to build the bridge; and the second, Commander Shears' (William Holden) escape and return in a daring commando raid to blow it up. The first story line runs throughout nearly the film's entirety, while the second provides the exciting climax.

Lean does a fine job setting the stage by portraying the misery of a Japanese prison camp without showing any of its actual brutality on screen. Filmed in the heat and humidity of Ceylon, there was no need spray the actors to create "sweat." Their flesh glimmers with moisture. Uniforms rot in the constant dampness and some of prisoners' shoes are little more than soles. The first scene depicts crude crosses in the make-shift cemetery as Shears and another man dig a new grave. Shears looks at the new arrivals and guesses he'll have plenty of work ahead.

The camp lies in the middle of a dense jungle, representing Burma, the scene of the actual events of the film in 1942/1943, which except for the film's climax, are essentially accurate. Saito explains to the newly arrived British prisoners that it is useless to try to escape. If his guards don't shoot you, the snakes or heat will get you. Shears disagrees with Nicholson, who advises his men against escape, saying: "I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to one. But may I add another word, Colonel? The odds against survival in this camp are even worse."

Given what follows, it is doubtful Saito could have ever won the battle of wills against the stubborn and proud Nicholson, but he certainly gets off on the wrong foot. In his initial address to the British troops he insults their officers, saying they were cowards to surrender, denying their men the chance to die like soldiers. The only way for Nicholson to save face is to defy Saito's demand that officers work along side the men on the railway, even if it means his own death in the oven--a small corrugated tin hut. Nicholson will even sacrifice his own officers on principal.

Nicholson after a few days in the oven.
For his own part, Saito is under immense pressure to complete the bridge on time. Failure means suicide in accordance with the Japanese code of honor. He has no regard for the Geneva Convention when it comes to the treatment of prisoners, but realizing that he needs Nicholson's cooperation to construct the bridge, it is the Japanese officer who eventually capitulates in an emotional scene that leaves him sobbing in humiliation on his cot. 

Guinness won a Best Actor Oscar for his role. His performance is terrific. Nicholson, not particularly admirable or likable, is a complicated man, and Guinness makes him sympathetic. He is a fascinating character. The officer holds unfilled aspirations. Having surrendered he must feel some responsibility for having brought his men to this abysmal place, commanded as he says by the worst officer he has ever met. He suffers the indignity of being slapped in front of his men. His adherence to a British stiff-upper lip attitude saves face, but more importantly enables him to cloak his feelings of shame over a failure in leadership.

On the plus side, his enthusiastic cooperation with Saito leads to improved rations for the prisoners. And he is correct in asserting that the bridge project helps maintain discipline in the ranks and gives his men purpose. That it demonstrates to the Japanese that the British are superior is even better in Nicholson's eyes.

Still, we wonder how much of Nicholson's behaviour stems from a desire to prove to himself that he can accomplish something significant. He tells the camp doctor "one day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity." More telling is the brilliantly written bridge soliloquy, which is a strong argument that the latter motive is his real catalyst, at least subconsciously:

Nicholson to Saito: I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I've been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking's very healthy; but I must admit I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight... tonight!  

Here's a link:

It's the best scene in the film, beautifully written and acted. Lean shoots most of it from behind the actor as he leans on the railing looking out over the river. The camera slowly pulls forward, eventually moving to a side shot. As he finishes, he accidentally drops his make-shift riding crop into the water, signifying that he has completed the journey from humiliation (Saito broke his real crop in an earlier scene) to redemption. Writers Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson would win an Oscar for the screenplay, and this scene as much as any likely sealed their win.

Holden's presence enhances the action part of the film. He's a fabulous actor given a good part. Unlike Nicholson, you have no conflicted emotions about Shears. He's daring; and if he's coerced into joining the commando raid, in the end, heroic. He too gets a memorable speech to the raid's leader, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins):

Shears to Warden: You make me sick with your heroics! There's a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills - they go well together, don't they? And with you it's just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, 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.

"Kill him! Kill him!"

A David Lean film always has wonderful cinematography and a few exquisite transitions between scenes. Here, as a precursor to the acclaimed one in Lawrence where the tip of a lit match turns into the Arabian desert, there is a moment where the camp doctor, after visiting Nicholson, complains of the heat and looks up at the brutal sun. The camera moves up to the sky where the unforgiving sun is a searing white orb. Suddenly, Major Shears, who has earlier escaped the camp, comes into the scene from the bottom of the screen with no clear cut. He is stumbling along, filthy and exhausted and near death with thirst. It's a magnificent switch of characters and story line.

The film's payoff comes as the commando team arrives and mines the bridge. Their plan is to time the explosion with the passage of a Japanese troop train. The editing in the finale is superb. The river has fallen during the night, allowing Nicholson to notice wires beneath the bridge. Confused, he takes Saito to investigate. The two walk down to the river's bank as the sounds of the train is heard in the distance, coming closer and closer. The detonation wire is more obvious here, and Nicholson grabs it and begins to pull, exposing the wire as it comes out of the sand, leading to a commando hidden behind some rocks with the plunger. Lean uses quick camera cuts between the characters to capture reactions. It is wonderfully tense.

The sequence has been much discussed, and Nicholson's thoughts and actions are open to interpretation. Clearly, at first he wants to protect the bridge (his "600-year" achievement), and fails to understand that in building it, he has collaborated with the enemy. Has he gone mad? It's hard to say, but the appearance of Shears seems to shock him back to his duty. He gasps "What have I done?" as the train begins to pass over the bridge. Warden has been firing mortars all the while, and one fragment hits Nicholson. He staggers, mortally wounded, before falling dead across the plunger. The bridge explodes and collapses, sending the train into the river.

"What have I done?"
Besides the writers and Guinness, Oscars went to Lean as director, Jack Hildyard as cinematographer, Peter Taylor as editor, the score and the film as Best Picture. Hayakawa was nominated for Supporting Actor but lost to Red Buttons for Sayonara.

The film was named to the National Film Registry in 1997 and in the American Film Institute's most recent edition of greatest films was listed as #13.

Colonel Bogey March

One of the most memorable tunes in all of film appears in Bridge. The British soldiers whistle the jaunty number as they march into camp, and again as they cross the completed bridge. It is called the Colonel Bogey March. There are several versions of lyrics. Here's a typical one, which would have been familiar to British audiences:

Hitler has only got one ball,
Goring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor Goebbels has no balls at all.

Pierre Boulle:

The film is based on French writer Pierre Boulle's 1952 novel. The book was a semi-fictional story about the trials Allied POWs underwent at the hands of the Japan military, which forced them to construct a 258 mile railway in Burma to facilitate the transport of raw materials needed for their war effort. Conditions were so terrible the line became known as the Death Railway. Somewhere around 100,000 prisoners and Asian conscripts died during construction.

Photograph of prisoners working on the Death Railway.

Boulle himself was never a prisoner of the Japanese, but while serving as a spy for France was captured by the Vichy French loyalists on the Mekong River, and imprisoned for a time in Saigon. He escaped and returned to service in British special forces in Calcutta, India.

Boulle also wrote Planet of the Apes.

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