Thursday, April 20, 2017
The Bridge on the River Kwai
Burma, World War II. The Japanese army brings a group of captured British soldiers to a POW camp in the jungle, ordering them to build a bridge over the river Kwai, needed for their railroad transportation. Colonel Saito insists that every POW, including officers, must work in order to complete the bridge by the 12 May. However, Colonel Nicholson refuses to work, citing the Geneva Conventions that exempts officers from forced labor. Saito thus orders Nicholson to be sealed off in a solitary confinement. However, Nicholson doesn't give in, and Saito yields to his demands. Once Nicholson is declared in charge of commanding the construction, the bridge is built in time. Commander Shears manages to escape from the camp, contact the US army and return with a small platoon with the assignment to blow up the bridge. Upon finding out the bridge is wired, Nicholson actually intends to stop the platoon, but is hit, falls on the detonator and blows it up, anyway.
One of the classics from the 50s, a widely critically recognized film, "The Bridge on the River Kwai" still seems as fresh as on its day of premiere thanks to David Lean's elegant direction and smooth pace: you just watch the first 7 minutes of it, and you immediately want to see it until the end. 50s movies have a different philosophy of telling a story than modern ones, insisting more on classic narration and longer scenes, yet when a story is interesting, it is timeless. The basic premise is simply fascinating: it starts off like a typical POW war drama, yet it quickly turns into a clash of two individuals with integrity — between the strict-by-the-law, disciplinary Colonel Nicholson who insists that officers cannot do forced labor and the rigid, goal-oriented Commander Saito, who insists that every prisoner must work. Their clash of stubbornness is captivating and you never know who may blink first, turning almost into a duel between a British Sheldon Cooper and a Japanese Sheldon Cooper, who both insist the other one is wrong.
Alec Guinness is simply excellent as Nicholson, giving him a sense of dignity and stoic endurance as a person who would rather starve to death in solitary confinement than budge an inch from his principles. Yet he can also be contemplative, especially in his memorable monologue on the bridge: "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." Though Sessue Hayakawa is equally as great as Saito, who is sardonic: when he is informed three prisoners died while trying to escape from the camp, he just says: "It was a pointless task. It was like an escape from reality". A third contribution in the film is the very good William Holden as Commander Shears, who gives the story spice thanks to a few cynical lines. In one scene, he speaks to a military nurse on the beach: "Don't call me Commander, it's very unromantic! How would you like it if I called you 'Lieutenant Lover'?" A small complaint is that the last third loses a lot of energy and ends up rather dry at times, exhausting itself only with the monotone scenes of Nicholson and his men building the bridge, even though their "Stockholm syndrome" was already explored sufficiently, since longer doesn't always necessarily mean better. Still, this is compensated through a finale that almost reaches Hictchcockian levels of suspense in the long sequence where the platoon placed explosives under the bridge, but didn't reckon with the water level drop which leaves the wires suddenly visible above the river during the day, all ending in a finely tuned ending that speaks about the meaninglessness of war: everything is built only to be destroyed in it.