Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Movie Review: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Directed by David Lean. 1957.

"There is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, when two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth." –The Ballad of East and West

Face to face in the Burmese rain forest in late winter of 1943 during the Second World War, two men square off in defense of honor. Honor, not the Bushido code, drives Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), the proud commander of a Japanese prison camp. Honor for Saito is absolute control of his camp, which he maintains until the unmovable, indefatigable British Colonel Nicholson marches his captured battalion into the camp whistling Colonel Bogey's March. It is one of the great cinematic moments.

The soldiers enter tracked in one of David Lean's famous pans, followed by the camera first from behind the camp cemetery and then from behind the infirmary. There the sick silently sit up with limp limbs and turn round to see the swagger of the British soldiers brazenly pitching arms to their defiant little tune. The contrast is immediate and palpable: the sick are ready to die and the entering men, though captured, are somehow free. The only question remaining is whether what those entering soldiers bring can survive in the brutal heat of the Burmese jungle and the grip of Colonel Saito.

What they bring is their deference to their commander, Colonel Nicholson, and what he brings is unswerving commitment to their orders. By that obedience, to the rules of the British military and to the rules of war, they maintain their honor. While Saito derives his honor from the obedience of others, Nicholson finds his honor in his own obedience to the law.

This contrast is subtly established when the two men face-off in front of their troops. Against the rules of the Geneva Convention, Saito has ordered that that all officers must work manual labor along with the enlisted men, and when Nicholson hands the colonel a copy of the laws and begins to cite from it, Saito strikes the British colonel's face, tosses his book aside, and bends his swagger stick. It seems at first a glib cinematic gesture to demonstrate the fealty of the British men, who stop forward in uproar, but Nicholson's response is the genius of the gentleman: first he disciplines his own men, then retrieves his book of law, and ignoring his own bleeding face, only then defies his captor.

The punishment which comes for him and his officers, day after day in a sun-scorched, tin-roofed hot-box, is abuse, but it is not dishonor. In fact, it is Saito who incurs dishonor after days of futile, embarrassing attempts to complete the bridge over the Kwai without the cooperation of Nicholson.

First, Saito sends to Nicholson the British doctor, who pleads that already the American prisoner Shears (William Holden), Jennings, and Weaver are dead, killed trying to escape. To that he adds how the cruel colonel has cut rations to the men and will make the sick work to death on the bridge. These entreaties do not move Nicholson, who replies, "If we give in now, there will be no end to it." Nicholson knows that once he is cowed he will no longer command his battalion and after that the men of it will no longer be his soldiers but Saito's slaves. Once he is cowed, they will all be cowed, and after that they will all die as slaves. The doctor, though, sees the situation as a dilemma between principle and death, and presents Nicholson with a seemingly logical answer: because no one will know of their duty if they die, they ought to live. Nicholson is adamant. There is no dilemma for the colonel, for whom thought of British officers working as coolies, as grunts, and British enlisted dying as slaves, is so appalling as to be unworthy of consideration.

Next, Saito tries to earn the favor of the British enlisted by shifting blame to his engineer, whom he removes from overseeing the project. He even goes so far as to try and curry favor by giving the men their confiscated Red Cross parcels. Again, though, in the shadow of the caged Colonel Nicholson, Saito gains not their respect and thus not their effort. As a result, the bridge falls further behind. Finally, he brings Nicholson himself into his quarters.

Saito offers him fine liquor and sumptuous food. He identifies himself as a Western man, preferring Scottish whisky, speaking fondly of his three years at the London Polytechnic, and slicing English corned beef for dinner. Nicholson senses the angle and, refusing the food and drink, flatly replies that he intends to make a full report of Saito, who then offers him another cheap, but logical, way out, just as the doctor did. He tells Nicholson that camps up and down the railway are using officers as soldiers, to which Nicholson, stubborn as ever, replies, "I'm not responsible for the actions of other commanding officers." Increasingly desperate, Saito offers a compromise: only junior officers will have to work. Again Nicholson refuses.

The turn of the tide is neatly set by the following shot. Nicholson waxes a little philosophical on the topic of leadership and as he, a self-disciplined leader with nothing to learn from Saito, looks past him to study the problem of the bridge model, Saito, unable to build the bridge, intently studies Nicholson, from whom he has much to learn about command.

After Saito agrees with Nicholson first that a commander must have the respect of the men in order to have them work and then that the bridge is not completed because the men to not work, he flies into a rage as he realizes that he lacks the respect of the camp. "I hate the British!" he fumes, "You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn, but have no pride. You endure, but you have no courage." What we hear, though, is, "You are defeated, but you retain your honor. You are stubborn, but keep your dignity. You endure, and you do not fear." To Nicholson, he retains his honor by upholding the law, his punishment as an officer is less than the suffering of a slave, and his fear of death in punishment is less than the disgrace of indignity.

We know that Saito has finally admitted defeat when he seizes the occasion of the anniversary of Japan's 1905 victory over the Russians as an opportunity to grant amnesty to Nicholson and the soldiers, releasing them not only from their confinement but also from his command that they stoop to manual labor. There is poignant contrast between tragedy and triumph as Saito weeps defeated and every British man pours out in triumphant celebration as Nicholson greets the his newly liberated officers before being himself hoisted up like a victorious commander. Of course not one of them is free as a man is by right, but the tenor of the moment is a sure vindication that by retaining command of his men he has freed them from dishonor.

It now remains to save them from despair, toward which end Nicholson insists not only that the bridge be built, but that it be built with such speed and exemplary organization and execution that it does lasting honor to the British Army. Medical Officer Clipton, however, wonders whether such cooperation is treasonous, to which Nicholson again finds recourse in the rules of civilization, by which prisoners have no right to refuse work. It is no more proper, he argues with the doctor, that the British soldiers work with deliberate inefficiency than if a surgeon such as he were to operate without the intent of saving his patient. Nicholson is equally appalled by the thoughts of appearing lawless or incompetent. He concludes,

I hope the people who 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 even in captivity.
The subsequent and successful bridge-building is satisfying and it pleases to watch Nicholson and his officers humble the Japanese with their scrupulous efforts and precision, but these scenes pale somewhat before the drama of the preceding act. Moreover, the tension dissipates as Saito recedes from the drama and the film splits its attention between Nicholson's efforts to build the Japanese bridge and the efforts of Commander Shears (William Holden), who in fact survived his escape and was brought safely back to the British base at Ceylon, to make his way back to the camp and under British orders, destroy it.

The first times I saw Kwai, these scenes with Holden puzzled me. How do Shears' smart mouth and skirt chasing fit into place after the contest between Saito and Nicholson? Well, I still find them long and off-tone from the rest of the picture, but one parallel intrigues me. At the British base the higher-ups ask Shears, because of his knowledge of the area, to destroy the incipient bridge over the Kwai so the Allies can impede the Japanese efforts and, preferably, knock out a train which is soon due to cross the river on the bridge. When faced with the prospects of returning, Shears discloses the fact that he is not a commander, but merely took up the guise upon capture, so as to get better treatment at the camp. He hopes by this admission to be found unsuitable for the risky mission.

This is in sharp contrast to Nicholson, who goes out of his way to be treated according to rank even when that means undergoing punishment. Nicholson could have allowed his officers to work like enlisted men, essentially disregarding their honorable ranks, but instead he elected to suffer to maintain their dignity. Faced with the same risk, Shears immediately throws down his rank and its accompanying honor, albeit assumed, aside. Worse than dropping the pretense when costly, Shears keeps it up when it mean points with the leggy nurse on the beach and fancier quarters at the hospital ward.

When the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) tells Shears that both the Americans and British know his story already, and that his own side, faced with the dilemma of dealing with a man deserving both punishment for impersonating an officer and praise for escaping a prison camp, merely tossed him over to the British, Shears pragmatically concludes, "As long as I'm hooked, I might as well volunteer." It's as blunt as but antithetical to Nicholson's, "It's a matter of principle."

This contrast is satisfying, but Shears' reticence is insufficiently developed–neither with dialogue, although some does dance around the issue, nor with style–to feel like a proper, significant, contrast to Nicholson's efforts at the camp. In back-to-back scenes we have Nicholson earning the respect of Saito by rousing injured men to volunteer and Shears getting his hair washed by a native girl. The scenes of Shears and his party making their way back to the bridge, save one chase in which Warden and an untested young soldier must track down a fleeing sentry, do less to heighten the drama than to distend the film and dilute the conclusion. Worse, Warden becomes a foil for Shears, in place of Nicholson, merely out of convenience. Here too I wearied, feeling the length of those talky scenes at the Ceylon hospital. At least we enjoy some fine cinematography, with wide pans over the marvelous landscapes dotted by the tiny figures of our characters.

It is impossible, though, to overlook Alec Guinness' bridge-top monologue, a miniature masterpiece, which begins the finale. Colonel Nicholson's bittersweet rumination on his life of service is exactly the sort of unexpected, unexpectedly honest, reflection that creeps up on us amidst success. Guinness' pitch-perfect tone is that of a man tempted to regret, bearing the burden of that temptation. There's also a subtle reversal only suggested in the staging. Nicholson first walks the bridge, leaning on a thin stick, slowly surveying the marvelous handiwork of his men. Saito then does the same from the other side, approaching the front of the frame.

The shot is a reversal of the one we examined earlier. Here, though, Saito is front, examining the bridge that was before beyond his comprehension. He has learned from Nicholson, who now in the background, looks not at Saito or the bridge, but beyond in self-reflection.

At the apex of its masterful slow-burn finale, Holden's character falls just short of greatness. Shears' sacrifice, running across enemy fire to tell Nicholson that the bridge needs to be destroyed, seems meaningful because he is sacrificing himself, but because the plot hasn't been building him up for any change of heart, it doesn't feel dramatically important for his character. We have little inclination as to what he would do in any given situation, so what does happen is neither expected nor unexpected. Still there is a satisfying reversal if we recall that earlier in the film his buddy inmate says to him, tongue-in-cheek, "You're neither an officer nor a gentleman." Now he has died an honorary officer and an unexpected gentleman. In contrast, Nicholson's fate is complex and rich with pathos. His final heroic moments draw together both plot and character in a concentrated few seconds which arouse in us great pity and fear.

Fist, remembering his speech atop the bridge, we feel pity for Nicholson because, when he learns that Shears' team has been sent to destroy the bridge, we see him denied the satisfaction of what he thought to be his life's great achievement. We sympathize with Nicholson because his virtue deserves reward and because it is a situation, albeit often less grave and grievous, in which anyone may find himself. We feel this pity all the more acutely, though, because of the reversal that has taken place. Heretofore Nicholson's stubborn insistence on building the bridge has been a virtue, giving purpose to the men, and now it is a vice, in its extremity about to contribute to the enemy cause. This creates fear in us, for we anguish in the uncertainty of whether he will destroy the bridge and whether it will be destroyed at all, on which are predicated not only the mission of the Allies, but Nicholson's legacy.

As he takes his last steps toward the detonator, his wounded, injured gait reminds us of his tortured walk from the hot-box, and as he dusts off his officer's cap and replaces it atop his head, we remember his principle, and as he falls on the plunger, we remember the sacrifice, not only of his bridge, but of his whole service. We may even be tempted to exclaim, watching the burnt dedication plaque of the bridge float down the Kwai, "For he's a jolly good fellow. And so say all of us." Or are we like the doctor, who looks on the scene and sees not the price of principle but only, "Madness. Madness."

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