Monday, September 22, 2008

Movies: The Bridge On the River Kwai

Second-guessing never stops me from dismissing a disappointing film in print, but it does plague me post-publication. Maybe I missed something? Or maybe I'm completely out of touch with our contemporary moment, having lived for three years now without a television. Or maybe, when I said that Tropic Thunder was a satirical failure, I was right, and only needed to watch a competent war satire to prove it. Watching The Bridge On the River Kwai completely reinstated my self-confidence. This is what a satire should be: serious, insidious, subversive (not silly). Of course, everything that Thunder gets right about race Bridge gets wrong, but we can safely blame that on the 50 year disparity. On the absurdities of war, the key issue here, Bridge is the go-to picture, even at twice the length, ten percent of the jokes, and five times the Tolstoyesque diatribes.

The film opens with a brigade of captured soldiers marching into a Japanese base in Burma. Japanese Colonel Saito has no interest in the copy of the Geneva Conventions British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) waves in front of him, and insists that all captured soldiers, officers included, will begin work the next day on a bridge across the Kwai (the Conventions specify that captured officers are not to do physical labor, but only serve in an administrative capacity). Here begins a battle of wills between the two men; Saito must have work on the bridge completed by a certain date, and is willing to do whatever it takes. Nicholson is an adherent to the letter of the law, and spends solitary days on end in a cramped hotbox without food or water rather than give in, while his officers suffer in a larger hotbox. Meanwhile, the soldiers are "working" on the bridge, but sabotaging all of their work as they go, so that little progress is made. Meanwhile, an American naval prisoner, Commander Shears (William Holden), who has been at the outpost much longer than the British, makes an escape (he first tries to convince the British officers to join him, but they refuse).

At long last, Saito yields to Nicholson, freeing him and the officers to take over supervision of the brigade's work on the bridge. By this point, we've watched an entire movie's worth of plot unfold, but the real heft of the story is yet to come. Nicholson and his officers (competent colonialists who have built bridges all over India) take over the project with a surprising relish, considering that they are working for the enemy. In fact, nationalistic pride inspires Nicholson to complete the project against all odds, demonstrating the skill and strength of British engineering. Meanwhile, a team from the British Special Forces based in Ceylon are working on a plan to destroy the bridge, and rope the rescued and recovering Shears into returning to the Kwai and carrying out the mission. He goes with three other soldiers: an old, hardened explosives fanatic, a young, earnest soldier wanting to prove himself, and a third, who dies immediately upon arrival in a parachute accident. Along with their local guide and a group of supply-bearing women (who double as attending mistresses—where the movie offends race-wise it offends gender-wise as well), the soldiers undertake the massive trek to the Kwai, and, upon finding it, spend the night wrapping the bridge's bulwarks in plastic explosives. By the morning, though, the water has gone down, and the manic Nicholson notices the suspicious wires running down the beach.

As the train carrying key Japanese military leaders approaches the baited bridge, a beautifully-orchestrated struggle ensues; Saito's throat is slit by the young soldier, who is in turn shot by a group of Japanese soldiers running toward the action before he can detonate the explosives. In a panic, the old pyromaniac, stationed across the river, begins shooting, and hits Shears, running across the river from his hiding place, before he makes it to the detonator. At the moment that Nicholson sees Shears shot down, he recognizes his allies behind the sabotage. Realizing his temporary insanity in building the bridge, he runs toward the detonator as well, and falls upon it just as he's shot dead, exploding the bridge just as the train begins to cross it, so that the unstoppable locomotive plunges headfirst into the river.

It is the power of Nicholson's will that makes for the madness; his monomania, in fact, is the same as that of each key player in Tropic Thunder—the self interested actors, agent, executive, and ex-soldier—who blunder through the crisis at hand only working for their individual, short-term goals. But Nicholson demonstrates the danger of military obedience: missing the forest for the trees. The Thunder crew doesn't actually tell us anything about the dangers of war, only about the solipsism of individuals in the movie industry. To be fair, Thunder is more of a war-film satire than an actual war satire. But Stiller (as fond of him as I am) could still take some pointers from David Lean's luscious technicolor lesson.

No comments: