Sunday 8 September 2013

Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Is it better to die for what you really believe in or compromise your principles and live?  It's a strange question, but cinema never tires of asking it.  I'm always tempted toward the former option, but Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) agrees so vehemently that he'd seemingly die for almost anything, any point of the law, however small, and have his men die with him.  He's quite fantastically stubborn, and it really doesn't go well for him, or for anyone, except the people he's trying to defy.

This is 'Bridge on the River Kwai', from a novel by Pierre Boulle who also gave us 'Planet of the Apes' (1968).  Both are exciting movies full of apparent hope in the midst of catastrophe, and each uses a tale of thrilling adventure to convince us that all human endeavours are ultimately futile, and that we might as well just hurry up and die.  Unavoidably, by the way, I'll be spoiling the end of this film for you.  But like the end of 'The Wicker Man' (1973), I think it isn't hard to see it coming.

Colonel Saitu!
It all starts with the surrendered Colonel Nicholson marching his men into a Japanese concentration camp in the middle of the Second World War, somewhere between Bangkok and Rangoon.  Colonel Saitu (Sessue Hayakawa) intends to set the British soldiers to work building a railway-bridge over the Kwai, and Nicholson is fine with that so long as the officers don't have to join in.  It's in the Geneva convention, see.  What follows is an excellent hour-long stubborn-off, with calm British resolve against Japanese rage, a clash of two national stereotypes which comes off as excellently tense unfolding drama, and which left me quite exhausted wanting one side or other to compromise even just a little.

Of course, once things get worked out, Colonel Nicholson is determined that the British should build, not just a bridge, but the best bridge on the continent, which causes problems when the film moves its focus to a new set of heroes travelling out to sabotage the bridge and slow the enemy's supply-lines, not realising that it will be so well-built.  We then alternate between the two teams of heroes, one believing that completion of the bridge is the only worthwhile thing they can really do with their lives, the other realising that their chances of survival are low, and the only thing they can hope to achieve in their remaining time on Earth is the destruction of the bridge.

I've a notion that in Boulle's original novel the bridge isn't destroyed, but this is a movie and movies don't work like that.  If we're promised an exploding bridge, then gosh-darn-it, there's going to be the most explodey bridge that the super-widescreen of Cinemascope can show.  It's a long film, but it's an excellent film.  David Lean is directing, and he really knows how to handle an epic, and build up tension.  His next two films were the magnificent 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962), and 'Doctor Zhivago' (1965), which I really don't like at all but will concede is a very good film.  It's easy enough to make a big film, is scarily simple to make a long film, but David Lean really knows how to get the details right, so that every shot is well constructed, every element works together, and nothing goes to waste.  He especially knows how to use Alec Guinness, who appears in all his better-known films (notably as Fagin in the not-a-musical version of 'Oliver Twist' from 1948), and gives one of his best performances here, managing to make Colonel Nicholson something other than an agitating jerk.

I once had a house-mate who took great personal inspiration from Colonel Nicholson, as well as from Yuri Zhivago and T.E. Lawrence.  One of his greatest skills was the ability to give flawlessly loud renditions of the final scene of any David Lean movie, and his one-man performance of the end of 'Bridge on the River Kwai' was a thing to behold.  The scene builds up so gradually and so quietly, with a train audibly on its way for ten full minutes before it arrives at the explosive-covered bridge; the tension racks up, as Nicholson, slowly and methodically, discovers and uncovers the cable that connects the explosives to their detonator, a realisation growing ever clearer in his military mind.  Those long minutes are deafeningly quiet, verging on silence before at last we reach the cry, so often repeated by Ted, of 'Blow up the bridge? BLOW UP THE BRIDGE!  BLOOOOWWWW!?   BLOW UP THE BRIDGE!  HELP!  HEEELP!   HEEEEELLLP!'


And when it comes it's not a model, but a real explosion with a real bridge and a real train, and it makes all the difference.

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