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Monday, July 28, 2014

AFI Film Review: The Bridge Over the River Kwai

As punishment for my film school sins I’m watching all of the AFI Top 100 films that I haven’t seen. I will be reviewing them and grading them as I watch them.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was my favorite of the David Lean movies on the list. I don’t usually like war films; especially World War II films because I feel that there are too many. The war films I do like are all about psychology: Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now (I like this movie, but I don’t love it) and Stalag 17. The first two deal with combat’s effect on the psyche and the last one and Bridge deal with the mentality of the prisoner, the same themes that Slaughterhouse-Five addresses. One of my favorite passages of Slaughterhouse-Five is when the British military men talk about how they wake up and shave and continue life as normal so as to keep sanity during the war. This is contrasted with the American servicemen who fall into bickering and infighting. A version of this happens in Bridge. The British military shows up to a camp that the viewer is certain will break them, as it has broken the American Shears and others, but in the end they break the camp by sheer force of character and willpower.

       Wiiliam Holden is great as Shears, a hotshot American forger only out to better his own position in a war being fought by powers out of his control. He sees the war as an evil thing, an unnecessary thing created by greedy leaders of nations. He is only in it to get out of it. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), by contrast, is a career military man who understands honor, duty and how to follow a directive. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is also a professional military man, but he lacks Nicholson’s character, tenacity and organizational skills. In the battle of the wills Nicholson is triumphant. He becomes the de facto leader of the camp, builds the bridge for Saito and manages to bolster the morale of the entire camp. Of course he gets carried away and the bridge comes to represent a career of loyal service, a culmination of hard work and discipline that blinds him to the ultimate purpose of being in the war: to defeat the Axis powers. In the end all three of the men die and Major Clipton, the doctor, the rational one declares “Madness!” which is exactly what the movie is all about.
       Alec Guiness is amazing. No Russian or Arabic accents here, just pure genius. His moments with Saito, his time in the sweat box, his speech to the men at the end of their project are all first rate moments. Hayakawa is brilliant as a troubled and cruel warden worried about his legacy and his honor. I was constantly expecting Hayakawa to kill himself or someone else on a whim. You can feel all the pressures of imperial Japan, all the expectations weighing down on Saito. And then there is William Holden. I love a lazy American, the guy who just wants to get to the beach with the blond. Hawkeye, Tyrone Slothrop, Billy Pilgrim, Yossarian and Shears, a bunch of guys who had no business being in the military, are members of a archetype that helped popularize the futility, the madness and spectacle as expressed by the people who were actually in the war.

       The Bridge over the River Kwai is a wonderfully told story with all the right twist and turns and amazing performances. It deserves to be on the list.

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