05 August 2022

52 for '22: The Bridge on the River Kwai

MovieThe Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Method: YouTube

Now that's one bridge they built too far

Why Did I watch this?

I have never seen this before. I know it's a classic, seminal piece of filmmaking that was both a critical, commercial, and cultural event of its time. I dunno, it was never on FX at a good time. I put this in my Netflix DVD queue on February 19th, 2018. I can't say what happened on that particular date that made me want to see it, but that's certainly a significant gap in my film watching. But it was always on my radar from quoting Unforgivable #2. I always just think, "Dr. Zhivago, Brief Encounter, and Bridge on the River Kwai. A LEAN NIGHT." Like this dude is a cinephile. Yeah, my main interaction with one of the most famous movies of all time comes from an obscure 2006 YouTube video.

But I watched this because I knew had some time in July to dedicate a few hours and I saw that it popped on HBOMax but was leaving soon. Of course, if you look it up, you will find no such thing because it was totally A Bridge Too Far (1977) leaving HBOMax, not this. So that's significant egg on my face. But I searched quick and found that it's free on YouTube for some reason. It all comes full circle. I still had the time, so boom, here we go.

What Did I know ahead of time?

Well, I knew this had something to do with some bridge. And I knew that Alec Guinness was in it. I knew about the accolades, although not exactly how much it won. It nabbed Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Score, and Editing. The last time Best Actor was in Best Picture was The Artist (2011), which definitely feels weird. Not really the same scale, right? The last time Best Actress was in Best Picture was Nomadland (2021), but hey, no need to worry about actresses in this picture. We'll get to that.

I knew that it was mentioned in "We Didn't Start the Fire." This is just a notable movie, man, it's a big deal. I found out that I really didn't know anything about the plot. I thought it was some World War II film, but I really realized how much I confused it with A Bridge Too Far, which I have already seen. Yes, this is set during World War II, but they don't really fight anyone.

How Was It?

This movie was weird. I didn't get a chance to read contemporary reviews, but obviously it was immensely popular. Fine, I had plenty of chances to read contemporary reviews, I just didn't want to. Like, okay, if you're like me and watching The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time in 2022, your reaction has to be the same as mine, which is basically, "THAT is what The Bridge on the River Kwai is about?!" Let's get into this.

The film starts right away with Alec Guinness leading a group of captured British soldiers to a Japanese camp in occupied Northern Thailand. I really thought it'd be a South Pacific Island or something, and actually didn't get it until they showed a map to the American later on in the film. We're both just dumb I guess. I really thought they said they were on an island and there was no chance of escape, they didn't have barbed wire or watchtowers, like that's a whole thing. I guess that's why the American escapes later.

Anyway, straight away Alec Guinness is whack. My honest appraisal is that he was the film's main villain. I'm really not sure if people thought he was the hero or not. It feels like a parody or satire of British pompousness. First of all, he dissuades any thought of an escape plan. And then he insists on following the Geneva Convention for prisoners, but his primary sticking point is that Officers should not be forced to do manual labor.

And that's the conflict that drives like, the first hour of the film. It's an insanely classist argument that just kept baffling me. First, there was no way this Japanese camp in 1943 was going to give a shit about the Geneva Convention. And Guinness is so shocked and offended. He comes across as insanely naive. And he fights so, so hard for the right of Officers not to work. He's locked in a hotbox for weeks, has intellectual mind duels with Commander Saito, and refuses to give any ground. When he finally wins and Saito concedes, his men cheer like he's liberated all of them. No, he's only gotten his Officers off of bridge-building duty.

Am I taking crazy pills? Why is this a thing? Are we supposed to be on his side? It feels like cheering for a landlord or something. Like, no get down and do the work. The film plays all of this completely straight, like it's not the most classist movie of all time. And maybe it is supposed to play up British propriety, because the American, played by William Holden, is the only sensible one throughout the whole film. He's telling it like it's actually World War II while everyone else is pretending they're in some fantasy world where honor and nobility still exist.

Maybe this is the point. Again, I'm just unsure. If it's trying to be satirical at all, it does not frame itself as such. It progresses as a typical David Lean historical epic. There are cracks here and there. Alec Guinness becomes really obsessed with finishing this bridge. One of his officers, the Doctor, at one point does mention that his actions could be considered collaboration or treason. Guinness seems to only want to prove that the Brits are the best engineers and the best prisoners, but it feels like Stockholm Syndrome. Like, he can't get out of his own sense of dignity. Supposedly the real commander in this situation secretly sabotaged the construction of the bridge the whole way, like secretly introducing termites and doing a shoddy job. Like an Ocean's 13 (2007) kind of deal. That sounds like a much more entertaining movie. We get the comments that his motivation makes no sense, but none of the real criticism.

The ending salvages that a little bit. The American who escapes is roped back into service and his secret commando team set charges and eventually do blow up the bridge. Well, until Alec Guinness almost screws it all up by revealing their location and trying to sabotage their sabotage. In the end, they all die and Guinness falls on the detonator, blowing the bridge. It's unclear if he did this with his last dying breath to make up for how much he was about to help the Japanese win the war. I think so. He seems to have some realization and regret, the "What have I done?!" as his last words. But it's a weird journey to get there.

And maybe this is on purpose and the film is a huge joke about the hypocrisy and impracticability of the British class system. Maybe. It doesn't really feel that way. Maybe because it's just shot very straightforward. When you're in a POW camp I expect The Great Escape (1963), not whatever this is.

But this is all plot problems. I just never bought into the core of what this film was about. Everything else is banging. Guinness' character I think is one of cinema's greatest villains but he acts the hell out of it. Same with Holden and pretty much everyone else. The locations are amazing, shots are framed with a steady hand and epic scope. Bats! There's all these shots of bats flying around, it's very fun. There are a lot of characters, they could have definitely used something to distinguish them. They're all just white Englishmen with brown hair. I know they're all Englishmen, but hey, I was able to distinguish RRR (2022) pretty well. This movie could do better. And the plot does follow a logical order, with twists, and plausible causality based on character, everything's firing at full steam. I just don't agree with the destination that train is headed in.

We really should talk about how women and people of color are treated in this film. Now, this is 1957, so you know what you're getting...but maaaan... There is one female character who speaks, and she's got that sassy 1950s attitude that's great. But she peaces out pretty quick. Then, we just have a ton of native Thai people who are helping the covert team find the Prison Camp. They do a lot. The build rafts, serve as guides, and definitely, DEFINITELY prostitute themselves. Prostitute is a kind word, I might say there's some decent implied rape here. I don't think it's the film's intention to do such, but that's a clear 2022 reading of the look on some of these women's faces when these white boys glance at them and then cuddle up in some swimming pools. It is extremely cringe.

There were characters here. They don't get lines and they're subservient to the white folk. It's just bizarre. They're not even whitewashing, they're absolutely sidelining characters of critical importance. It's not great at all. Again, this was 1957, so it's not like they are missing the cultural boat, it's just very awkward to watch right now and literally see how there are great stories out there that are simply ignored.

So why did this movie become such a cultural force? Why is it in "We Didn't Start the Fire?" There are things to read into this. Is it about how soldiers just blindly follow orders and take comfort in that, even when those orders come from the enemy? The ending certainly feels like the echoing words of the doctor, "Madness, madness" as all that careful order unspools. Are war objectives achieved through precise discipline and order or through chaos and violence? Big questions here.

I'm not sure why this film was so popular. Curious if any grandparents are out there reading Norwegian Morning Wood who would like to contribute their opinion. I suppose the spectacle and location shooting were impressive, it's an early epic film, pre-dating Ben-Hur (1959) and not too far after The Ten Commandments (1956). It's a war film without having to really be about whether or not war is good or bad so anyone can side with it. And even though it was controversial for making the Japanese out to be poor engineers (which sounds crazy), it definitely didn't make them out to be the cruelest Prison Camp runners in history, so that's nice.

It's weird. It's just a weird film. I had a lot of problems with this, but I did enjoy watching it. It's a testament to how much all the visuals and acting add up to make a movie great, even if the plot is baffling, at least to modern standards. This is enough of a cinematic giant that it should be on everyone's list to see, but still...it's a weird way to end a lean night.

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