In nod to Memorial Day, Turner Classic Movies has aptly scheduled a bevy of John Wayne movies for the next few days, in commemoration of The Duke’s 100th birthday. In between all the patriotic grit and bluster of favorites, They Were Expendable (1945), The Flying Tigers (1942), and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), try to catch a screening of what is probably one of the most telling and most ambiguous war movies ever made, The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957). If you miss the movie, and you hunger for the pageantry and old-fashioned thrill of a historical epic, as well as the cerebral pacing and sense of rhythm so rarely seen in films anymore, by all means, rent it.
And try not to let that damn whistling tune get in the way. Bridge, like Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia, tends to be swallowed up in the pop culture kitsch of its own theme music. But David Lean’s first major Hollywood production is the remarkable piece of filmmaking - grand, sweeping, and intimate at the same time.
Most war movies made before the ‘70s are either clearly for, or subtly against wars. Bridge is one of the few that focuses not only on the power of ideologies that drag us into conflict, but on the individuals who are made to suffer because of them. The incessant whistling of the bedraggled British POWs, Col. Nicholson’s (Alec Guinness) fierce adherence to the Geneva Code and the gentlemanly rules of European warfare, as well as his men’s diligence in building a bridge that will enable the Japanese to transport supplies and reinforcements, are all grim attempts of coping, of holding onto sanity.
Nicholson’s battle of wills with the Japanese commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) over officers performing manual labor on the bridge, (Saito wants to humble the uppity officers, while Nicholson believes that the officers will be better utilized as mechanical engineers rather than as laborers) results in Nicholson’s month-long solitary confinement, (one of the film's best-known sequence), in ``the Oven'' - a corrugated iron hut that stands in the sun. Nicholson would rather die than bend on his principles, and when he finally wins, after Saito realizes that the Brits will only take orders from their own colonel, he is hoisted onto his men’s shoulders and paraded as a hero for weakening the enemy’s resolve as Saito sobs, humiliated, inside his bungalow.
But the real heroes of the movie are unclear. Is the champion really Nicholson? Is his burning obsession to build a bridge better than his Japanese captors an act of courage in ameliorating the living conditions of his men, or merely an act of folly in helping the enemy? Or is the real hero Maj. Shears (William Holden), the requisite cynical American G.I. (the film apparently had to have one, or Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures wouldn’t finance the picture), a rakish hedonist who disdains the blind commitment Nicholson and his men have to their rules, and follows his own code of common sense?
The portrayal of stoic British heroism that both Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins made popular comes across as a bit dated now. Their uniformed machismo and Edwardian condescension at times seems painfully colonial, especially when, after the war, it is clear the protagonists plan to take up the reigns of Empire over India, China and the Far East. But the performances are some of the most thoughtfully rendered, nuanced pieces of acting, a stirring image of men from that time. Moments like Alec Guinness’ beleaguered walk after weeks of confinement from “the Oven” to Saito’s bungalow, chin high, physically struggling to march while his men salute him, or the sequence near the end of the film where Nicholson smugly inspects of the finished bridge, are masterpieces of characterization.
Nicholson, like Lean’s depiction of T.E. Lawrence, is a military man whose hubris blurred his sense of reality. “One day,” he muses to the skeptical army doctor, “the war will be over, and I hope the people who use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built, and who built it.'' Noble as his motives are, the bridge will help defeat the Allies. In his obsession to outdo the Japanese and prove the superiority of British engineering and efficiency, Nicholson forgets that there’s a war going on.
The last seven minutes of the movies lay out a complex interplay of characters’ motives and disastrous consequences, as the demolition team led by Shears and Warden (Hawkins) are poised to blow up the bridge. Lean had learned from William Wyler that the key to creating a suspenseful sequence is to bore the audience for several minutes before you thrust the surprise. The cuts between Nicholson’s misguided scrutinizing of the bridge and the demolition team’s desperation is harrowing, and the epiphany at the end is almost Shakespearean in its realization.
Epic spectacles in the past few years, with a handful of exceptions, have become associated with commercially viable B movies—easily digested, easily forgotten. Watching Bridge, you realize that an epic movie is not only about the grand production values, but the scope of the filmmakers’ vision and intelligence. The movie wavers between exhilarating thrills, explosions, jungle fights, and haunting losses, the unexplicable waste of human life that war demands. Made over forty years ago, its as resonant today as it was then.