Friday, 27 June 2014

The British Invaders Blogathon: The Bridge On the River Kwai

By total chance I found out that Terrence Towles Canote at the blog A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting a blogathon celebrating classic British cinema. Since this was an area I knew very well and for once I managed to find out about three months early (as opposed to my occasional tendency to find out at the last minute or just after it ended) there was no way I could avoid participating. 

It was just a question of what films to look at. I've seen plenty of great British movies and in fact one that he labelled a valid choice was 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I immediately got to thinking about some of the iconic war films of the 1950's and 1960's and a few came to mind. I've already written about Zulu for my 50th article (and submitted that one for the blogathon) so I couldn't do much for that one. 

However, there were two other films that seemed to stand out in my mind. Lawrence of Arabia would have been a great choice, but given how long that movie is there's the question of whether I'd find time to watch it. The other one, fittingly by the same director and with some of the same cast, was the 1957 Best Picture winner The Bridge on the River Kwai. Quite the film I must say.

Where to begin with this movie? Well, the story is set against the backdrop of World War II and follows two key plot threads. The first centers around the commanding officer of the POW's, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), and his relationship with the commandant. I'm no expert, but I have read up on this and I do know that Japanese POW camps of the time were notorious for their inhumane treatments of prisoners. Many people died in these camps, a fact the film makes very clear right at the start when we see two prisoners digging a grave. 

The camp is run by the seemingly tyrannical Colonel Saito, who calls the POW's cowards for surrendering instead of dying for their country as per the code of his own army. He announces that he has instructions to build a bridge across the River Kwai, and plans to use the prisoners to make it happen. However, Nicholson objects when he is told that the officers are expected to work alongside the enlisted men, and keeps true to his stance in spite of the pleading of army doctor Major Clipton (James Donald) and prolonged torture by Saito. Eventually, however, the two are able to settle their differences and work together, with Nicholson using the bridge as a means of uniting his men with a common goal.

The second plot concerns an American POW named Shears (William Holden) who against Nicholson's advice organizes an escape plan. They are caught and his two partners are killed but Shears manages to get away when he falls over a cliff and is presumed drowned. With some help from a local village he manages to get to safety only to be roped into secret mission to go back and destroy the bridge under the command of the cold Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Ultimately this thread will collide violently with the first bringing about tragic consequences.

Of course, all of the actors are great in this film but the one who does tend to stand out is Alec Guinness as Nicholson. There is something about his performance that makes him a very peculiar character. You can never quite tell if he's a wise and noble individual or completely insane. On the one hand his intentions seem noble enough but at the same time he puts himself and his officers through excruciating torture ignoring Clipton's pleas to give in when that would obviously be better for everybody.

This is very much an anti-war film about pure and utter madness. We see several people who mean well acting in what seems to be out of a patriotic sense of duty and yet ultimately it almost becomes one big friendly fire incident and nothing is accomplished. It's the kind of film that really leaves you questioning just where you stand and who you're rooting for, given that on the one hand Nicholson seems to have noble enough intentions but at the same time one can understand why Major Warden wants to destroy the bridge. In both narratives you can really connect with the characters, so when they inevitably come together it leaves you unsure whose side you're really on. Major Clipton sums it up quite nicely in the end: "Madness... madness".

In many ways, The Bridge on the River Kwai is an icon of British war cinema at its finest. It is an all-around great movie with a compelling story, great acting, and well-rounded characters that will leave you questioning your own morality.

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