The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, David Lean)
David Lean carved out two separate existences as a filmmaker, first as the master of the dignified Dickensian (and Cowardian) British drama, then as the antecedent to the crafting of true Event pictures as an assembly line product, directly influencing and anticipating the Movie Brats in the subsequent decades. It’s almost impossible to imagine films like The Godfather and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, among an insurmountable heap of others, without Lean. He took the mantle of the gargantuan epic from D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and David O. Selznick and created his own behemoth of a brand name that favored both the auteurists with their theories of director-driven filmmaking and, just as importantly, the outsized ambitions of the Hollywood studios in the ’50s and ’60s as they fought with gritted teeth to gain footing over television. Lean directed seventeen films and this aspect of his reputation truly rests on just three of them, but they’re three films of such size that they seem like much more: The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago. All three have their merit as events, but Kwai is easily the most successful as cinema, and the one that requires the least excuse-making when viewed simply as a piece of storytelling.
Like all of Lean’s films, River Kwai is longer than it probably should be and is above all a soulless intellectual exercise that casts a glance on its human occupants strictly as specimens from the view of an outsider. Lean might be termed a maximalist, a curious branch of Thalbergian populism gone awry; he would never approach something from the standpoint of how it could be achieved most simply and effectively. He sees his stories as an excuse for florid outrageousness, just like MGM in the ’30s and ’40s; he’s a one-man studio. The quality of his later Hollywood films inevitably rests on the strength of the story itself and whether Lean somehow comes across an interesting way of telling it in his endless maze of wide shots and postcard vistas. Lean’s attention always seems to be on the background in The Bridge on the River Kwai, but this perversely gives the film’s narrative a kind of spellbinding aloofness, as though it wanders into its tale of “madness” accidentally. In contrast to the sleepy sprawl of Lawrence of Arabia, this film manages to grip, though unlike a normal picture it does so in three disparate and somewhat unrelated ways.
Its bizarre structure is Y-shaped, upside down; a focused first act revolves around the tete-a-tete of Alec Guinness’ psychotically calm and orderly British Colonel Nicholson, whose penchant for by-the-book, ruthless politeness is tested when his battalion is captured by a Japanese POW camp, and Sessue Hayakawa’s perpetually angry and depressed Colonel Saito, whose opinion of the Geneva Convention is expressed with a backhand and a slap. This is a comic book, and in perfect comic book logic, even as Saito tosses Nicholson in a sun-dappled solitary slammer, we slowly realize They Are the Same: once this conflict is resolved, each will match the other in a slave-labor completion of a huge transport railway bridge, a race against the clock that Saito and Nicholson both see as their potential legacy, the latter in a grand sort of delusion about British pride.
Someplace in the midst of all this, the cynical lifer Shears (William Holden, because who else?) manages to mount an unlikely escape from the camp but once he reaches the hospital, parched and chased by bird-shaped kites (birds being a major motif of the film), he’s forced by asshole servicemen to go back and destroy the bridge, placing Holden of course in direct but unwitting conflict with half-crazed Guinness, everything leading to the cathartic explosive moment that peaks the deliriousness of the divided sympathies the film’s wrapped up in, between craftsmanship and destruction, the simultaneous fruition of everything. It’s perfect in a sense, but it’s also, as one character puts it, “madness,” and “madness” is the only word for the gleam Guinness gets in his eyes when he forces the sick men to work on constructing this bridge for the enemy, and it’s the same gleam they get at his moment of demise when he commits one last act of defiance for his country.
What precisely is Lean saying? It may be no more than that wild stories like this, those that twist and turn in a sickeningly inevitable fashion like the train heading straight for the exploding bridge, are fun to tell. Many have interpreted River Kwai, for all its batshit action sequences and its solemn opening and closing sequences, as an antiwar film, as it depicts the mixed morals and sheer chaos of even what most consider a justified conflict. That would place it on an opposite track with Lawrence of Arabia, of course, but this movie manages to say more as a result of the less artful ambitions it seems to have. The key to understanding Lean’s point, maybe inherited from Pierre Boule’s novel which I have not read, could be his stance toward Colonel Saito, outwardly a maniac whose fear and depression become increasingly palpable until for much of the second half he is a prop — a sad, silent figure of powerlessness amidst what Lean may or may not interpret as the “right side,” the “good” side. Yet Lean stacks Nicholson himself up with so much conflict and suspiciously abhorrent behavior that we may as well look upon Saito, the only character gazing upon the realities of war with appropriate wariness, as the sole sanity of the picture.
In my heart of hearts, I think it’s a waste of time to try to parse out a deeper message from The Bridge on the River Kwai, which looks to me like not an artistic statement but a piece of unvarnished popular entertainment that happens to be atypically opulent in that certain David Lean fashion. It’s his best film, most likely, because the story is detailed and well-paced, but also because it is full of excellent performances, certainly far better ones than the clowning around evident in Lawrence. Its alternate skepticism and warmth with regard to its characters’ motives is a breath of fresh air, making the “morale boost” of building a proper bridge (rather than the ramshackle one initially operated) something both relatable and engrossingly absurd, all the finger-wagging toward Nicholson’s mad-scientist fixations a function of our expertly divided sympathies. We are made to want Nicholson both to succeed and to fail. Lean achieves this solely intellectually — our emotional attachment to any of his characters is nearly nonexistent — but it’s still an intriguing trick.
Lean’s rigid separation from his characters is still uncomfortable. He physically manifests the distance that later filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas would exhibit emotionally toward their subjects. Though there is some tangible human emotion here, little of it falls on Lean’s shoulders; he prefers to stay far away and find pretty pictures that are designed specifically to inspire awe. They do, of course, especially in the outrageous Cinemascope 2.55 ratio, which looks impressive on a television and is likely overwhelming on a theater screen (I would be keen to reevaluate all of Lean’s color films in a large-format setting). Lean’s style works in the film’s favor in the sense of space it provides, and he periodically achieves such a technical coup in visuals and editing it’s hard to find fault with his work even if it has basically nothing to do with the story — the sequence involving Holden and his small crew’s return to Asia, peaking with a horde of bats fleeing the jungle and casting shadows along in a tense, fearsome small fight sequence, is a feast.
It adds nothing to the story, of course, and that could be lethal in such a long film, but Lean is more grounded here than he would be later; there’s distinctly British levity, which is a relief, and even if intelligence wins out over emotion most of the time, at least it’s a palpable and direct intelligence. Of course, again, the actors help immeasurably: Alec Guinness is simply unforgettable, the battle of the wills in which he participates is riveting, as is the building of the gargantuan bridge. Portions of Holden’s subplot are handled poorly but he is a perfect bit of casting, the classic smarminess that served him so well in Sunset Blvd. and Stalag 17 reaching what may be its ideal fruition as a lying scumbag who really isn’t terribly sympathetic but, like Guinness, wins over the audience on superficial qualities, i.e. “being on the right side.” (Perhaps these casting decisions were Lean’s political remark?) The back story the film tosses in about Sears is completely unnecessary and shows signs of desperation, and we’d all rather watch Guinness ham it up, but the way Holden spits his words out is an ideal anecdote to the empty heroism of so many war pictures.
The ending, meanwhile, is a joyous explosion of unexpected shock and awe, avoiding any temptation to stoop to the obvious or romantic. Lean films his final big setpiece from at least four different angles and the glimpses we get inevitably call the finale of Buster Keaton’s The General to mind. That’s good and appropriate company to be in; both films are really about how ethics and spirit are challenged, enhanced, and thwarted by war itself — these movies ask us to root for the wrong side, more ambiguously here than in The General. Is Lean asking us to look at ourselves and wonder why we think and feel what we do? Or is he just looking to give us a bang-up good time? I suspect the latter, but who knows?
[Expansion of a review posted in another venue in 2006.]