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Kwai Asks Why

One of the real treats of the holidays in our home is being together at night, sitting by the fire and watching films. My wife and I are blessed to have thoughtful, insightful, and yes, opinionated children. All boys, they tend to gravitate to either Adam Sandler/Will Ferrell type comedies or action films, with a strong preference towards war movies.

Our youngest son in particular has become quite the weapons aficionado. He can spot continuity mistakes in the blink of an eye when a character is seen using different weapons from take to take, or if the weapon is simply from the wrong period.

Thankfully, our boys have not turned their backs on the classic films from the genre. Last year I was pleasantly surprised they sat still all the way through The Great Escape (1963). When you’ve been raised on such high-octane, ultra-realistic fare as Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Black Hawk Down (2001), the epic war films from the 1950s and 60s must seem awfully slow, full of what my sons once refered to as “stupid talking parts.”

But they loved The Great Escape and have referenced it often over the past year. Apparently Steve McQueen is cool for this young generation too.

This year we settled in to The Bridge On the River Kwai (1957).

After diving in to the depths of the two-disc set of this classic, I’m very tempted to write a lengthy feature on the back story of how the picture was made. For instance, the primary motivation for legendary director David Lean to sign on to the project was because it could be shot outside of the U.K. where he would not have to pay taxes on his salary – he was broke after a lengthy divorce. Or that Cary Grant was initially considered for the William Holden role, a role which ultimately not only awarded Holden a monstrous salary for those days ($1m),  he secured back-end profit points that set the actor up for life. But, as interesting as all of that stuff is, I’ve chosen instead to focus on the wonderful thematic depths of The Bridge On the River Kwai.

War epics like Kwai stood for something more than simply displaying the visceral brutality of combat through sexy camera techniques, stunning visual effects, and slap dash editing. 

The Bridge On the River Kwai is not just a film about blowing up a bridge. It’s about the the clash of human pride versus oppression, about dignity under any circumstance, principles and integrity.

Like most David Lean films, it’s long (running time 162 minutes), and takes it’s time setting up the story’s characters and conflict. But the dividends are substantial. So many great moments of internal conflict and revelation.

Like when ‘Colonel Saito’ – played wonderfully by Japanese silent film legend Sessue Hayakawa – breaks down on his bed and weeps like a baby after compromising his authority.

Or when Alec Guiness‘ ‘Colonel Nicholson’ accidentally drops his walking stick into the river, momentarily losing his power in front of ‘Colonel Saito.’

Without all of the painstaking build up of these two characters, their struggle to hold on to their prominence, these moments land with a fraction of their impact.

And then there is the brilliant finale of the film beginning when ‘Col. Nicholson’ notices the explosive wires running along the base of the bridge – his bridge. Watching him through the binoculars and then following him down to the beachhead where he follows the line of the wire to the detonator. The moment he locks eyes with Holden’s ‘Major Shears’ – “You!”

 Then – “What have I done?”

Some fans of the film dislike the ambiguity of the ending. Did ‘Col. Nicholson’ intentionally fall on the detonator, deciding finally that the bridge had to be destroyed? Or is that just where he happened to fall? Either way, it’s one of the richest climaxes in the history of film, right down to the meldoramatic line that punctuates it, when the regiment doctor looks on the wreckage and says “Madness. Madness!”

We don’t see that kind of nail being hit on the head in films anymore. It’s considered corny. What we see instead is graphic violence. Aside from the volley of gunfire and mortar shells in the finale, there is only one shootout in The Bridge On the River Kwai. When the band of saboteurs meet up with the lovely Burmese mermaids at the swimming pond. A brief moment of utopia ruined when along comes a trio of patrolling Japanese soldiers. It’s almost comical to watch now. We see our heroes unloading on the enemy and then there is a cut to a flock of birds escaping the jungle’s canopy. Then a cut to the dead soldiers floating in their own blood in the water. My boys exclaimed “That’s it?”

They’ve since watched the film a second time. And loved all the “stupid talking parts” that gave it so much meaning.

2 thoughts on “Kwai Asks Why

  1. Now, off the top of my head (and Gran’s collection of VHS classics) — Stalag 17. The Dirty Dozen. Guns of Navarone. And further back, to Zulu. Gunga Din. Great to revisit and admire.

  2. We’re waiting with great anticipation for your Best of 2010! You’re always a winner with each year’s list. (Hope to see TS3 but then, we won’t try to influence you overmuch….)

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