30 January 2010

48. The Bridge on the River Kwai



Like Scorsese and Spielberg movies, we marvel at David Lean because he's a masterful director. The dialogue free introduction introducing us to the dangerous setting, the simple exposition in a shot of a Japanese flag, the constant shifts in tone, the parallel narratives of explosives wired with a bridge matched with a vaudeville-style variety show, the proper casting and work with the actors (Holden, Guinness and Hayakawa are all fantastic), the blocking and staging that takes full advantage of Cinemascope, the tension built by train whistles and footsteps on planks of wood overhead.

But yes, of course, it's also well-written. It has classical Hollywood economy in setting up our three main characters (that itself is a mean feat): Holden digging graves, Guinness a stiff upper lip British officer, Hayakawa a crazy, corrupt taskmaster.

And then we get the task: build a bridge. And immediately we get the main conflict: Officers don't do manual labor. So it becomes a question of power: if Guinness works, he becomes like any other grunt. If he becomes like any other grunt, he can't order his men on his command and hiearchy is lost and they'll all become "slaves". "Without law there is no civilization," he says, and he believes in this order.

Holden escapes, the bridge must be built sooner than expected, Guinness is taken out and we get a great dramatic example of this power struggle: Saito wants Nicholson to cooperate, bribes him with Scotch and beef, camraderie about his homeland. Guinness then makes the bridge building a personal project, which turns Saito inside out with envy.

At the midpoint we get a new mission: bombing the bridge. Holden doesn't want to go but gets blackmailed. This is a GREAT midpoint, a perfect reversal and twist. And structurally it works well, too, because there isn't much more for us to watch with the bridge being built -- we need something else narratively, because otherwise we'd be basically watching paint dry.

All that's left is for the mission to be completed. And it is. But at what cost?

Coppola clearly stole a lot from his film for "Apocalypse Now". He took and deepened the idea of war being insanity, and he stole structural ideas and how to stage things in this SE Asian environment. In other words, he took this movie to it's logical extreme.

What's remarkable about this movie is how much the three main characters change, how we see them broaden beyond their original characterizations, how we get glimpses of them beyond their roles as soliders. Holden is shown, instead of being a jaded POW, to be a cowardly playboy imposter. Guinness, instead of a stand-up officer, is shown instead to be an obsessive egomaniac. And Saito is seen to be a scared company man, an unwilling officer who's bound by duty and country. Is it any wonder that they all have to die at the end, and that the last lines of dialogue are "Madness! Madness!"?

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