Like Jason's Facebook Page

Friday, September 28, 2012

My View of Bridge on the River Kwai

  Okay, we all know the drill.  Every year, Hollywood puts out action movies that are devoid of character development, solidly written dialog, and restrained pace  These are first-shot-explosion-turned-chase-scene-turned-shoot-out-to-the-last-scene-explosion epics that plaster the wide screens from April through September.  They have no background development.  The characters are flat, dialog is non-existent.  Despite our complaints about them, the fact is, we're all dazzled by the whiz-bang wizardry of Hollywood's bland magic makers.  We can't help it.  We twist our necks to see what's happening, much like any one would when a loud noise catches our attention in a crowded space.  Sadly, it has reduced us to onlookers, driving by and blinking in surprise at what we see without stopping to find out what it's all about.
  Without these dizzying effects to keep our attention (just think of someone standing next to you, snapping his fingers every few moments to keep you looking in his direction) we have become bored with things like character development, conversations, reflective moments, and yes, even setting.  The funny thing is, this is what made up the bulk of all those classic movies that everyone is so quick to say they love.  Consider the following:
  In Bridge on the River Kwai, William Holden and Alex Guinness must battle the misery and brutality of a Japanese Prison Camp during World War II.  It's a war movie that runs for 161 minutes.  For those of you who gave up math because it's just too time consuming, let me remind you that 161 minutes is two hours and forty-one minutes.  That's like watching six episodes of The Office back-to-back on a DVD, with about fifteen minutes left over to discuss all the hilarious ways Michael mistreated his employees.  So during all of this screen time, you would expect this war movie to have loads of action.  But in reality, there is very little.  There's an escape attempt about twenty minutes into the film.  It is shot in the dark, by moonlight, and there's some running around in the jungle, a few gunshots, and a knifing.  Later, more than an hour later, we see a very quick one-sided gun battle, followed by more running in the jungle, and another knifing.  It is not until the final scene that we see some action which includes mortar fire, machine guns, and explosives.  And yet, even during this action, the greatest and most memorable moment in it is when two characters utter one word at the other.
Jack Hawkins attempts to draw William Holden into
his plan to demolish the River Kwai Bridge.
  And that's it.  That's all the action you get.  By today's standards it's boring.
  I sat my two teenage sons down one night to watch this long, drawn-out drama, with the firm conviction that it was one of the best war movies I've ever seen.  Sure, they've seen Saving Private Ryan, and  Band of Brothers.  I knew that they loved action movies, thought even the most creative CGI displays don't keep their full attention.  They have a habit of chit-chatting during movies, joking and poking at each other as if they need something else to entertain them during the film.  I admit I worried that their focus would wander during Kwai, which I knew to be thin on action.  But I pressed the play button and hoped for the best.
  Two hours and forty-one minutes later, as the credits filled the screen, I looked over at my sons, who were still leaning towards the screen, a position I had noticed them in early on in the film.  They both reluctantly turned away from the screen, looking in my direction.  "Wow, that's a good movie," one of them said.  The other one nodded.
  Now, a little full-disclosure is required here.  I've raised these boys on classic movies.  Though they watch plenty of modern movies like Tron:Legacy, and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, they've also watched many Bogart movies with me, as well as Steve McQueen, and John Wayne, and even Buster Keaton.  They learned how to pay attention during long conversations and they understand that lighting and music can be used to create and promote themes in the background of a movie.  But that doesn't always mean they like the older movies.  It doesn't mean the classics always keep their attention.
  But Kwai had them from the get-go.  The moment they heard that theme song being whistled by a ragtag bunch of prisoners marching vigorously, shod only with the tattered remains of what might once have been boots, proudly holding their place as the wounded straggle in behind them, they were hooked.  And it wasn't action that held them there.
  The first thing to keep them pinned to their seats was the slightly humorous British officer, played with such dry excellence by Sir Alec Guinness, as he obnoxiously argues with the prison camp commander Colonel Saito.  Guinness is at his best here, but I believe it only works so well because of the equally stunning performance by veteran actor (and former silent film star) Sessue Hayakawa.  Hollywood, in 1957, also thought he was pretty darned good.  He was nominated for an Academy Award as supporting actor.  The humor here quickly leads to drama as Guinness is locked into the hot box and a battle of wills ensues.
  The linchpin of this long film is a scene between these two officers near the middle of the movie.  It is not the point at which they square off and fight with amazing gravity defying skills that can only be filmed with the use of harnesses and green-screens.  In fact, such a fight never happens.  Why should it when these two men can hold us captive with a conversation.  That's all it is.  A conversation over dinner.  Two men just talking. And yet, it is mesmerizing.  At the end of it, you feel the need to stop and take a breath, and marvel at the sheer magic that can be accomplished by a writer, two actors, and a director.
  As the film builds to its climax, we aren't assaulted with a dizzying array of brutal prison camp scenes that most modern movies like to throw at us.  What we see instead is a bizarre twist as Guinness emerges as more of a villain than Hayakawa.  At the same time, we see Holden do everything he can to not be a hero.  He goes out of his way to be a coward.  And yet, fate drags him closer and closer to the climax.  And we begin to suspect that despite his anti-hero wise-cracks, Holden will not disappoint.  He will, in fact, emerge as the hero, boots planted victoriously astride the bodies and ashes of the Japanese and their bridge.
  Spoiler alert here.  I hate to do this for anyone who hasn't seen this movie.  But the climax is the point of what I am saying.  If you are the type to care about these things, and you haven't seen the movie, stop now, go and rent it and watch it, then come back to finish reading.  Otherwise, just keep reading.  Knowing the end doesn't ruin the movie.  The sum total of this movie's greatness does not lie in a twist ending.  It won't lose anything if you know what happens.  You won't care once you finally sit down to watch it, because you'll be spellbound anyway, and forget what you read here, and it will be just as satisfying to watch as if you'd never heard what happens.
Sir Alec Guinness struggles with duty and pride in
the heat of the Burmese Jungle.
  As I said before, the final battle contains machine-gun fire, mortars dropping on the river, and the bridge blowing up.  But that doesn't matter very much.  What does matter is that one character must face the decision to kill one of his own, and we know, from character development, that he has enough trouble killing the enemy, let alone a fellow officer.  What does matter is that William Holden, the Hollywood Star (and only American in the film) shrugs off his cowardice, boldly surges across the river under enemy gunfire, utters a one-word line that is his best line in the film, and dies needlessly, accomplishing nothing.  What does matter is that Guinness utters the same line as Holden, dies in shame, and only redeems himself through happenstance.
  What really matters is the doctor's last words.  (Played by the wonderful Scottish actor James Donald.)
  "Madness!  Madness!"
  None of which would be worth watching without character development, a slow, gut-twisting pace, and minimal action.  When it is over, and the bodies are strung out in a line in the riverbed, you'll need to catch your breath.  And if you take the time to think about it, you'll wonder what all these action movies today are lacking.  Because none of them, with their millions of dollars of CGI stunt-laden action, can approach this kind of finale.

No comments:

Post a Comment