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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Bridge on the River Kwai

David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (the Best Picture of 1957) is a wonderful film which meaningfully analyzes humanity's various attitudes toward war. That sounds high and inaccessible, but the movie dramatizes the situation in an appealing and entertaining fashion. The result is a truly extraordinary film, an enjoyable masterpiece.

William Holden is Commander Shears, an American in a Japanese POW camp in World War II-era Burma. Shears is the last man standing from the original group of prisoners, and the experience of burying his fellow men has made him weary and anxious to leave the war behind him. His last nerve is struck when an entire battalion (not sure if that's the right term) of British soldiers is bought to the camp.

The British are under the command of Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness in a role which won him an Academy Award. Nicholson's men are ordered by Colonel Saito, the Japanese officer in charge, to help build a bridge for use by the Japanese army. The catch is that the officers are ordered to work alongside their subordinates. Nicholson protests, citing the Geneva convention, and is subjected to spend several days in a punishment known as "The Oven."

This is our first glimpse into the resolve of Nicholson, his victory over Saito is cheered by his men, but the audience has to wonder, what is so bad about working alongside the men? Nicholson's fight is less about accomplishing something good than it is about maintaining the cherished British order in the camp.

Once Nicholson makes it out of the oven victorious he decides that the men have fallen into disarray while disinterestedly working on the bridge. As he sees it, the solution is to build the best bridge they can. He believes that the bridge will stand as a monument to the resolve of the British soldier.

Meanwhile, Commander Shears has escaped to a British outpost in Ceylon, awaiting his cherished discharge, when he is shanghaied into a dangerous mission to blow up the very bridge his former fellow prisoners are constructing.

The film is a perfectly constructed vehicle to demonstrate the heartbreaking absurdities of war. Shears is the audience's stand-in, decrying the British attitude toward dying with honor and playing by the rules. By the end of the movie the audience isn't sure if any of the characters are truly sane, or even if it is possible to remain sane in a time of war. The film's dramatic conclusion, during which the attempt to destroy the bridge meets with unexpected resistance, is powerful and ambiguous and will stick with the viewer for a long time.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a perfectly constructed film which fills it's 162 minutes with enough drama to make the time fly by. For this it gets a 9.2 out of 10.

Next? Well, Netflix just sent me Changeling and I may see Watchmen this weekend.

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