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Lean on the Big Screen: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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Lean on the Big Screen: <em>The Bridge on the River Kwai</em>

These days anyone can watch a masterpiece of world cinema on their cellphone. A familiar contemporary debate frames this as either a welcome innovation or a detestable crisis. You want to see a film. Questions arise. Will it be the iPhone or the multiplex? The Criterion DVD on your laptop or the print at Film Forum? Those who unequivocally elevate the static theater screen over the wide array of portable devices have no better evidence to bolster their argument than David Lean’s magnificent epics. “Imagine watching Lawrence of Arabia on your iPod!” they tell us. “Such a reduction in size would greatly diminish the film’s superlative visual power and therefore result in a less fulfilling experience.” I personally feel ambivalent about the general issue—hell, faced with the proliferation of options, I’m just plain confused—but in Lean’s case the nature of his work automatically dictates the necessity of the theater experience. I first encountered Lawrence on the enormous screen at the Ziegfeld. I recall that when the film ended I stumbled through the sumptuous lobby in a desperate search for the water fountain, feeling as if I too had just crawled across the desert.

Therefore, Film Forum is doing the world a great service, as always, by projecting a new digital restoration of Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) in its original aspect ratio. Since we have established the imperative of seeing Lean’s work in the theater, one must arguably abandon any of life’s pressing obligations in order to see this glorious print as it is meant to be seen. Focusing on its visual merits alone, however, would not do justice to the existential ambiguity that results from its elegantly structured narrative. The film’s panoramic shots do not mirror the scope of its story. Rather than depicting the vicissitudes experienced by multiple characters across an entire lifetime (Dr. Zhivago), Kwai focuses on three characters locked in a suspenseful struggle that unfolds over a relatively short period. Lean and his collaborators employ this tight structure in the service of quietly suggesting the dehumanizing nature of the entire system instead of exploring it directly onscreen in the form of the traditional epic’s densely populated narrative.

Clarifying this further, however, necessitates a general plot summary (I will try to avoid any lamentable spoilers for first-time viewers). In a Japanese prison camp in the middle of the jungle, the strict Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) intends to use his new hordes of British prisoners under the command of Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) to complete the construction of a bridge across the river Kwai before a rapidly approaching deadline. A cynical, wise-cracking American named Shears (William Holden), long imprisoned in the camp, miraculously escapes through the hostile jungle shortly after the new British prisoners arrive. A battle of wills ensues between the steadfast Nicholson, whose adherence to rules and codes (the Geneva Convention, etc.) borders on obsession, and the harsh Saito, who will violate any standards to achieve his objective (“This is war! This is not a game of cricket!”). The compelling back-and-forth struggle results in a compromise: the British will begin the project anew by moving the location of the bridge to a sturdier section of the river. Nicholson intends to oversee the troops, some of whom were engineers in civilian life, in erecting a bridge that will represent the indomitable spirit of the British soldier in the face of the enemy. Saito concedes so much authority to Nicholson that by the film’s mid-point they are virtually collaborators.

Then some good old dramatic irony kicks in. The liberated Shears has gone from the last place you’d ever want to be to a place where you’d always want to be: a seaside hospital that functions more as a tropical resort. We find the wry and unscrupulous Yankee sipping martinis on the beach with an attractive blonde. Imagine his disappointment when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) confronts him with some rather unpleasant news. Warden is leading a team of British commandos into the jungle to find the bridge and blow it to smithereens. Shears is the only one capable of leading them to it. He understandably opts for the martinis and the blonde but soon learns that the U.S. Navy has ordered him to accompany Warden’s team. And so Shears leads Warden and his team back into the jungle hell he’d barely escaped from. They never suspect that it is their imprisoned ally Nicholson, rather than Colonel Saito, who has enthusiastically facilitated the the bridge’s construction; in fact, one might argue that had Saito insisted on following the faulty Japanese plans, the bridge would have never been completed in the first place.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is an action-adventure film without conventional heroes or villains. At first, the audience might expect to root for the British soldiers (as it is a British production) in their struggle against the potentially one-dimensional, sadistic Saito, which is precisely what a lesser film would have done. Here, however, an admirable ambiguity sets in quickly. Saito informs Nicholson that he will be forced to kill himself if he fails to complete the bridge by the deadline. This revelation suddenly reverses the terms of the conflict: the stubborn Nicholson is the villain from Saito’s perspective, threatening to destroy his chances of survival. When we find Saito weeping as he collapses onto his bed, it is further evidence that he is not only a “humanized” villain—he is a villain only by occupying the position that is situated against Nicholson’s. The ambiguity thickens when Shears and Warden begin their trek through the foliage with the explosives. Does the viewer want Nicholson and his men to succeed in building a more remarkable bridge than their captors ever could? Or does the viewer want Nicholson to succeed in completing the bridge by the deadline so Colonel Saito will not have to commit seppuku? Or would the viewer prefer that Shears and Warden succeed in blowing up the bridge Nicholson has arguably constructed solely to satisfy his narcissistic devotion to “honor” without regard to the fact that his actions might aid his country’s enemy?

The ambiguity implicates war as a clash of mutual hierarchies that reduce all of their subjects to pawns. In other words, this is a film about taking orders. If we isolate Nicholson, Saito and Shears as the three major characters, we notice that not a single one of them cares about the bridge for its own sake. It has a different value for each of them: a symbolic victory for Nicholson, a means of survival for Saito, an intrusive task for Shears. Saito’s admission that failure will compel him to kill himself makes clear that he is taking orders from his superiors—but who exactly are the individuals poised to enforce the deadly deadline? Earlier in the film, Nicholson states that he was “ordered” to surrender in what he believes is a tactical maneuver devised by his superiors, and thus for this reason he refuses to authorize any attempts to escape. But where exactly did this mysterious order originate and what is its specific objective? Poor Shears is only charged with blowing up the bridge because the Navy said so—but who specifically within the Navy made the call? The separate orders unveil an identical truth: nameless, invisible entities make the decisions that promise to dramatically alter the course of the individual’s life.

Arbitrarily situated against each other by forces beyond their control, the characters confront one another for a final time in what must be one of the most spectacular endings in film history. This finale, more than any other sequence, indicates the necessity of seeing this movie projected in the theater. On any number of small screens, the bridge will obviously be smaller than the viewer. In the darkness of the theater, on the other hand, the bridge looms over the audience like a mesmerizing colossus. Dwarfed by the image of Nicholson’s achievement, Saito’s salvation, and Shears’s target, one can sense the immense labor required in building it, as well as the enormous consequences involved in destroying it. Shears and Warden have covertly prepared the explosives, Nicholson from the bridge suddenly realizes something is wrong, an approaching train sounds in the distance…

…and over the course of a few gripping minutes, the narrative implodes catastrophically as the different storylines annihilate each other with clinical precision. The film’s final line in this context is interesting. The doctor, Major Clipton (James Donald), a source of rational commentary throughout the narrative, surveys the results of the final tragedy and declares, “Madness! Madness!” The joke, of course, is that within the borders of the film Clipton cannot see what the audience can see in its detachment, namely that there was no madness whatsoever involved in this final convergence. The climax was a perfect resolution of the film’s morally ambiguous antagonisms within a single, sensational moment.

A grim and surprisingly complex worldview haunts every frame of this engaging and visually stunning film. Ours may indeed be an ugly world, but when artists like Lean and his collaborators offer us a chance to view it through the lens of their collective vision, the resulting illusion is, as this new print attests, a thing of rare beauty.

Chris Gisonny is a writer based in New York.