Overrated II

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The Bridge on the River Kwai

Film Review by Dean Duncan Apr 10, 2015

I find it autobiographically poignant that I so liked this as a lad, when I saw it during my very first year at university. (Meanwhile my now same-aged daughter is instant-playing 12 Monkeys and The Virgin Spring.) I don’t feel to regret or repudiate that at all—in fact this time I quite enjoyed watching our three youngest children attend with similar interest. But I’ve got new or different eyes, these many years later.

This is a really schematic movie! Schematic to the point of simpleminded, even edging toward dumb. Didactic and archetypal narratives are generally drawn with clear, broad strokes. There’s nothing wrong with that, if the lesson or type stand up to scrutiny. Here? Beyond the surface moral, which you’ll take or leave, we’ve got ideological problems! Poor Sessue Hayakawa, for instance. He plays the camp commandant, an authoritarian Japanese, or Japanese Authoritarianism. And what does the film teach us about that? Vengeance and crowing victory, mostly: the plot takes this character from dire despotism right through to humiliating emasculation, with hardly a human moment in between. Of course that one Japanese soldier that got knifed did turn out to be carrying a picture of his wife. But isn’t that just the sentimental flip side, a mere liberal token? At this fairly considerable remove, what the The Bridge on the River Kwai seems to be communicating is a basic, angry racism.

Not good! Unless we’re looking for context, or the real world roots of the cinematic concoction. Race hostility at this time, from this cultural ensemble, might actually be kind of understandable. The War was just twelve years over, after all. Traumas, and the resentments that follow hard upon, linger. And it’s not just the Axis. This is a US production, with international collaborators, and heavy measures of self-criticism. Note Alec Guinness’s maddening British resolve, as set against Wm. Holden’s fairly objectionable individualism.

That’s probably conscious, to some degree or other, and not without honour and substance. But films are always saying more than their makers meant them too. What on earth can we make of those omni-subservient Thai women?! (On a film shot in Ceylon/Sri Lanka, mind you.) What’s played out here is a gratifying fantasy, I’m sure, for a certain part of the population. But for heaven’s sake!

Let’s not throw out the whole baby. Holden is some specimen. Guinness is really good. And finally, this being David Lean and all, the whole production is irreproachably handsome. What a visual stylist! Or is style the a big enough word for it? What an architect, what a world-maker!