RSS

Tag Archives: adventure movies

The AFI Top 100 Films: The Bridge on the River Kwai (#13)

Entertainment 150The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Starring William Holden, Alec Guinness and Jack Hawkins
Written by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson (screenplay) and Pierre Boulle (novel)
Directed by David Lean

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a chronicle of what can happen to twist our logic into insanity through the fog of war. Whereas Apocalypse Now explores what happens when man is allowed to give in to insanity with none of the societal constructs we use to block (or in some cases support) it, this movie shows us a man whose values get so twisted through his wartime experience that he ends up collaborating with — and ultimately supplanting — his sworn enemy as a matter of pride.

That man is Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), an officer for the British army who was captured along with his platoon by the Japanese. The commandant of the prison camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), is under pressure from his superiors to build a bridge within a certain amount of time. It holds vast strategic value, enabling the Japanese army to get men and supplies to areas of Burma that would otherwise be impossible. This would give them a significant advantage in the Pacific theatre of World War II.

Saito demands that all prisoners work on the bridge — even the officers. Nicholson refuses that last bit, under the grounds that it’s forbidden by the Geneva Convention. The resulting stand-off unites the men behind Nicholson (who ends up being punished in a sweat box) and encourages them to sabotage the building of the bridge, at least until Saito is forced to blink first and release Nicholson. The victory of the prisoners, however, is short-lived when their commanding officer sees the state of the project.

Appalled at the shoddy workmanship on display, Nicholson steadily takes over construction. At first he wants to give the men something to do so that their discipline and morale is improved, but it soon becomes a chance for him to leave a legacy behind after the war. The bridge, to his mind, will stand as a testament to British engineering and workmanship. Its prompt completion will be a thumb in the eye of the Japanese, proving that the Royal Army can do what the Emperor’s Army can’t.

Nicholson proves to be a harder, more effective taskmaster than Saito. He demands more and more of his men, even pulling people out of the infirmary to work. Saito just fades into the background as Nicholson becomes the new commandant of the prison camp, subjecting his own company to grueling work and punishing conditions just to prove his worth. Never mind that he has taken over the enemy’s work for them, or that the bridge actively works against the interests of his side.

Meanwhile, the one officer who survived in an escape attempt from the prison camp is convinced to go back and sabotage the bridge. Shears (Holden) is an American grunt who leads an international commando group to blow it up, and a lot of the film is devoted to him slowly giving up his selfishness in favor of a higher ideal. It makes for a really nice parallel story as Nicholson twists his ideals to serve his selfishness without even realizing.

The movie can only end one way, and that’s with a confrontation between Nicholson’s group and Shear’s unit. It’s a great opportunity to show just how far Nicholson has gone off the map, and even though you know he’s out in a mental and military wilderness it’s shocking to see just how lost he is. The climax of the film plays out like something of a Shakespearean tragedy, and the survivors are bewildered at the wreckage that they’ve had a hand in creating.

What’s fascinating about this film is figuring out exactly where Nicholson went wrong. His intentions were…sound enough, I suppose, but there’s clearly a line that was crossed at some point without the officer even knowing it. None of the people supporting him asked him to check his bearings before moving forward, and at some point he became the very thing he had been fighting all this time. Is this where an unwavering commitment to ideals gets you? Or is it just that he had been applying them improperly all this time?

We have the benefit of distance with which to determine the answers to these questions, but none of the participants in this scenario really did. And maybe that’s the point — when you’re in a situation where it’s the norm for men to be cruel to other men, it’s impossible to even find your bearings, to know what’s an acceptable application of your ideals and what isn’t. That at best, men are likely to turn into Nicholson and at worst they become Kurtz.

The movie is based on the book of the same name, and Nicholson is an amalgam of various French officers that writer Pierre Boulle served under in the war. Despite his repeated claims that he wasn’t trying to take a dig at the British, a lot of people (even star Alec Guinness) thought it was an indictment of the British Army. I could certainly see that, though really only one man drives the problem that needs to be stopped. It could be considered an organizational failure that his course wasn’t corrected well before the climax of the film.

The performances are first-rate all around, and given its unique location considering it’s a WWII film it’s one of the sunniest war movies I’ve ever seen. The adventurous, almost breezy tone masks a surprisingly thorny tangle of ideas in this movie, and that’s what makes The Bridge on the River Kwai so great. It’s entertaining, and when you stop to think about it really sobering. It’s the kind of movie you see on Friday night and end up thinking about through Sunday afternoon.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on December 4, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , ,

The AFI Top 100 Films: The African Queen (#17)

Entertainment 150The African Queen (1957)
Starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn
Written by James Agee & John Huston (screenplay) and C.S. Forester (novel)
Directed by John Huston

There’s really nothing else quite like The African Queen. Set (and filmed!) in Africa, it tells the story of a missionary’s sister Rose Sayer (Hepburn) fleeing the region after Germany deemed her brother a “hostile foreigner”. His hut is burned down and he is beaten so badly that he remains addled for the few days it takes him to die of fever. With nothing left for her at the village she worked in, she decided to leave on the only transport she could, the titular river-boat captained by hard-drinking grump-meister Charlie Allnut (Bogart).

The pair learns of a rather nasty German submarine sitting in a lake nearby, blocking off access to this part of the region. Not content with merely escaping, Rose decides to do her part for the war effort and blow it up with a home-made torpedo or two. At first Charlie isn’t having any of it, but as the pair travels down the river together they grow closer in mind and spirit. They fight over just about everything, even still, but they look past those differences towards the bond that being in such a terrible situation gives you.

It’s the bond between the characters and the wonderful chemistry between the actors who play them that gives the movie it’s charm. Bogart is really in his element here as Allnut, a crude riverboat captain who’s really only looking to do his job and drink a lot. Hepburn channels her steel spine well into Rose, the high-minded religious woman who seeks to drive Charlie to a higher purpose. And through her uncompromising yet mostly genial nature, she herds him there through the distraction of the bottle and “meager” self-preservation.

When she’s able to channel him into a place where their interests align and things flow smoothly, the effect is electric. It’s like sailing a ship into the current, or channeling base instinct towards a constructive purpose. You’re always shocked by how swiftly and efficiently things get done. That’s the magic between these two at work; you see how well they fit together because of their differences, and it makes you believe in the idea of two opposing yet complementary forces. The id and the super-ego joining to propel the individual towards impossible achievements.

They sure do have to suffer a lot to learn that, though. Not only do they have to navigate each other’s personalities, but they have to deal with the very real dangers of the river as well. Swarms of flies, the tricky rapids and currents that lead the Queen into dead spots that must then be dragged through. The scenes of Rose and Charlie dealing with the elements are incredible, shot with a realism that makes you feel terrible for them and horrified at just some of the many delights the African wilderness can inflict on unsuspecting travelers. Knowing that director John Huston and his stars also had to deal with a lot of tough conditions to film on location only adds to that reaction; Hepburn was sick with dysentery for much of the movie, and they used real leeches for a particularly awful scene.

african-queen

Not pictured: nightmare fuel.

Another interesting thing about The African Queen — and one of the things that makes it a bit more timeless than other films of its type — is it really gives you a sense of the unique geography of Africa without diving into the thorny socio-political and racial issues of the time. You don’t see too many African jungle adventures that don’t need to come with the disclaimer of “Some racist things happen in this movie, but that’s just the way people thought at the time.” It was nice to have that.

The final set-piece — when the Queen and her crew finally reach the lake where the German sub is positioned — skews things in a distinctly Hollywood direction, but it’s still quite well done. The tonal shift isn’t so jarring it negates the realism of what’s come before, and both Hepburn and Bogart are so charming they pull it off with a minimum of questioning. The African Queen represents old-school filmmaking at its finest while still offering something unique to this day. It’s a great adventure worth getting wrapped up in.

Rating: 8/10.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on November 6, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

Tags: , , , , , , ,

The AFI Top 100 Films: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (#30)

Entertainment 150The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
Written by John Huston (screenplay) and B. Traven (novel)
Directed by John Huston

I felt like I had learned a few things after seeing . One: finding and mining gold is a LOT more difficult than I thought and way harder than it had been portrayed in other movies. Two: that the only reason you would go to Mexico at the time was specifically to find gold. Three: that the allure of overwhelming wealth is far more powerful than just about anyone realizes. Four: “We don’t need no stinking badges!” is a misquote, that actually came from this movie. The last bit, sadly, is probably the knowledge that I will spread most.

Dobbs (Bogart), an American down on his luck in Mexico, meets up with a compatriot named Bob Curtin (Holt). Together, with a grizzled prospector who’s seen a thing or two (Huston), they trek to the harsh and forbidding wilderness in the Sierra Madre mountains for one big score. Once they find it, they’ll have to protect it from bandits, mining companies eager to put a legal claim on the place, other prospectors, and the rising tide of greed within themselves. Combine the constant mental wariness with the back-breaking physical labor, and you just have to wonder how long someone could last in that situation.

The entire first act is a wonderfully protracted exercise in foreshadowing. Howard, the old prospector, makes no bones about telling Dobbs and Curtin that gold-mining is nowhere near as easy or fun as it sounds. There are an awful lot of things that you need to keep track of, and even more that you have to watch out for. The biggest thing to watch out for is greed, however; that’ll take a man over to the point that he’s doing unspeakable things. We watch both Dobbs and Curtin vehemently deny the possibility this could exist in their natures, and immediately we wonder which one of them will succumb first.

Answer: They all do. Or do they?

One of these men turns into a paranoid monster when gold is involved. Guess which one?

We see the character of Dobbs and Curtin quite well in this first part of the movie, and we get a good sense for what kind of people they are. After working on a construction project and being stiffed on their wages, they happen upon the foreman one day and demand their money. When they get it, they have the opportunity to take his entire roll but they don’t. Only the wages they were promised, no more, no less. It’s a great touch; when they have every reason to clean this guy out, they don’t. Their actions back up their words, and you just know they believe themselves to be fair and honest men.

The adventures in the mountains don’t go anywhere near the way the men expect; they have to deal with bandits, of course, and other prospectors sniffing around their claim. They also have to deal with the intense labor involved in extracting the gold from the mountain and the incredibly dangerous conditions they must endure to do so. Howard, who at first comes off as a loony old kook, seems to grow stronger every day he’s out there. He’s in his element, and the wisdom of his years becomes painfully evident.

I don’t want to go too much further into the film than I already have; it was fun watching the action play out in ways that surprised me. But I will say that the destructive nature of our lusts is on full display here, and Howard’s ability to see it coming far down the road and deal with it once it reaches him is truly a wonderful thing to watch. It’s fascinating to watch men break down without the safety net of civilization to guide their actions.

Both Bogart and Huston give great performances here; Bogart because he’s playing against his type, as a man who’s out of his element and in over his head, while Huston thoroughly lives in his performance as a guy who first annoys you, then inspires awe in you. He’s really the reason to watch this movie, and his Best Supporting Actor Oscar is thoroughly deserved.

I’ve developed an increasing fondness for stories in which the ending features the characters looking at the cost they’ve paid to achieve their goals and realizing that what they’ve overcome is so enormous that their original goals seem meaningless in comparison. I’m not sure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre quite fits that mold, but it brings it to mind. Knowing what goes into the search for gold definitely takes the luster out of it, and I imagine living through a claim scours away any romantic notions you may have had once.

Rating: 7/10.

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on May 30, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies

 

Tags: , , , ,