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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.

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

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: The Best Years of Our Lives (#37)

Entertainment 150The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Starring Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Harold Russell and Teresa Wright
Written by Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay) and MacKinlay Kantor (novel)
Directed by William Wyler

This is a great surprise for a number of reasons. Unlike most of the other films on the Top 100 list, I had never heard of this one before. It’s odd to be this far into it and stumble across a movie you’re not at least passingly familiar with. Just on the title alone, I thought it would be some kind of domestic melodrama that served as the pinnacle of that sort of movie in its day. I wasn’t that excited to see it. I was quite wrong, and I’m very glad to be so.

The Best Years of Our Lives follows three military servicemen after coming home from World War II. Al Stephenson (March) is a banker and family man, with a quiet and successful domestic life waiting for him. Fred Derry (Andrews) was a soda jerk before he became a Captain in the Air Force, and he’ll be reuniting with a wife he barely got to know before he left. Homer Parrish (Russell) was a Navy seaman who was injured in the line of duty, losing both of his hands in an explosion. While he’s gotten used to the hooks that have replaced his hands, he’s not quite used to how civilians look at them.

There are so many extraordinary things about this movie I almost don’t know where to begin. I guess we’ll start with the top. Director William Wyler served in the war as well, and strived for authenticity whenever possible. He stuffed the ranks of the crew with actual WWII veterans, and drew on his own experiences in combat to fill out details about his main characters. Al’s reunion with his wife was patterned on his own, and it’s one of those scenes that really win you over. It’s really hard not to get sniffly.

In order to preserve a sense of realism, Wyler reportedly had all of his actors buy their own clothes off the rack and ordered sets to be built closer to life-size so they didn’t look like movie sets. You don’t notice it while you’re watching, but it really lends a close, lived-in feel to the entire movie; shots are crowded with people, so you actually get the sense of intimacy in their conversations. Director of Photography Gregg Toland uses deep-focus camera-work (I admit, that meant nothing to me either until I read something that explained it) to make sure you can see what’s going on in the background and foreground at the same time. This leads to wonderfully complicated scenes, where stories intersect in the same space for a moment or two before you follow one or the other out of the door.

The movie navigates three parallel stories that offer a different perspective of post-war life. Al Stephenson probably has it the easiest; he has a loving wife and daughter, a boss who thinks the world of him, and enough money to live comfortably despite serving in the military for a number of years. Still, not everything is perfect. He finds himself distant from a son who doesn’t seem to appreciate his experiences; his job at the bank is unfulfilling next to the work he did with the military; and his neat, orderly life makes him bored and nervous. He’s also a little overly-fond of alcohol.

Derry is in a worse predicament. He doesn’t want to go from being an officer in the Air Force to being a soda jerk again, but being a bombadier doesn’t offer a whole lot of opportunity in peace time. His wife is accustomed to a certain standard of living and once that starts to slip they run into pretty tough marital problems. It seems like he typified the veterans’ experience post-war — going from an environment where his particular skill set is appreciated, even depended on to a society that has no use for him now that he’s back. It must be frustrating to make that adjustment, to finding your niche in a radically different world.

Homer has the most difficult time adjusting to post-war life. As a wounded veteran, he’s taken care of by Uncle Sam, but it’s hard for him to know what to do with the looks of his family and friends regarding his injury. His introduction is telling: when we first meet him, he’s using his hooks to take a match out of a matchbook and light a cigarette. It’s…actually impressive, and Fred and Al watch as he does it. Once he’s proven what he can do, they both accept that he’s fine with his injury and treat him as one of the gang. Later, when Al introduces Homer to his family, he says “This is Homer, he was injured in the war. But it doesn’t bother him, so it shouldn’t bother you.” And that’s that.

Around his family, though, it’s a different story. His parents respond with the shock and grief that Homer has already worked his way through. They try to tiptoe around the subject as much as possible and when they can’t they treat him with the utmost gentleness. It’s a natural reaction, but for Homer it’s emasculating. Their compassionate response — drawn from the best of intentions — actually makes it more difficult for him to feel like a useful, complete human being. It’s a tough situation that generates sympathy for both sides, and even though Homer saddens and sometimes frightens his friends and family with his anger you really feel for him.

The America portrayed in the movie is a far cry from the whitewashed image of perfection and prosperity you see in the 50s. There are a number of things society is trying to work out, and there’s an uneasiness that’s surprising but sensible. With veterans returning to flood the job market and production slowing down significantly, people were convinced that they were facing a return to the depression of the Thirties. Most surprisingly, people were already talking about the atom bomb and what it would do to change warfare; more than once, a character says that if there’s another World War we’d face extinction as a species.

The Best Years of Our Lives is at its best when it explores the personal costs of war, the uneasiness surrounding the returning veterans, and an America that was sputtering back to normalcy after five years of wartime. Al’s moral struggle as the new Vice-President of Small Loans is gripping; you want to see him go right by the veterans who come in asking for help to get their lives started again. Fred’s night terrors about a particularly hairy mission he lived through is something that I’ve never heard of in any other movie from the time, when there were fairly strong ideas about what soldiers were supposed to look like on screen. And Homer’s struggle to find his place with his disability is utterly engrossing, so much so that you don’t mind it when the film turns into a romantic melodrama for much of its third hour. He’s earned his happy ending, after all.

Every character is complete and charismatic, and that makes their conversations grounded, funny and human. There are still the classic movie touches — the swell of music during emotional moments, the shorthand common to the time that might not translate as well today — but for the most part everything ages well. There’s no doubt that the veterans coming home are from the Second World War, but the struggles they faced then are the same struggles our veterans face now. By painting those veterans as people trying to reintegrate into their lives, we’re stripped of the political context of what they’ve done so we can focus on their humanity.

I highly recommend tracking down this forgotten gem. It has a strong moral backbone, but it puts itself across amiably, without preachiness or treacle. Every performance is strong, the director has a sure hand on what he wants, and he keeps everything purring along smoothly. Even though the end of the movie can’t quite match what’s come before it, The Best Years of Our Lives is definitely worth three hours of your time.

Rating: 8/10.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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