Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gigi: Gagging on Pastry (and the films from the 1950's that should have won Best Picture)

Musicals. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hollywood was in love with them. They were the blockbusters of their day. Where today, audiences line up for special effects extravaganzas; audiences came in droves to musicals during the middle of the 20th century. Musicals were seen as a reason to come to the movies. They represented a unique form of entertainment that only Hollywood could provide to masses of Americans (aside from the lucky few able to attend a live Broadway show). Musicals were big-ticket items for film studios during the 1950’s, and no studio produced more quality musicals than MGM and no production team was more adept at staging them than the Arthur Freed unit within the studio.

As discussed earlier in my review of 1951’s Best Picture winner, An American in Paris, the Freed unit became the masters of the musical because they were allowed near-autonomy within MGM. On Gigi, Freed re-teamed with many key An American in Paris cast and crew, among them director Vincente Minnelli, star Leslie Caron, screenwriter/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (his partner, composer Frederick Loewe, was brought with him fresh off their Tony for the stage version of My Fair Lady), and several others. Gigi even shares the Parisian setting as the 1951 Oscar winner, with the added advantage of actually being filmed on location in the City of Lights. With such proven talent, MGM was basically assured of a monster hit in Gigi, although the non-musical version of the play upon which it was based (adapted from the 1944 novella by French author Colette) was met with tepid response.

Lerner and Loewe essentially My Fair Lady-ized Gigi. The film and the play share basically identical plots, that of an independent girl being made over to find her true love. There are little differences—notably in that Gigi herself is far less uncouth than Eliza Doolittle, and that the film is far less overtly sexist—but the film is essentially a Francophile reworking of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway success. Minnelli also learned from previous films. Gigi is far less indulgent and artsy as An American in Paris—no seventeen minute ballet sequences here (though I would have liked to see Caron’s dancing talent better utilized in the picture)—and the story, though still very simple, is far more coherent because of it. The location shooting also lends tremendous authenticity to the film. Undoubtedly, Gigi is a polished musical that showcases the talents of craftsmen (and women) at the top of their game.

Yet—like most musicals—for as good as Gigi looks, its story is silly, banal, and predictable. Gigi (Caron) is a young girl training to be a courtesan. Her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), see to Gigi’s education in the ways of high society. They are most invested in finding Gigi a respectable match. Gigi though, comes most alive when she is with Gaston (Louis Jourdan), a mutual friend of hers and Madame Alvarez. The big problem? Gaston is a notorious bachelor, whose reputation has come into ill repute after a break-up with a previous mistress. Though Gigi and Gaston initially have a more care-free, fraternal friendship, it soon blossoms into love. Neither Madame Alvarez nor Aunt Alicia considers Gaston a suitable match for Gigi. For one, Gaston reminds the women of his uncle, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), a lifelong bachelor and notorious charmer (with whom Madame Alvarez had a previous relationship). The other problem is that Gigi doesn’t want to be seen simply as a mistress; if Gaston wishes to win her heart, he must propose marriage—a lifelong partnership—instead of treating Gigi like a girl who is “passed around among men”.

How does it end? You must have about three cents rattling around in your brain if you can’t figure it out.

Like many musicals of its time, Gigi hasn’t aged well for contemporary audiences. First, the whole premise of the film, as stated explicitly by Honoré Lachaille in the opening, is “Like everywhere else, most people in Paris get married, but not all. There are some who will not marry, and some who do not marry. But in Paris, those who will not marry are usually men, and those who do not marry are usually women." That statement does not at all apply to any woman (or man, for that matter) living in contemporary society. Hell, with programs like Sex and the City choosing to be a single woman is seen as empowering instead of cause for spinsterhood. It’s just a sexist attitude (I didn’t mean to imply Gigi wasn’t sexist earlier, it’s just not as overtly and blatantly sexist as My Fair Lady).

And really, what woman—at least one who doesn’t list “gold-digger” as her career aspiration—studies to become a courtesan? I think many female audiences view the ambitions imposed on Gigi by her grandmother and great-aunt to be strictly within the realm of fantasy. Hell, even when the film was released, Variety magazine called the film “100% escapist fare”, suggesting that even in 1958, a good chunk of the audience was hip to the B.S. images that the film concocts.

The most dated element of the film though, has to be Chevalier. His character is meant to be funny, witty and charming. Honoré Lachaille is meant to be seen as a silver fox, but he comes off totally Pepé Le Pew (and many Looney Tunes fans insist that Chevalier was the inspiration for the famously malodorous and overconfident skunk, though creator Chuck Jones insists the character is reverse-autobiographical—i.e. the skunk is brazen toward women whereas Jones was petrified around them). Lending big-time credence to the Pepé comparison is Honoré’s opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”. It’s meant to be sweet, but when I see an old wrinkle-balls such as Chevalier leering at girls decades younger (Chevalier was 70 when Gigi was released), I can’t help but get a lecherous vibe from the whole thing. And “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” opens and closes the film—what sort of message did the filmmakers think they were trying to send? TV Guide, in their review of the film, sums up Chevalier’s performance perfectly, saying the performance “makes one feel as if you’re gagging on pastry.”

Still, there was a significant portion of the audience that wholly bought into the fantasy created by Minnelli and the Freed unit. Chief among the dreamweavers has to be costume designer Cecil Beaton, whose fashions for the film are simply gorgeous and astonishing. The clothes are easily the best thing about Gigi. Lerner and Loewe give the film a lovely score, though nothing in Gigi is as eminently hummable and catchy as their score for My Fair Lady. Predictably, the film became a box-office smash for MGM, and Gigi quite literally swept away Oscar, going nine-for-nine with its awards won, setting the (short-lived) record for most Oscars won by any single film.

In the year that saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—virtually ignored by the Academy and misunderstood by filmgoers—Gigi was the big-time winner, proving that more often than not, Oscar played it safe.

The following are some choices that, in a decade where the “safe” films were by in large rewarded, would have given the crop of 1950’s Oscar winners some lasting edge.

1950: In a year when the sublime All About Eve won Best Picture, it’s hard to argue with the Academy’s choice. Still, the film’s biggest competition came from director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a dark, dark criticism of the film industry. Gloria Swanson—in a truly life-imitates-art role, plays faded and vainglorious star Norma Desmond, who lives in a dilapidated Gothic mansion with her former director turned butler (Erich von Stroheim, also in a life-imitates-art role). Struggling screenwriter William Holden accidentally crashes the funeral being held for Norma Desmond’s chimpanzee, and from there, the past-her-prime actress lures the screenwriter into penning her big comeback and becoming her kept man. Norma Desmond was ready for her close-up; Hollywood, not so much. This warts-and-all look at the film industry was perhaps even more scathing than how All About Eve skewered the theater, and the film remains a classic today.

1951: Oscar loved the insipid An American in Paris at the expense of two films of much higher quality. First is A Place in the Sun, for which director George Stevens took home the 1951 Best Director trophy. Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (the last word of that title should clue you into the fact that this film might be a bit of a bummer), the film stars Montgomery Clift (brooding and tragic, as always) as a factory worker who dates and impregnates plain Jane Shelley Winters. Monty falls way hard for the society girl played by Elizabeth Taylor, and when Shelley insists that Monty marry her, he is driven to murder to resolve his dilemma. But hey—Liz Taylor (when she was really hot) vs. Shelley Winters—who do you think Monty Clift is going to choose?

A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, would have been an equally worthy choice. Tennessee Williams’ play was both a smash and revolutionary on Broadway. All four main characters—played by Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter—were nominated for the top four acting Oscars, and everyone but Brando (whose sexually charged turn as Stanley Kowalski probably scared the holy fuck out of Academy voters) took home a statue.

The power of neither film has diminished; both were likely too much of a downer to conceivably capture the Best Picture Oscar.

1952: The Hollywood blacklist came into play in denying Fred Zinnemann’s real-time Western High Noon the Oscar it deserved. Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for playing Marshal Will Kane, who indelibly and courageously stands up to a gang of assassins all by himself when everyone else in Hadleyville is too chickenshit to do so. A western that not only creates a legendary character but also provides a moral backbone or a melodrama about the circus? Which film sounds better to you? It shouldn’t be surprising which film took home the gold.

1953: From Here to Eternity proved to be a good choice (although its victory was also one of the Academy’s biggest instances of giving themselves a mulligan—how much of From Here to Eternity’s victory was because Oscar failed to reward director Zinnemann’s High Noon the year before?), but 1953 also saw the release of one of the finest romantic comedies ever filmed, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. Roman Holiday was the product of another blacklisted screenwriter—Dalton Trumbo—but the script never errs in telling the story of a princess—none other than Audrey Hepburn, in the role that was her Hollywood coming out party—who disguises herself as a regular girl when in Rome (you know, doing as the Romans do). Hepburn utterly enchants not only Gregory Peck’s reporter but every man (and woman) watching the film. In a genre notorious for shitty, stupid movies, Roman Holiday truly shines. Hepburn took home Best Actress, the film was not rewarded in kind.

1954: Again, On the Waterfront, tough to argue that film shouldn’t have won the Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock might have something to say about that though, as his masterpiece about voyeurism, Rear Window, is what I feel is a better and more entertaining film. Jimmy Stewart (confined to a wheelchair), Grace Kelly (in one gorgeous Edith Head costume after another), Thelma Ritter (salty as always), an intensely suspenseful script, endless psychological debate and insight, and profoundly influential. What doesn’t this film have? What could anyone possibly dislike about it? Nothing is the answer to both questions. Nothing is also the number of competitive Oscars Alfred Hitchcock won during his career, and Rear Window also failed to garner a Best Picture nomination.

1955: Marty is a great film and an unassailable choice for Best Picture. Even the French loved it. Still, it is a relatively unknown film. More famous—and equally as good—is Nicholas Ray’s definitive portrait of teenage angst, Rebel Without a Cause, which only made an immortal out of James Dean (though dying young and tragic in your Porsche certainly helps that cause). Ray’s film is also one of the most gorgeous widescreen films ever shot. The film 55 years old and still arguably the greatest and most insightful film about teenagers and their relationships ever made.

1956: Anything would have been a better choice than Around the World in 80 Days. Anything. The film that should have won the Oscar—and wasn’t even nominated—is John Ford’s The Searchers. The film is only considered to be not only one of the greatest Westerns (if not the greatest) ever made, but simply one of the greatest American films ever made. John Ford won Best Director four times—clearly an Academy darling—and John Wayne was one of (and frankly, still is) Hollywood’s biggest stars—and Ethan Edwards is his greatest role—their combined power should have made The Searchers a shoo-in for Oscar gold. I have a hunch though, that Academy voters didn’t really like seeing Wayne play a racist, ornery, and ultimately unforgivable cuss. Considering the quality—or more accurately, the lack thereof—of the film which won Best Picture, Oscar’s neglect of The Searchers may just be the biggest oversight in Academy history.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai: great film, worthy Oscar winner. Still, perfectly good alternatives were released that year. Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men has probably been seen (or read) by every kid in high school in America, and Sidney Lumet’s film is considered to be one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time (#2 on AFI’s list of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas).

There is also Stanley Kubrick’s WWI film Paths of Glory, with Kirk Douglas (who is also an Oscar bridesmaid) in the lead role. Kubrick’s film is even more incisive than The Bridge on the River Kwai with its anti-war message, and it displays the mastery of technical craftsmanship evident in all of his work.

Neither Lumet nor Kubrick ever won Best Director nor any of their great films ever won Best Picture. Lean was even more successful in 1962 with the victory of Lawrence of Arabia. In hindsight, 1957 was a golden opportunity to honor either of these men and their work.

1958: Should have been the un-nominated Vertigo. I am of the opinion that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s finest film, and oddly, with its memorable makeover scene and lead actor Jimmy Stewart’s (who was never better) attitude and obsession toward Kim Novak, it is an evil-twin version of themes in Gigi. Lush, deep, and utterly brilliant in every sense of the word, Vertigo should have been the film to finally bring Hitchcock an Oscar. Hell, you can turn off the picture and simply listen to the intoxicating Bernard Hermann score and the film is light years better than Gigi.

1959: Ben-Hur wins eleven Oscars (sorry to spoil it here). Cleans house. Yet two films released in 1959 are far, far better than the sword-and-sandals epic. First—Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot (only considered to be the finest comedy ever made—#1 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Comedies). Its final line: “Nobody’s perfect.” The cliché is that the film is (and the cliché is right). Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witness a gangland shooting and go on the lam, cross-dressing as women in an all-girl band. Curtis falls head-over heels in love with Marilyn Monroe (wouldn’t you?), and dons a second disguise—as a millionaire—to woo her. Lemmon—in drag—is aggressively pursued by an actual millionaire, who refuses to let a little thing like gender get in the way of true love. You’re laughing your ass off just reading this (and Monroe was never better). Total Oscars—one for Costume Design (though Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were given the kiss-and-makeup treatment in 1960, when The Apartment won Best Picture).

Finally, third time proved definitely not to be the charm for Hitchcock, as his classic thriller North by Northwest is denied a Best Picture nomination. Leading man Cary Grant (like his director, inconceivably an Oscar bridesmaid) woos Eva Marie Saint, fights James Mason, is chased by a cropduster in a corn field, dangles from Mt. Rushmore, and has everyone mistake his identity and for all his trouble also comes up a zero.

Sometimes—although they do get it right from time to time—I wonder if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences even knows what a great film is.


Gigi (1958)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier*, Hermione Gingold, Isabel Jeans

Studio: MGM

Total Oscars: 9 (Best Picture—Arthur Freed, Best Director—Vincente Minnelli, Best Adapted Screenplay—Alan Jay Lerner, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score (musical), Best Original Song—“Gigi” by Lerner and Frederick Loewe) out of 9 total nominations**
*Chevalier was also awarded the Academy’s Honorary Oscar for “his contributions to entertainment for over half a century”
**Gigi, with its Oscar sweep, set the record for most Oscars won by a single film


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Bridge on the River Kwai: An Epic Worthy of Widescreen

The 1950’s were definitely a roller coaster of a decade in terms of quality of the films to win Best Picture. 1956’s Best Picture winner, Around the World in 80 Days, was a showcase for excess, bloat, and ridiculousness (not to mention a total 180 degree turn in style from 1955’s exquisite Marty). Competition from television for America’s entertainment dollar forced films to become bigger, bolder, and more uniquely cinematic. In the worst-case scenario, a film like Around the World in 80 Days is foisted upon audiences. In the best-case scenario, we are treated to The Bridge on the River Kwai, an epic adventure film full of widescreen cinematic grandeur that retains story elements, performances and characters that provoke, challenge and above all entertain.

It has become cliché to call director David Lean’s film “the thinking man’s action picture”, but the highest praise I can give the film is that makes audiences think while being thrilled. The cliché about The Bridge on the River Kwai is 100% accurate.

As with many great films, Lean achieves maximum dramatic effect by keeping his storyline very direct and simple. A fictitious account of Japanese POW’s being forced to construct a bridge on the Burma Railway during WWII, The Bridge on the River Kwai centers on three main protagonists. First, there is the Japanese commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), who has been ordered to complete the construction of a bridge spanning the river Kwai, the crucial and final link connecting Rangoon (the then Burma’s capital, for the geographically disinclined) to India. Next is Saito’s British foil, Colonel Nicholson (Best Actor-winning Alec Guinness), who fundamentally opposes Saito’s cruel and barbarous practices and eventually seeks to complete the bridge in a more efficient manner to prove the superiority of British methods. Finally, there is the wild card; American Naval “Commander” Shears (William Holden), a prisoner in the camp who eventually escapes then becomes involved in a commando mission to blow up the bridge on the river Kwai.

Even simpler is each man’s underlying motivation. For Saito, it’s about saving face. For Nicholson, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of his civilization. For Shears, it’s about survival. Inevitably, the motivations of each man lead to conflict. In adapting Pierre Boulle’s novel, screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman wisely boil down the story to the fundamentals of character in their three leads. For Saito, Nicholson, and Shears, we know the who, the what, the where, the when, and—most importantly in film—the why and the how. Wilson and Foreman wisely, intuitively know that epic storytelling is born not out of gargantuan set pieces or spectacular events but rather from the essentials of character.

(Of course, there can’t be a 1950’s Oscar winning film without a Hollywood blacklist controversy. Both Wilson and Foreman had their names removed from the credits of The Bridge on the River Kwai by the film’s producers, a practice both men had experienced before, despite each being nominated for screenwriting Oscars during the 1950. Foreman most famously lost for High Noon, Wilson was denied an Oscar for Friendly Persuasion, a film which took home the Palme d’Or. (Wilson did win an Oscar for co-writing A Place in the Sun.) Official credit—and the Oscar win—went to the novel’s author, Pierre Boulle. The problem—Frenchman Boulle neither wrote in English nor a word of the screenplay. In 1984, after both Wilson and Foreman had died, the Academy finally gave the men the credit they deserved and awarded Oscar statuettes to their widows. Screen credit was restored to the authors when the film was restored the same year.)

The film also creates a tremendous level of suspense by making each man neither entirely right, nor entirely wrong. The opening act of the film establishes a perfect balance between the three lead characters. Each man is brought into immediate conflict with the other. Shears, the longtime POW, has grown weary and perhaps even numb to the harsh life in the prison camp. His worldview is shaped on one principle with a single goal: survive—no matter the cost—then escape. His beliefs have crystallized in a barely concealed cynicism. When Nicholson’s troops make their arrival into the camp (they whistle the unforgettable “Colonel Bogey March,” a tune which during the war, had satirical anti-Hitler lyrics associated with it. Listen to it here, but risk getting it stuck in your head: ) Shears states “Those new prisoners see us diggin’ graves, they might all run away.” He is reprimanded by his Japanese superior, “No time for jokes. Finish work. Dig! Dig!” The difference between the American and his Japanese captors can be most clearly seen in their language—the American speaks in cynicism and gallows humor, the Japanese speak solely in imperatives.

Opportunity is what separates Shears and Nicholson. As stated, Shears, with his world-weary cynicism (in many ways, Shears is akin to Humphrey Bogart’s Rick Blaine in Casablanca, minus the heartbreak), is only looking out for himself. Escape is the ultimate means of survival for Shears, and he is only waiting for his opportunity to do so. Nicholson has another agenda entirely. Eventually, it is revealed that Nicholson was ordered to be captured, which seems incredibly stupid, but he reveals his true purpose for being at the camp in his first exchange with Shears.
Shears: Oh, I'd say the odds against a successful escape are about 100 to 1...But may I add another word, Colonel...The odds against survival in this camp are even worse. You've seen the graveyard. There you realize. You give up hope of escape. To even stop thinking about it is like accepting a death sentence.
Nicholson: Why haven't you tried to escape, Commander?
Shears: Oh, I've been biding my time, waiting for the right moment, the right company.
Nicholson: I understand how you feel. Of course, it's normally the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape. But my men and I are involved in a curious legal point of which you are unaware. In Singapore, we were ordered to surrender by Command Headquarters, ordered, mind you. Therefore, in our case, escape might well be an infraction of military law. Interesting? Shears: I'm sorry sir. I didn't quite follow you. You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?
Nicholson: Without law, Commander, there is no civilization.
Shears: You just took my point. Here, there is no civilization.
Nicholson: Then, we have the opportunity to introduce it. I suggest that we drop the subject of escape.

Shears and Nicholson find themselves at cross-purposes. Shears means to escape the wilderness, Nicholson means to tame it. The conversation is also interesting to unfold, because the undercurrent of Nicholson’s tone suggests that Shears is a coward for wishing to escape. When Nicholson says, “I understand how you feel. Of course, normally it’s the duty of a captured soldier to attempt escape,” he is essentially accusing Shears of cowardice. Conversely, when Shears asks “You mean you intend to uphold the letter of the law, no matter what it costs?” he barely veils his contempt. Shears thinks that Nicholson is perhaps insane. Dialogue this rich—combined with the subtle acting from Holden and Guinness—goes a long way in establishing character and conflict, while suggesting that neither man is entirely right or wrong.

The juiciest conflict in the film is between Nicholson and Saito. Willpower is what makes the opposing colonels very much alike, and neither man will fully yield until one has imposed his will upon the other. From the outset, Saito makes his rules very explicit. “You British prisoners have been chosen to build a bridge across the River Kwai. It will be pleasant work requiring skill. And officers will work as well as men. The Japanese Army cannot have idle mouths to feed. If you work hard, you will be treated well. But if you do not work hard, you will be punished.” Nicholson politely rebukes: “I can assure you, my men will carry on in the way one expects of the British soldier. And naturally, my officers and I will be responsible for their conduct. Now sir, you may have overlooked the fact that the use of officers for manual labor is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.” Nicholson then proceeds to pull out an actual copy of the Geneva Convention, all the while Saito stares at him, as if he were trying to burn a hole through the document.

Saito clearly could care less about the rules Nicholson adheres to. And why should he? Saito could order all of the British soldiers shot dead with a mere gesture. The whole time, I was thinking, if they’re in the middle of nowhere—in Saito’s words “an island in the jungle” why the hell would he care about the Geneva Convention, and doesn’t Nicholson understand he is within enemy territory? Why would he expect Western doctrines to be upheld?

Of course, neither man is willing to budge. Saito commands: “All men will work. Your officers will work beside you. This is only just. For it is they who betray you by surrender. Your shame is their dishonor. It is they who told you: 'Better to live like a coolie than die like a hero.' It is they who brought you here, not I. Therefore, they will join you in useful labor. That is all.” I imagined what those words must have sounded like to a soldier under Nicholson. For me, Saito’s words—especially since he has mandated the bridge over the river Kwai be completed in less than three months—make a hell of a lot of sense. The officers are able-bodied. Why shouldn’t they work as manual laborers alongside their men? Rigidly, Nicholson continues to cite from the Geneva Convention to defend his stance. This sends Saito into a fury, as he snatches the Convention out of Nicholson’s hands and slaps him across the face with the booklet. “You speak to me of code. What code? The coward's code. What do you know of the soldier's code? Of bushido? Nothing. You are unworthy of command.” Nicholson replies: “Since you refuse to abide by the laws of the civilized world, we must consider ourselves absolved from our duty to obey you.”

The conflict between the two colonels extends far beyond a clash of wills; it has become a conflict of cultural values. The film asks its viewers: Which set of cultural values do you align with? The honorable and direct Japanese, with their code of bushido? The rigid and stoic British, who feel the need to enlighten the dark corners of civilization? There is also the third option—the rebellious and cynical American personified in Holden’s Shears, out only for his own survival. To their credit, director Lean and screenwriters Foreman and Wilson never provide the audience with an easy answer, preferring (and trusting) that the audience watching The Bridge on the River Kwai will come to their own conclusions/

As the film plays out, each of the three leads find their belief systems challenged and unraveled. Saito is the first to fall; as the more he imposes his domineering will over Nicholson, the faster Nicholson is able to usurp his authority. The Saito/Nicholson conflict reaches its crescendo as Nicholson is imprisoned in “the Oven”—a small structure constructed of corrugated steel designed to amplify the already hot and humid temperatures—where Saito expects his British counterpart to fold under the torturous heat and pressures of solitary confinement. Yet Nicholson only becomes more stoic, and his bravery only inspires the men to rebel by constructing the bridge in a lazy and shoddy manner, making it more difficult for Saito’s mission of completing the bridge by May infinitely more difficult. When Saito realizes that only Nicholson (and his superior engineers) can command the British soldiers to complete the bridge on time, he relents and releases Nicholson. The only way Saito can save face and retain his honor is to complete the bridge on time, but to do so; he must cede power to his enemy. In a very moving contrast, Saito is shown crying privately in his quarters as the British soldiers triumphantly celebrate Nicholson’s release from “the Oven”. For Saito to overcome his shame, he must commit seppuku—ritual suicide—so that his honor is restored in death.

Nicholson becomes driven to prove to the Japanese that the British soldiers under his command can build a bridge far superior to one the Japanese could have constructed. Through the bridge, Nicholson will achieve his goal of establishing civilization in the wilds of the Burmese jungle, for the bridge will stand for “six hundred years” and will serve to “teach these barbarians a lesson in Western methods and efficiency that will put them to shame.” The construction of the bridge has a double purpose: it will also restore order and morale amongst his men.

On both counts Nicholson is successful—the morale and health of the POW’s vastly improves—but he becomes so obsessed with the completion of his task that he loses sight of his principles. Ultimately, he abandons the Geneva Convention and enlists both officers and the sick men to help aid in the completion of construction. When the medical officer Major Clipton (James Donald), questions if Nicholson has utterly abandoned his principles in a show of one-upsmanship, Nicholson retorts, “One day the war will be over. And I hope that the people that use this bridge in years to come will remember how it was built and who built it. Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.” It is also Clipton who warns Nicholson of his ultimate folly—that in building a bridge better than the Japanese could build themselves, the British soldiers are ultimately aiding their enemy by providing them with a crucial link in their railway, connecting Southeast Asia to India. When the bridge is completed, Nicholson will have committed treason.

Unbeknownst to Nicholson, Shears—after he escapes—is plotting to see that the bridge isn’t completed. Shears’ arc receives the bulk of the action in the picture. He makes his way to British Intelligence HQ in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Ceylon at the time the picture was filmed, and the country where Lean moved the production), and lives leisurely among the officers there. However, Shears quickly finds himself in another trap—this time a catch-22. Shears is brought to the attention of Major Warden of Force 316 (Jack Hawkins), who has been delegated the task of blowing up the Kwai bridge. Warden is recruiting a team of commandos to parachute into Burma and infiltrate Saito’s camp, and Shears’ knowledge of the area is invaluable. Shears—true to the cowardly form Nicholson insinuated he had—tries his best to back out of it. Shears owns up to impersonating a Navy commander, and since he is only an “ordinary swab jockey second-class” and says that his escape from the POW camp had more to do with luck than any real skill as a soldier. Warden doesn’t buy it, saying that Shears’ efforts are heroic, but that Shears can’t be returned to the American Navy. “In one sense, you're a blasted hero for making an escape through the jungle. But at the same time, they can't very well bring you home and give you the Navy Cross for impersonating an officer, can they? I suppose that's why they were so happy to hand you over to us. You see?” Warden turns Shears’ unique situation against him, and where Shears’ detached cynicism helped him survive in the POW camp, it only ends up placing him in mortal danger by being shanghaied into returning as part of the commando team. Shears’ own attitude again makes him a prisoner.

After each man—Saito, Nicholson, and Shears—has been built up and brought down to Earth, the stage is set for the finale. Lean stages an explosive (literally) and tragic final act (I won’t spoil the details entirely), with the film’s last line—spoken by Lt. Clipton (“Madness! Madness! Madness!!”)—revealing the filmmakers’ attitudes toward war in general.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is the first Best Picture-winning widescreen epic where the power of the story and the quality of the filmmaking matches the supersized frame. Not only is the picture supremely worthy of being shot in CinemaScope—with its magnificent vistas, lush Ceylon location, and a bridge that literally spans the frame of the film, The Bridge on the River Kwai is ideally suited for massive presentation—but the ideas presented in the story and its characters provoke thought long after the film is ended. The balanced direction from David Lean gives the film stems from an equally balanced script by Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Because the film is based on a novel, it doesn’t have to be burdened with slavish accuracy to history. Instead, the film needs only to retain fidelity to its characters. In the characters of Saito, Shears and Nicholson—three heroic, frustrating, and complicated men who are never entirely good or evil, right or wrong—audiences are allowed to derive their own conclusions instead of being spoon-fed answers.

In a decade where films often dumbed down when they went big, The Bridge on the River Kwai had faith in the intelligence of its audience. Ultimately, this faith paid off, as the film became the most popular of its year in terms of box office receipts, and when the film was first aired on television (a risky move, considering that with commercials, the film would last well over three hours—long films were usually broken up into two parts over two nights), ABC reaped the benefits of 60 million viewers tuning into the broadcast. In any age, The Bridge on the River Kwai will endure.


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Director: David Lean

Starring: Alec Guinness, William Holden, Sessue Hayakawa, Jack Hawkins, James Donald

Studio: Columbia Pictures

Total Oscars: 7 (Best Picture—Sam Spiegel, Best Director—David Lean, Best Actor—Alec Guinness, Best Adapted Screenplay—Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson and Pierre Boulle, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Score) from 8 total nominations (Best Supporting Actor—Sessue Hayakawa)

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