March 30, 2011

#36: The Bridge on the River Kwai

I'm not entirely sure what qualifies David Lean's 1957 Best Picture winner The Bridge on the River Kwai as an American film, given that its director, its star, its story and the bulk of its financing all came from the United Kingdom. It's even based on a French novel. William Holden is American, but as far as the rest are concerned, there's not much Yankee to be found. In fact, the film places eleventh on a parallel list by the British Film Institute! Its place on a list of great American films is a mystery to me, but the former adjective describes it well enough to qualify it onto any list of great war films.

Company: just me again. I have a hard time finding anyone who will watch a three-hour war movie with me on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon. One of the many quirks about this blog.

Cuisine: fried egg on wheat toast with sliced cherry tomatoes and my mother's bean salsa recipe that I've now perfected. You're welcome. Oh, and plenty of coffee.

The film recounts a largely fictional story based in a factual and horrifying context: the construction of the Burma Railway during World War II. After the Japanese had captured Singapore and had military strongholds in much of southeastern Asia, they built a long railway from Bangkok to Rangoon in order to support and send supplies to the large Japanese army stationed in Burma. As a result, British POWs are marched into an internment camp somewhere in western Thailand, led both in step and in annoying whistle-song by Colonel Nicholson (Oscar winner Alec Guinness), and told that they will be enslaved and forced to build the titular bridge, essentially to aid the enemy. Oh, and there's basically no chance of escape. Major bummer.

"You speak to me of code? What code?!"

All these orders come from General Saito (a fantastic performance by Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa), a merciless tyrant with more pride in his work (if that's possible) than the British commander, Nicholson. Two very stubborn men face off: Nicholson hands Saito a copy of the Geneva Convention, which clearly states that all POWs with the exception of officers (hem hem) can be made to do physical labor. Saito throws it to the ground in disgust and snaps Nicholson's stick-thing. Oh snap. Nicholson picks up the papers calmly and stands again at attention, never letting his temper get the best of him. A better man than I, he is.

(Saito also says at one point "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," which is also quoted repeatedly by the character in The Shining played by Jack Nicholson, whose last name is shared by Alec Guinness's character in this movie. Connection, to and from!)

But knowing that he and the hundreds in his command have little chance of escape, he has little choice but to hold his ground. As a patriotic and noble Englishman, he has two alternatives: build the bridge and help the enemy, or stand firm and refuse to participate. The latter will bring almost certain death, as is evidenced by two forms of torture, pictured above (standing at attention all F-ing day) and below (being locked in "the oven" without food or water in the scorching sun). His refusal to work and adherence to the Geneva accord locks his generals in ovens, too, while the rest of the men slave away at the bridge, working as slowly as they dare and sabotaging whatever they can.

Although Saito stands firm ("You will not speak to me of rules," he shouts."This is war! This is not a game of cricket!"), he knows that he needs the army's help: if he and those he commands don't finish the bridge by a certain date (here, May 12), he will have to commit seppuku, or ritual suicide. Impass.

When Saito makes up a reason to finally relent (the anniversary of the Japanese victory over Russia in 1905), the real work starts, and the British generals are put back in charge. Nicholson's pride wins out over his patriotism, as he convinces the rest of his soldiers to honestly build a quality bridge, this time with better materials and in a more solid river foundation upstream from where the Japanese commanders chose to break ground.

Meanwhile, one U.S. soldier named Shears (William Holden) manages to escape through the dense jungle, happen upon some compassionate villagers, and send himself on a river voyage, where he contracts some disease or another from drinking river water and is finally found and rescued by allied forces who airlift him to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). While he's relaxing on the beach with beautiful women and awaiting his return to America, he's informed that he has no choice but to return to Thailand with allied British patrolmen whose mission is to the destroy the bridge. Oops. Back to it.

It's not going real well.

Now we have parallel plots: Nicholson and Saito, coming to a common understanding, unite to complete the bridge, and Shears and his comrades parachute back into Thailand in order to blow it up. The rest of the film documents the inevitable end to which these simultaneous stories come.

Holden turns in a thrilling performance, especially in his "big scene" in which his commanding officer asks to be left behind after an injury:

Shears: "You make me sick with your heroics! There's a stench of death about you. You carry it in your pack like the plague. Explosives and L-pills - they go well together, don't they? And with you it's just one thing or the other: destroy a bridge or destroy yourself. This is just a game, this war! You and Colonel Nicholson, you're two of a kind, crazy with courage. For what? How to die like a gentleman... how to die by the rules - when the only important thing is how to live like a human being."

I feel like this sentiment comes out of nowhere a little -- we're nearly two hours into the film and suddenly the moral comes out? Perhaps it's been there the whole time and we the audience have been too horrified by the injustice to see the simpler universal theme that's buried under everything else. Is it a critique of the nearly insane sense of pride felt by these top officials, a pride that trumps all else, including patriotism, and the sense of right and wrong?

Once the bridge is complete, Nicholson has a quieter epiphany, staring down the river Kwai.

Nicholson: "There are times when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really..."

It's a gorgeous monologue in a heartbreaking performance by Guinness. Has it all been for nothing? Not just the bridge -- but the war? His own sense of duty and honor for England? And of course, the best moment of the film...

"What have I done?"

I love Guinness's flat line reading here -- so horrified that it's almost not even a question, but a sentence, a statement of the horror that he's just realized. And the ending, of course, is "madness! Madness!!"

It's interesting to examine the war films placed on this list -- by my count, dozens (even if you don't include atypical war films like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which is a fantasy film but still has plenty of war in it) -- and what they say about America's relationship to conflict. I found several parallels between this film and The African Queen -- not just that our heroes are British, but also the pride and patriotism that directly inspires destruction and vengeance. What does Kwai's inclusion on this list (especially when it's not specifically American in any way outside of Mr. Holden) say about our love of war?

I love when a film inspires me to forge on. And no more war, for at least the next few. Woody Allen's not really interested in that, he's got his eye on one miss Annie Hall, up next.

March 22, 2011

#37: The Best Years of Our Lives

I started this list with a William Wyler film (Ben-Hur) and I might need to see some more of his work (notably Wuthering Heights, Mrs. Miniver and Funny Girl) after watching his only other film that made this list: the Best Picture winner from 1946, The Best Years of Our Lives. Holy cow, I did not expect to be so moved and thrilled by it, mostly because I had very few pre-conceived notions. I knew it won best picture, and that it was almost three hours long. And maybe it was about WWII vets. But that's it. Just goes to show: movies can always surprise you. And sometimes it's better not to know anything going in. The payoff is so much greater.

Company: alone, although of course now I wish I had made this an event.

Cuisine: obscene amounts of coffee. This was a gloomy Monday and yet somehow I was on fire all day focus-wise. Hmm.

Wyler opens on what would have been present-day America: U.S. soldiers arriving back on their homeland after World War II. Three servicemen (Oscar winners Fredric March and Harold Russell, plus Oscar snub Dana Andrews) meet while hitching a ride back to their hometown, the fictional Midwestern hamlet of Boone City, Ohio. Homer (Russell) is the first to get home, and although his family has been warned, it still comes as quite the shock to see that he has lost both arms at the wrist in an accident. His beloved Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), who lives next door, rushes out and hesitates, like they all have, but embraces him just the same. Somehow the emotion of this reunion had me misting up -- and we were 15 minutes in!

Al Stephenson (March) is the second to arrive home, to his wife Milly (Myrna Loy) and two children, now grown (Michael Hall and the luminous Teresa Wright). There's such overwhelming joy in these reunions we see, but there's something in them that threatens to tip the scale: excitement almost to the point of trepidation and fear of returning, that somehow this domestic life these servicemen knew is now more foreign to them that the battlefield. Hugo Friedhofer's glorious score undersells the schmaltz of these reunions, hinting that this is the happiest these men in uniform will be for a while.

Al finds his wife somewhat distant and his children strangers. "It's terrible to be old, isn't it?" quips his wife, who tries to make light of his absence but ends up separating her husband even further from his family. I guess I expected these servicemen to feel far away because of PTSD, but for them, the true obstacles lie in getting back to everyday life.

The third soldier, Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), comes home unable at first to find his wife Marie (Virginia Mayo), whom he met and married days before he was deployed. He comes home to find he doesn't know her (not that he ever did), and that she's moved out on her own, waiting impatiently for him to come home. If that wasn't enough, his old job as a soda jerk is no longer available, meaning he has to start over from scratch. One bitchy salesman whispers "Nobody's job is safe with all these servicemen crowding in," making it clear that some people aren't so thrilled that the boys are back in town.

The film follows these three men and their struggles to fall back in love with their families, their wives, their girlfriends, and their country, one that owes them so much and at first can't deliver "the best years of their lives," as it were.

The great legacy of the film, I think, is due partially to the fact that each of these three stories is given equal weight, even as their stories give, take from, and weave in and out of one another. Fred begins, by chance, to fall for Al's daughter Peggy as he grows further and further from his new bride Marie. Al has a new outlook on his job as a small loans officer, looking with a fresh eye at the intentions of entrepreneurs. Homer, while adjusting well to life with his new hooks, discovers the crucial things he can't do alone, e.g. putting his harness back on in the mornings, or opening a door in the night without the harness. Each man is changed greatly by war, and the film chronicles their journeys to acceptance of what's changed while (and because) they were away.

Take Fred, whose wife insists he put his Army digs back on to go out on the town. "Now you look wonderful," she exclaims. "You look like yourself. Now we're right back where we started!" Of course, she'd never seen him in civilian clothes, and all through their marriage she'd only known an image of him in uniform. He begins to drift away from her but still feels obligated to stay with her given her sacrifice while she was away. When she and Peggy meet in the powder room while the friends are out one night, Wyler frames them in the above shot as if to say there are two Peggys are work here: the supportive friend and the secretly-in-love-with-your-husband self-proclaimed homewrecker. Love that shot. And the one below.

Has a man ever looked so alone and out of place in his own home? It was around this point that I started to see this film as a good twin to Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, which examines recently-returned vets of the Vietnam conflict. In that film (30 years after this one), Michael, Stan and Nick deal more with their own political and moral demons about the nature of war than Al, Fred and Homer, but both films follow each of their three heroes (or anti-heroes, as the case may be) through their own version of post-traumatic stress. It'd be an interesting comparison to examine more.

Of course, The Deer Hunter is mainly a nightmare to the sweet dream of The Best Years of Our Lives, which nearly made me cry -- twice! The second time was the lovely scene pictured above, in which Wilma confesses wordlessly her love for Homer. What could have been a syrupy, sentimental schmooze-fest is tender and intimate under Wyler's steady and visionary hand, a lovely ode to courage and patience. (Also: love the detail of Wilma's portrait on the nightstand, a constant presence even when Wilma herself is not in the room.)

Each story ends happily, but the papers warn of a "new war" coming. It was 1946 and I can't imagine the writers could have anticipated the Korean War a few years in the future, but perhaps we're meant to take away that even the largest-scale conflict of the 20th century could not heal all wounds, that inevitably aftershocks occur. But at least for now, there's a little peace, a deep breath before the plunge. In the last moments one character mentions that life will be a struggle, that it could be years before they can get ahead... so perhaps the titular years are yet to come.

Wow. I just loved this so much. I did not anticipate that at all! My faith in this list is renewed. Or maybe my passion for it is reignited. I'd been nervous that with spring approaching I'd lose interest, but hopefully now I'll have renewed energy to power through the last third of the list.

Up next: one that I've (shamefully) Netflixed and returned without watching. Whatever, you guys have done that too. From 1957, another war film: The Bridge on the River Kwai.

March 15, 2011

#38: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

John Huston's 1948 adventure The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is not, thankfully, a Western, as I expected. Yes, it takes place in a time and region adjacent to the Old West (south of the border in 1925), but the story, while chronicling revenge, paranoia and personal destruction, doesn't lump this into that dreaded category. I'm hard on Westerns, but they've given me little but grief! So this turned out to be a pleasant surprise.

Company: Stephanie, moderately interested sister and appreciator of soup

Cuisine: homemade potato soup (hearty! winter! veggies!) and coffee

The basic story goes that Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart, lacking the suave he normally exudes and trading it instead for sneers and scruff), down on his luck in Tampico, Mexico and asking strangers for money or lunch, stumbles upon Curtin (Tim Holt, much the same) and they hatch a scheme to head south in search of gold. Luckily (or unluckily?) for them, they happen to meet Howard (Oscar winner Walter Huston, father to the director!), an old prospector who predicts trouble for them but agrees to accompany them.

Hey, old man -- this is an AB conversation, so why don't you C your wa-- wait, you know about gold??

Danger lies around every corner for our trio -- bandits, huge lizards, thirst, delirium, frustration -- but with Howard's help they finally find... a dusting of gold!!?? Yes, as it turns out, this part of the terrain is not too lousy with gold, and prospecting takes time and patience, the latter of which is particularly lacking in Dobbs.

Howard, the only experienced prospector in the bunch, stays positive and chipper while the others begin to show signs of greed and duress, and seems bemused by their bickering. He also has this habit of dancing wildly just when things get serious. Give the movie some levity and you get an Oscar!

The outside world threatens to capsize their plans when an intruder (Bruce Bennett) follows them up the mountainside one day and demands inclusion in the scheme, threatening to expose them to the town and alert the locals to their presence and stash. He knows the men can just kill him, but warns that his execution will start a hierarchy of distrust among the prospectors. The logic is messed up but nonetheless, we start to see the men, especially Dobbs, weigh their gold against their own skewed moral conscience. Gold messes you up, you guys. Bandits invade and famously "don't need no stinking badges" (who knew?), disposing of the intruder. But the seed of distrust among the men has been planted with or without that threat to their gold.

Humphrey, you got a little crazy on your face.

When Howard is called away to help some nearby villagers (?), it's Dobbs v. Curtin at the campsite. Greed, paranoia and gold-blindness take over -- and without spoiling too much of the ending, let's just say that in its own way, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre has a lot to say about materialism in our culture.

Have we learned anything from the moral of this film? Or is longing for riches something inherent in us in a capitalist society? Shouldn't we be able to make something out of nothing, to make riches appear out of nowhere and claim ownership over them? Reading the Wikipedia entry about this film, I found that P.T. Anderson watched this film to prepare for filming There Will Be Blood, another prospector film (this time oil replaces gold) about a man whose greed destroys him. Maybe it's timeless, the insatiable need for wealth. Is that an American trait, or a human trait? Are we presumptuous to assume that striving to obtain riches beyond our need is a specifically American hunger? I think maybe.

Well, laugh it off, chumpies. Ob-la-di, ob-la-da. Not a lot to say in the way of film critique here -- it's ably (and Oscar-winningly) directed and acted, but the moral truth of it is what sticks with me. In light of this weekend's devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, I'm seeing that all the gold in the world, metal or otherwise, can be taken away in the blink of an eye. Let that be a lesson to you all! /preach

Next up: another in a series of films I know little about. Isn't that what I was excited for in this list? The Best Years of Our Lives. We'll see if it is. Spring is approaching and I've gotta get moving on this blog, because heaven knows this summer will be spent almost entirely outside.