Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Madness! Madness!

Watched the great 1957 war movie, The Bridge On the River Kwai (IMdB) on Sunday. It's been a long time since I last saw it and I sat entranced again by the majesty of David Lean's directing and vision. His next two movies would be Lawrence of Arabia and Dr. Zhivago. The movie has been criticized from an historical perspective for "sanitizing" the POW experience. It was FAR WORSE than anything pictured in the movie which was based on a novel from the early 50s. The story line is probably an impossible occurrence. Like this opening sequence of the British prisoners marching into camp whistling the Colonel Bogey March:

And yes, in the mid-50s war movies of this epic style DID tend to sanitize war. World War II was not a distant memory. Using the Colonel Bogey March was even a not-so-subtle-to-the-British comment since it was the tune for an anti-Hitler song from the war era.

But the movie was not about the horrors of war. It was about the horrors of personal power set in a war. The Alec Guinness character's pomposity and narcissism was what was on display. Even in a setting like a Japanese POW camp, his self-centeredness was underneath his willingness to stand up to the Japanese commander. Was it a sense of racism, racial or ethnic superiority or Col. Nicholson's own personal issues at work? Who knows for sure.

As Nicholson becomes the chief architect of the bridge, his own monument to British superiority, we see him sinking into his own view of the world. Even to the point where the Japanese Col. Saito plans suicide since he has been overpowered psychologically by Nicholson. Is Nicholson a symbol of the British desire for appeasement before the war? Perhaps.

Major Clipton, a prisoner challenges Nicholson with a piece of dialogue:

The fact is, what we're doing could be construed as - forgive me sir - collaboration with the enemy. Perhaps even as treasonable activity. Must we work so well? Must we build them a better bridge than they could have built for themselves?
Then along comes British Major Warden and the American Shears. They are there to blow up the bridge. They are there to bring down the appeasement monument and Nicholson's ego. Even as Nicholson betrays the existence of the explosives that will destroy HIS bridge, they work to get the job done.

Okay. Maybe the history lover in me wants to do too much analysis. Maybe sometimes a good movie is just a good movie. Sanitized and fit for peacetime celebration.

Until the very end as the last words spoken in the film are by the prisoner/doctor Maj. Clipton:
Madness! Madness!
Perhaps that is the message. It is all madness.

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