19 January 2001 | Local Hero
A true classic, despite one disturbing aspect
In my opinion, David Lean is one of the cinema's greatest directors, in the highest pantheon along with the likes of Kurosawa, Welles, De Sica, and Bergman. Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia" and his vastly underrated "A Passage to India" are unmitigated masterpieces, and some of his 'smaller' films, such as "Summertime," "Great Expectations," and "Brief Encounter" are true gems.
"The Bridge on the River Kwai" should justly be grouped with "Lawrence" and "India," as all three are sweeping in scope, and all three are some of the most thematically ambitious films ever made, reflecting a mature filmmaker at the peak of his craft. Like "Lawrence," "Kwai" does not flinch for a moment while it forces the viewer to gaze deep into the chasm of the human condition, and it is not an easy film to take in, as it presents us with profoundly symbolic (archetypal, you might say) character types, most of whom elicit both admiration and repulsion, sympathy and frustration. And while the film explores these character themes at length, it is ultimately content to leave the conflicts unresolved, happy simply to present us with the Hamlet-like paradoxes that are the human condition in all its glory and stupidity.
If there is any clear, unequivocal message that can be gleaned from "Kwai," it is an ode in praise of stoic virtue and the struggle for dignity and meaning in the face of a hostile universe-- in this case, in the face of an inhuman and absurd war. However, ironically, it is in this very aspect that the film, in my opinion, has its greatest failing. In retrospect, it would seem that in order to distill the film's philosophical elements down to universal themes, and perhaps in order to make the story palatable to 1950s audiences (and more Oscar-worthy?), the film greatly tones down the very inhumanity of the historical situation it portrays. In reality, the Japanese were perfectly capable of engineering their own bridges and, far more importantly, the building of the Burma-Thailand Railroad was an atrocity so vast and inhuman that it can only be rightly compared with the Nazi Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge Genocide. The true "stiff upper lip" displayed by the surviving prisoners-of-war from that hell in the jungle was not an insistence that a bridge be built right if it is to be built at all, etc.; the true "stiff upper lip" was mere survival itself, as thousands upon thousands were dying of starvation, overwork, constant beatings, summary executions, disease and exposure. While it is true that not every film about war needs to be "Shoah," "Schindler's List," or "The Killing Fields," and "Kwai" should be viewed on its own terms, as a film solely about the themes and characters it has chosen to depict; nevertheless, by so greatly downplaying the horrors of the actual historical situation it portrays, the film ultimately does a great disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people of several nationalities who suffered and died in the building of this monstrosity of a railroad. While it seems to me that the intentions of the filmmakers were noble, that Lean sought to explore the struggle of the human spirit under the greatest adversity, the film's light treatment of the still-seldom-discussed topic of Japanese war crimes inadvertently trivializes that very struggle.
Nonetheless, I still feel that "Kwai" is an amazing cinematic achievement in its own right. And while it would only be with heavy reservation that I place it on a list of "greatest films," it does manage to squeak onto my hypothetical Top 100.