Movie Project #49: The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]
Director: David Lean
Writers: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson
Country: USA/UK
Genre: Adventure/Drama/War
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins, Sessue Hayakawa
Running Time: 161 minutes

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai is not a conventional prisoner of war story, even though it appears to be at first. At the beginning of this 1957 epic, a large group of British soldiers are led through the jungles of Burma to the closest POW camp — all while whistling the catchy opening strain of the “Colonel Bogey” march. It is here where they meet the local commandant, a very stern Japanese man named Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). His orders are to make these prisoners finish the construction of a railroad bridge over the nearby River Kwai.

Saito immediately discredits any notion of fairness by ordering everyone, officers included, to begin work immediately. The senior British officer, Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), cites the Geneva Conventions and refuses to make his fellow officers work. This draws the ire of Saito, who forces every officer to stand all day in the sweltering tropical heat. Nicholson is sent off to “the oven”, a small box for solitary confinement.

At this point, it appears the film is going to be about the conflict between the Japanese and the British officers. Yet it is here where things go in a different direction.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

Three prisoners attempt to escape — two are shot dead, the other is wounded but manages to get away. The surviving escapee, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Shears (William Holden), stumbles onto a village and eventually ends up in the open arms of the Mount Lavinia Hospital. Just as he begins settling into a relaxing life on the beach, he is approached by the British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who forcefully coerces him into “volunteering” for a commando mission. The goal? To blow up the very bridge the prisoners are working on.

Meanwhile, back at the camp, Nicholson is suffering from a very bizarre variation of “Stockholm syndrome” where he changes his tune and pushes his soldiers to do the best job possible on the bridge, even going so far as to tear down the original one in favor of starting from scratch at another point of the river. These two subplots eventually merge together at the end of the film, an absolutely thunderous, unpredictable climax.

The journey to this point is admittedly a bit of a taxing one. The film takes its sweet time setting up its plot devices, and it could use a bit of trimming at certain points. At the same time, the film is visually stunning, especially on the big screen (which I was fortunate enough to see). The Burmese jungles (actually filmed in Sri Lanka) are beautiful, with long sweeping shots of the scenery. The environment is also used to wonderful effect in the form of its sound effects — the bird calls, running water, etc. are constantly heard in the background. And of course, the whistling is insanely catchy, and it has been in my head for days.

The Bridge on the River Kwai [1957]

The cast here is phenomenal, with Alec Guinness being the biggest highlight. In fact, I found myself wishing more time had been spent on his plight rather than that of the impending commando mission. Both stories are tied together perfectly at the end, but it’s Guinness’s character’s spiral into madness that I found most captivating.

Really, that’s what the film is all about — madness — and it’s even the very last word uttered on screen. Perhaps the most glaring example is how Nicholson and Shears, both prisoners of war, have completely different goals. One wants to finish the bridge as a matter of British pride, the other wants to blow it up to save his own ass. Altogether, it’s a really interesting take on the tolls of war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is quite lengthy, but it is a viewing experience I will never forget.

8/10

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Movie Project #14: Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

The 50 Movies Project: 2013 Edition

In what has become an annual tradition, I have decided to embark in a third round of the 50 Movies Project. The premise is simple — I have put together a list of 50 movies that I feel I absolutely must see in order to continue my progression as a film lover. With so many films to see, it’s easy to get off track and forget about some of the essentials. This is my way of making sure I watch those that have been on my “must see” list for too long.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]
Director: Alexander Mackendrick
Screenplay: Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman
Country: USA
Genre: Drama/Film Noir
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, Susan Harrison, Martin Milner
Running Time: 96 minutes

Reason for inclusion: This is one of the most highly regarded Film Noirs that I still had not seen.

Accolades: Inducted into the National Film Registry in 1993, part of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies series, Empire 500, 501 Must See Movies, the Criterion Collection, and many more “best of” lists

Is there a bigger louse in film than Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) in Sweet Smell of Success?

Here is a man (and I use that term loosely), a press agent, who will do anything and everything to get his clients mentioned in a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He is willing to bribe, blackmail, extort and even pimp out his acquaintances if it helps him make a quick buck. Falco is a sleazy shell of a man.

“You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”

The author of this newspaper column, J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster), isn’t much better. Rather than ooze slime, Hunsecker uses his power and authority to bully his way through life. He has an ego the size of Texas, and he is especially intimidating to his younger, 19-year-old sister, Susan (Susan Harrison).

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Everybody knows Manny Davis – except Mrs. Manny Davis.”

Susan is in a happy relationship with noted jazz guitarist, Steve Dallas (Martin Milner), and they have begun discussing the prospects of marriage. One problem: Susan desperately wants her brother’s approval, and Hunsecker is not ready to do so.

“I’d hate to take a bite outta you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.”

Instead, J.J. schemes with Falco to find a way to break up their romance. Falco, failing at this task much like everything else in his life, grows more and more desperate while aiming to please the very influential columnist. He tries selling “tips” to other gossip rags in an attempt to label Dallas as a “marijuana smoking commie.” What entails is an increasingly foul and dirty game of smearing, with both Falco and Hunsecker seemingly digging themselves deeper and deeper in their power plays.

Sweet Smell of Success [1957]

“Mr. Hunsecker, you’ve got more twists than a barrel of pretzels!”

Lancaster and Curtis are terrific in the lead roles, especially the latter. Curtis excels at portraying what is essentially the cesspool of humanity. Even when he is in the distant background during a few scenes, I found myself keeping an eye on him just to see if I could figure out what he had up his sleeve. The character of Falco never stops conniving and scheming his way to the top.

“My right hand hasn’t seen my left hand in thirty years.”

Sweet Smell of Success has some of the best dialogue I have seen in film. It is immensely quotable (as seen throughout this review), and it is a scathing attack on newspaper and print media. This is a film with horrible people doing horrible things, but damn if it isn’t entertaining.

9/10

Movie Project #7: Wild Strawberries [1957]

The 50 Movies Project is a personal “marathon” of mine. In June, I compiled a list of 50 movies that I felt I needed to see by the end of the year. Old, new, foreign, English — it doesn’t matter. These are all movies that I have heard a lot about and have been wanting to see for some time. This project gives me a way to stay focused on the goal.

Wild Strawberries [1957]

Wild Strawberries [1957]
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Genre: Drama
Language: Swedish
Country: Sweden

Out of all the cinematic “essentials” that I have heard about, Ingmar Bergman is the name that comes up perhaps most often. Of his films, Wild Strawberries is one that is frequently mentioned, often referenced as a good starting point to his work. I knew little about the movie beforehand, aside from vague descriptions read elsewhere that stated little more than it being about an old man recalling his past. A simple premise, but one rife with possibilities.

Professor Isak Borg (Victor Sjöström, in his final performance) is the aforementioned old man, an egotistical 78-year-old who sets off for a long road trip to receive an honorary degree. His pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne (a stunning Ingrid Thulin) unexpectedly joins him for the trip, despite him frowning upon the idea. Along the way, they are joined by a youthful group of hitchhikers including a vibrant young girl named Sara (Bibi Andersson) who gives the seemingly mundane trip a sense of adventure.

Wild Strawberries [1957]

The road trip gives Borg a time to reflect on his life. He is a cranky old man who most people find to be pompous and arrogant. In fact, it’s hard to empathize with his character at all at first because of this. However, through a series of daydreams and flashbacks, we begin to learn about the professor’s history, which includes some really tragic events. It becomes apparent how the elderly physician came to be so cantankerous, not that it makes his behavior anymore acceptable.

It is reinvigorating to see Borg grow over time, embracing the playfulness from the hitchhikers and learning from the vicious back-and-forth banter from a married couple they encounter along the way. Every event, every daydream and occasional nightmare all lend Borg the ability to grow, even at the ripe old age of 78.

Wild Strawberries [1957]

The acting here is phenomenal. It’s easy to see why Bergman opted for Victor Sjöström, who provides a certain warmth over time to his character. Bibi Andersson is a lot of fun with her sheer optimism and joyful outlook on life. I fell in love with Ingrid Thulin’s performance, and she is simply beautiful in this film.

Wild Strawberries uses some really unique imagery, especially in some of Borg’s nightmares. I feel, however, to get maximum fulfillment from this film, I will be needing to watch it again. I liked the camerawork, the acting and the basic premise, but I can’t help but feel that I overlooked certain details that will be important for later viewings. Still, I enjoyed the movie overall and I am looking forward to my next Bergman selection.