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

Movie Project #6: The Wild Bunch [1969]

Due to the overwhelming success of my initial Movies Project, I decided to do a second round for 2012. This time around I put a greater emphasis on directors I am not familiar with, but I also tried to compile a mix of different genres and eras. This will be an ongoing project with the finish date being sometime this year.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The Wild Bunch [1969]
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Genre: Western
Starring: William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan
Runtime: 145 minutes

The Wild Bunch starts with a bang and ends with a bang. Easily one of the most violent Westerns I have seen, the movie focuses on a group of aging outlaws during the final years of the Wild West. The leader of the bunch is Pike Bishop (Holden), a grizzled veteran that has established a code of honor within his unit. They aren’t exactly model citizens, but they maintain a level of camraderie even when disagreeing about certain issues.

The opening “bang” shows the group robbing a railroad office that is purported to contain a significant amount of silver. The robbery attempt goes wrong, however, when Deke Thornton (Ryan), a former partner of Pike, and his posse of bounty hunters show up. A massive gunfight ensues with dozens of innocent casualties. This massacre is something to behold, as gunfire is coming from every direction, and innocent bystanders are running for their lives. The action is given a frantic sense of urgence thanks to the quick editing and multiple camera angles used by director Sam Peckinpah. According to IMDB, the film in total contains 2,721 edits (roughly three seconds per shot). That’s impressive.

The Wild Bunch [1969]

Not everyone survives this battle, but Pike and the remaining members of the bunch (played by Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, and Jaime Sanchez) are able to escape the mayhem. They meet up with an old buddy, Freddie Sykes (Edmond O’Brien), and hit the road to Mexico. It is here that they get caught up in the ongoing Mexican Revolution and take a job to intercept a weapons shipment from the U.S. Army.

During all of this, we learn a bit about Pike’s backstory, the betrayal by Thornton, and we see the sense of camraderie formed by this group of men who are struggling to adapt to the changes around them. As such, there are moments of quietness that some could find tedious, but I felt they were helpful in terms of character development. Even though these guys were not ideal human beings, I empathized with them, even with their flawed “code.”

The Wild Bunch [1969]

The second “bang” is most impressive. The movie culminates with a violent bloodbath of a battle, one that even uses a huge machine gun (as pictured above). The carnage is appalling, as once again innocent men and women are caught in the middle of the violence, but it is impressive in terms of its visual impact. This is the stuff of legends, and it caps off the movie with a fitting and fiery end.

The Wild Bunch is the first Peckinpah movie I have seen, but it certainly won’t be the last. This is unlike any other Western I have come across so far, and its long runtime never feels like a burden. Quite frankly, this is another great Western in a decade that’s full of ’em.

8/10

Movie Project #29 and #30: Sunset Boulevard [1950] and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]

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.

Sunset Boulevard [1950]
Sunset Boulevard [1950, Billy Wilder]
Starring William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim.

Holy hell, what a film! The fact that such a biting satire about the film industry was made in 1950 blows my mind. The movie opens up mysteriously with a dead man floating in the pool. This man, Joe Gillis (played by the brilliant Holden), proceeds to narrate the film from beyond the grave, and the movie follows the events that led up to his demise. While on the run from repo men, Gillis pulls into the garage of what he thinks is an abandoned Hollywood mansion. Well, it turns out that the long-retired silent film star Norma Desmond (the scary-good Swanson, a former silent film star herself) is living there, and she sparks up an interest in the failing writer of Gillis. What transpires is truly bizarre, as Gillis becomes involved in a love triangle with Desmond and a young writer (Nancy Olson).

The world that Norma Desmond lives in is beyond fascinating, as she has clearly lost her mind and is stuck living in the past. She believes she will make a great comeback someday, and her reassuring butler (von Stroheim) refuses to tell her otherwise, fearing she will commit suicide. Her descent into madness culminates with one of the most memorable closing lines ever uttered on film: “There’s nothing else. Just us, and the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark. All right, Mr. De Mille, I’m ready for my closeup.”

Sunset Boulevard also has some terrific moments of dark humor, and I particularly loved the brief cameos from silent film stars such as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. This was the first time I had heard Keaton speak! There really is a lot to love about this movie, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 10/10

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939, Frank Capra]
Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, Claude Rains.

It says something about a movie’s power when a statement made 70+ years ago still holds relevance today. The always awesome James Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a naive Boy Scout leader who is oddly selected to take over as a US Senator after an incumbent passes away. When he gets there, he is enamored with the sights and sounds of Washington D.C., even getting himself lost in the process. He quickly finds out that he doesn’t belong there, as he has no interest in the political bullshit that goes on every day. Still, he perserveres, especially after he finds out about a scandal that would build a dam over his proposed Boy Scout campsite.

As a story of one man fighting for what’s right, it’s hard not to admire the movie. Smith, aided by his chief of staff Clarissa Saunders (Arthur), is a likable guy, and his big moment — a very, very long fillibuster — is quite brilliant. Superbly acted with a great screenplay to boot, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington still holds up today. 9/10