Sonic Cinema

Sounds, Visions and Insights by Brian Skutle

A decade ago, I started “A Movie a Week,” wherein I would catch up on reviewing movies I’ve loved over the years, as well as some movies I had never seen before. The inspiration at the start was Roger Ebert’s “Great Movies” series, although I would not limit myself to great films. The series has had its ups and downs in terms of regularity, but it has some consistency when it comes to structure. October weeks- all about the horror. A bookend filmmaker to start and end the year. Maybe a Christmas film. Former bookend filmmakers stay in the yearly rotation. And bookend my trip to DragonCon with genre fare.

For the 10th year I’ve been doing this series, I’m not just continuing the inspiration of Ebert’s series, but also pulling some of the choices from ‘80s All Over, the film podcast I’ve gotten into in the past year where Drew McWeeny and Scott Weinberg are going through the films of the ‘80s one month at a time. As the series starts this year, four of the films I hadn’t seen before the podcast (or didn’t remember) are included, as well as some that might be changed around as the year goes on. There will be more inclusions from that podcast and era as we move on.

Most of the filmmakers who have bookended this series have been foreign filmmakers, and part of that is because they are ones I haven’t been gotten enough into over the years, and I’m not going to lie- it was kind of amazing to me to realize last year that Werner Herzog, whose singular films I’ve come to love over the years, has been underrepresented on Sonic Cinema over the years. That is why he is my bookend this year (I had to get him into the yearly rotation), and we began with one of his strangest films, “Stroszek.”

This week, I watch David Lean’s WWII epic, “The Bridge on the River Kwai”. I hope you enjoy!

Brian Skutle

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)– A+

It doesn’t surprise me at all that David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” not only won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1957, but remains a classic to this day. Aside from being a great film, it also combines two of the great formulas of war movie cinema- the POW camp movie and the mission movie. Of course, the movie is taking its cues from the novel by Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes), but Lean and screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson have found a way of turning this into not just an entertaining war epic, but a fascinating study in proud men.

The film begins with Commander Shears (William Holden) in a Japanese POW camp digging graves for people who have died in the camp. He then finds himself in the infirmary, which is where he is when British soldiers are marched into the camp. Those soldiers are led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), who finds himself immediately in a battle of wills with the camp’s commandant, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). Saito has been tasked with using his prisoners to build a bridge over a nearby river (the titular river Kwai) for the purpose of a supply track, but Nicholson refuses any of his officers for manual labor, citing the Geneva Convention. Saito does not care about those regulations, and he throws Nicholson into a sweat box for his insolence until he relents, and his officers in a holding pen. During all of this, Shears manages to escape through the jungle that surrounds the camp, but will find himself coming back to the camp when he is tasked with blowing up the bridge that Nicholson is building.

David Lean is a filmmaker I’ve known more for reputation than by seeing his films- until “Kwai,” the only movie I had seen of his is “Lawrence of Arabia.” This is a much more conventional film than “Lawrence” is, but it’s high on the list of great epic cinema, and that’s because Lean has his focus in sights in both films, and he digs into it. Based on reputation, I though “Kwai” would focus almost entirely on the construction of the bridge, sort of like Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” but while the bridge is entirely the focus, we see it from different perspectives in a way that is unique. Simply from a construction standpoint, the bridge becomes part of the battle of wills Nicholson and Saito engage in at the beginning of the film, with Nicholson, after being let out of the sweat box, taking over construction of the bridge as a way of showing Saito the superiority of British engineering over Japanese. He doesn’t even really think about the fact that he is helping the enemy- for him, this bridge will stand as a point of pride for the men over their captors, while Saito stands to lose much pride through his acknowledgement of British bridge building being better, along with a duty to perform ritual suicide if it is not completed on time. This is the film that won Guinness his Oscar, and it is not surprising that it was. He and Hayakawa go toe-to-toe and it’s the audience that wins in watching these characters go up against one another, and eventually come to work together in this accomplishment, and want to see it completed.

So, if Holden’s Shears escapes the camp, where does he fit in? It turns out that, when he was captured by the Japanese, he lied about his rank, so, when he is found on a river, alone, by British patrols from a nearby base, a deal is made by one of the commanding officers of the base, Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), for Shears to be handed over to the Brits for a mission to blow up the bridge Nicholson is building as part of the war effort. While I greatly enjoy the entire film, I feel like the film loses some momentum away from the prison camp, given how standard the “mission movie” material with Holden is. That being said, the movie builds to a remarkable finale that is probably one of the most impactful in movie history where Shears, Warden and another soldier (Joyce, played by Geoffrey Horne) arrive, and plant explosives, right at the moment when the first train of supplies is to make its run across the bridge. The way Lean shoots this scene, and the way it unfolds narratively, is why he was a master epic filmmaker, as he uses character to bring humanity and power to canvases as large as a bridge built during World War II. I don’t know that I will ever forget the ending of this film, and so many moments in between have the same effect.

Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“Stroszek” (1977)
“Chimes at Midnight” (1965)
“Boogie Nights” (1997)
“The Karate Kid” (1984)
“The World According to Garp” (1982)
“Belle de Jour” (1967)
“Coffy” (1973)
“The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957)

See Brian’s list of 2009 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2010 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2011 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2012 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2013 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2014 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2015 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2016 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2017 “Movies a Week” here.

Categories: News, News - Movie A Week

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