02 June 2017

Revisiting an Old Film Friend

1956 was a bad year for the Anglosphere. The Suez Crisis brought to a head a number of troubling trends that had been going on since before the Second World War. However, on 26 November 1956, a few weeks after the Suez Debacle, one of the greatest cultural artefacts of the twentieth-century Anglosphere began production. That's the starting date the Internet Movie Data Base gives for The Bridge on the River Kwai, which starred Obi-Wan Kenobi (Star Wars), Max Schumacher (Network) and Quintus Arrius (Ben-Hur). The director was David Lean. The film was released in 1957, and went some way towards mending the disruptions of 1956, at least culturally.

The film was produced by Sam Spiegel, an unlikely denizen of the Anglosphere. He was born in Galicia, in Austria-Hungary, and wound up in Hollywood after the Nazis came to power in 1933, although he had been there before in the 1920s. Spiegel, however, loved London, and starting in 1951 used his production company based there, Horizon Films, to produce three very important films (Kwai, The African Queen and Lawrence of Arabia), and several others that are at least interesting (Suddenly, Last Summer, The Swimmer, Nicholas and Alexandra). The screenplay was credited to two writers who had been blacklisted for connections to the Communist Party. While Michael Wilson found refuge in France, Carl Foreman lived in England for some two decades before returning to the United States. (Foreman was one of a number of blacklisted media workers who found refuge in Britain, a topic that seems under-researched from the Anglospherical perpsective.)

A happy coincidence of events led to me discovering that my wife had never seen the film, despite having been with me some twenty years, and so we sat down with the DVD. I have seen this film repeatedly over the years, but probably no more than once during our time together. I've got to a point where I'm counting down the years, and re-watching films I know well is something I do with some resentment, but this seemed a good excuse to reacquaint myself with an old friend.

For me it is probably the best film of all time. If you asked me to rank all films on technical accomplishment, I have seen none better. This is not to say it is my favourite, but the best. But I was reading reviews of it on criticker.com and I am disturbed by some of the criticisms of it. They fall into three broad categories:

a) The film is too long/too slow. Anyone who asserts this just doesn’t understand what cinema is about. The film’s story demands all that time. Better to claim it is too short than too long, too fast than too slow.

b) The film is disjointed, with the POW drama and the action commando mission. Anyone who asserts this doesn’t understand what the film is about, and has overlooked the fact that Jack Hawkins got second billing in the opening credits, ahead of Alec Guinness. There are four masculine prides at work -- Colonel Saito’s vs Colonel Nicholson’s, and Commander/Major Shears’ vs Major Warden’s (that surname is telling). Each character's pride must be balanced against the other three, and the commando mission is necessary to add more depth to the conflict between Saito’s ‘bushido’ and Nicholson’s ‘Geneva Convention’ and Shears’ life-saving opportunism. Warden's own warrior code, a blithe disregard of the moral content of his actions, contravenes in respective ways the direction Saito, Nicholson and Shears give their lives.

c) Various cultural criticisms. The most valid one is about the treatment of women. But this is a film about masculinity, and in fact female characters were only added at the producer’s insistence. (For such a patriarchal country, America's cultural industries have paid a lot of attention to attracting women into the audience, or at the very least a male-constructed version of women.) Given that Sir David Lean was required to work with them, he didn’t do so badly in presenting how the purely masculine world perceives women, at least in the 1950s. The complaints about the Japanese getting short shrift is, I think, understandable in the circumstances. The war had ended a mere twelve years earlier. The Japanese did not yet have their fearsome reputation for industrial prowess (one that has been harder to sustain since the 1990s), and were still very much remembered most for their cruel way of waging war, and their role as an 'aggressor state' during the 1930s. The well-publicised Rape of Nanking had only happened two decades earlier. It shouldn't stretch our thinking so much to believe that the supposed incompetence on display here is a consequence of Saito in particular, and not Japanese engineering in general.

Finally, it's worth noting that the film, in its context, can be interpreted as more than just an anti-war film, but in fact an anti-atomic-war film. I don't think any of the criticker.com reviewers spotted this. I certainly didn't for many years and viewings.

The film, with its American, British and Canadian characters, is very much a distillation of the Anglosphere in its own time. For various reasons, we should re-read texts like this with an eye to this dimension. It will help explain so many of the active currents which will affect not just Anglosphere futures, but the future of the planet.

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