Bridge on the River Kwai

“Maybe the unbridgeable gulf that some see separatingRiver Kwai the western and the oriental souls is nothing more than a mirage… Maybe the need to ‘save face’ was, in this war, as vital, as imperative, for the British as it was for the Japanese.”

— Pierre Boulle, Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï

Eight years after his escape from a French colonial prison in Saigon, Pierre Boulle published the novel that became the basis for David Lean’s award-winning epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954). Never mind that the bridge was actually on the Mae Klong river, that the actual senior Allied officer who oversaw work at the bridge did everything in his power to sabotage it. (The real story is told in a BBC documentary.) Try not to whistle the catchy theme song.

I want to focus on the film’s ending, where the priggish officer Nicholson, brilliantly played by Alec Guinness, does manage to blow up the bridge. Boulle left the bridge standing at the end of his novel. Was this simply an absurdist touch, symptomatic of postwar French Existentialism, with its insistence on the arbitrariness of life? Boulle would have us believe so. “A novel is built around an abstract idea, on the logic of the absurd. Only after having got the thing precisely plotted do I add my own memories and experiences,” he said.

French Indochina was effectively under the control of the Japanese in 1942 and Boulle was sent by the Free French to find sympathetic Vichy officials who might be persuaded to help undermine their authority from within. Captured while floating down the Mekong river on a raft, he found himself confronted by a Pétainist collaborator and sentenced to forced labor. “When he came to Indochina he thought he was on the good side. But then a Frenchman arrested him and said, “No you are not,” reported a close family member. “It drove home a point about the relativity of good and evil, which is the theme of all his works. What is good is good only in a certain context. Not necessarily universally.”

Literary critic Ian Watt had a different take. Watt had worked on the Burma Railway as a British POW during World War II and nearly died. Twelve thousand Commonwealth, Dutch, and American prisoners did die, and Watt resented the “myth” that Boule propounded, the absurd idea that “stiff upper-lipped British pluck,” as Roger Bourke put it in his study of WWII prisoner-of-war narratives, combined with “superior western technological expertise,” succeeded in defeating the Japanese, at least on a moral level.

I appreciate Watt’s perspective, as one who was there, but his complaint seems to be more with Lean’s film than with Boulle’s book. Keeping in mind that Boulle would go on to write La Planète des Singes, the science fiction novel that became the 1968 film, Planet of the Apes, it seems fair to acknowledge the consistency of the French author’s moral concerns: “the illustration of a general ‘absurdity’ which could as well have been located in other times, other places, and with other personages.” An outspoken anti-colonialist, radical for his time, Boulle seems to have spent his postwar existence closeted in his sister’s Paris apartment writing fiction, filtering reality through his fabulous imagination.

Our Man in Havana

our-man-in-havana-1959

Fidel Castro had just taken over Cuba when filming on Our Man in Havana began in April, 1959. He and Che Guevara dropped in on the set and fraternized with the cast; Maureen O’Hara was quite taken by Che, “a real freedom fighter,” in her words. This from a woman who adored John Wayne and Ronald Reagan.

I wonder what Fidel and Che made of Ernie Kovacs, who played the Havana police chief Captain Segura mostly for laughs. His real-life counterpart, Esteban Ventura Novo, was a notorious torturer. Graham Greene alluded to this sinister side of Segura’s character in the book. “There are people who expect to be tortured,” he tells the hapless vacuum cleaner salesman and reluctant spy Wormold (Alec Guinness), “and others who’d be outraged by the idea. One never tortures except by a kind of mutual agreement.”

Wormold, a middle-class Brit, does not belong to “the torturable class,” Segura blithely admits, whereas the poor in Cuba, and throughout Latin America, apparently do. Greene’s irony comes across better in the book, although Kovacs is brilliant in the checkers game, where the two adversaries use miniature liquor bottles in place of checkers.

I loved the novel, but I love the film even more. Besides Guinness, O’Hara, and Kovacs, you’ve got Noel Coward as the urbane (and slightly ridiculous) recruiter of secret agents, Hawthorne, and Ralph Richardson as the even more ridiculous spymaster “C.”  Burl Ives plays Dr. Hasselbacher, an emigré with a communist past. In real life, Ives had just named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In the film, he betrays Wormold, his only friend, then has second thoughts.

Our Man in Havana would be Greene’s final collaboration with director Carol Reed. It’s more light-hearted than the pair’s most indelible project, The Third Man, but still packs a punch. Viewed with a daiquiri in hand, it goes down quite smoothly.

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Gosh, is there any role Alec Guinness couldn’t play? From the highly-principled (but tragically misguided) Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” to George Smiley in the 1970s TV serializations of John le Carré’s novels, to his delightful turn as Professor Godbole in “Passage to India,” the man was a cameleon. And that’s without mentioning his memorable performances in “Great Expectations,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” and “Doctor Zhivago.” (He preferred not to be remembered for his recurring role in a certain George Lucas science fiction trilogy, so I will not name it here…)

In “Kind Hearts and Coronets” he plays eight members of the eccentric D’Ascoyne family, most of whom are dispatched by the last in line to the family title, the young Louis Mazzini (played by the superb Dennis Price).  First to go was the snooty playboy, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, followed by the daft-but-likable Henry D’Ascoyne. Then we meet the tedious Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne — and here is where Guinness really hits his stride.Next we have him as Lady AgathaLadyAgathaGuinness and Admiral Lord Horatio D’Ascoyne, followed by General Lord Rutherford, who is felled by an exploding jar of Beluga caviar. “Used to get a lot of this stuff in the crimea. One thing the Russkies do really well.”

One thing the Brits used to do VERY well was black humor, dry with a twist. Criterion released a remastered version of “Kind Hearts” in 2006, but it’s gone out-of-print. Rent it at your local library or DVD store, and be sure to watch the interview with Sir Alec.

Doctor Zhivago

Omar Sharif plays a Russian and “Doctor Zhivago” was shot mostly in Spain by a British director, produced by an Italian.  “Lara’s Theme,” the schmaltzy leitmotif that evokes the Julie Christie character, can still be heard in elevators today.  Why is any of this relevant to the Egyptian revolution?

Let’s start with an early scene:  it is 1912 and a group of workers are demonstrating in the streets of Moscow, led by the idealistic Pasha Antipov, a young social democrat.  An equally young and idealistic Yuri Zhivago watches the scene from a balcony, and witnesses the violence as the workers are mowed down by Cossaks on horseback.  Pasha is radicalized by the event and becomes a revolutionary, lashing out against the regime responsible for such brutality, but growing more ruthless as the story progresses.

Yuri turns away, turns inward.  Each new upheaval in Russia, each act of violence, reaffirms his determination to live, to love, and to create.  Sharif registers pain in those soulful brown eyes.  Unlike Pasha or the commander of the partisan unit that conscripts him later in the picture, his character never loses his humanity, never sacrifices his concern for individuals, their lives, their hopes, their needs in the name of “justice” or some other abstract good.

And so we come to another key scene.  Yuri and Lara have taken refuge in the frozen dacha that belonged to Yuri’s wife’s family.  In the early morning, Yuri sits at his desk writing poems.  Wolves howl at the edge of the property, but inside the frost-starred window, we see the warm glow of Yuri’s candle.  A mere moment of safety, of peace; we know it cannot last.  But the beauty of that moment sustains us.

What stands out most about Egypt’s revolution?  The call for change was courageous, the hopes expressed by the youthful protesters inspiring.  It’s too soon to tell how far the change will reach, or how lasting it will prove to be, but in the protesters’ unwillingness to employ violence as a means to achieve their goals I see the glow of Yuri’s humanity.

(16 February 2011)