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.

Great Expectations

The characters are Charles Dickens’s, as is the story (mostly), but David Lean made Great Expectations memorable.  Ask anyone who was a kid in 1946, when the film came out.  They’ll tell you that the opening sequence where Pip is surprised by an escaped convict while visiting his mother’s grave still gives them nightmares.

And who can forget Miss Havisham, the strange, obsessed old lady, still dressed in her bridal gown?  She’s been living in her darkened mansion for decades, growing more bitter by the day.  Mice dart in and out of the crumbling wedding cake on the cobweb-covered banquet table.  She summons Pip to play with her adopted daughter, Estella.  Lovely, haughty Estella, still a girl when she and Pip are introduced, but already cruel, remote.

“You can break his heart,” Miss Havisham tells her, savoring the prospect.

And to Pip she gives this chilling order:  “If she favors you, love her.  If she tears your heart to pieces, love her.”  Sinister Miss Havisham lives long enough to see her hopes fulfilled, and experiences a pang of regret when Pip confronts her with the evidence of his unhappiness.  But the damage cannot be undone.

Redemption arrives from an unexpected source.  Magwitch, the escaped convict whom Pip tried to help, if only out of fear, has been the boy’s secret benefactor for years.  He arranged to have Pip educated, to make him a gentleman.  Now he turns up in London to see the results with his own eyes.  Here is a bad man transformed by love.  Naturally, this being Dickens, he must pay the price for the crimes he committed, but he dies content, with Pip at his bedside in the prison infirmary.  And Pip is the better for having known him—although here the film and the novel part company.

Watch the movie, then do what I’m doing.  Reread the book.  You’ll enjoy it more than you did in high school.

 (7 February 2011)

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)