1960s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, Historical, War

55 Days At Peking (1963)

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Directors: Nicholas Ray, Guy Green (uncredited), Andrew Marton (uncredited)
Screenwriters: Ben Barzman, Bernard Gordon, Robert Hamer, Philip Yordan

By Roderick Heath

The history of cinema is so often one of fallen empires. Producer Samuel Bronston was born in Tsarist Russia and was, bewilderingly enough, a nephew of Leon Trotsky. Bronston grew up in the US and had some success as a movie producer in the early 1940s. He then fell into a long fallow patch that didn’t break until 1959’s John Paul Jones. Shooting that film partly in Spain, languishing under the Franco regime at the time and still trying to reconnect with the rest of the world, Bronston grasped the unexploited potential of making movies in that country. Costs were so low and the countryside so varied and littered with historical structures it was a perfect place to make costume epics, at that time the stuff of official blockbuster appeal. Soon Bronston’s move would be imitated by entire film industries. But Bronston’s blend of thrifty cunning and gaudy ambition would eventually ruin not only his career but those of two of Hollywood’s greatest directors. Bronston quickly scored an enormous hit with El Cid (1961), helmed by Anthony Mann, and the Jesus film King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray, one of the era’s most vital and floridly talented but fatefully maverick filmmakers. Bronston then embarked on two more mega-budget historical epics, hiring Ray to make 55 Days At Peking and Mann for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).

By this time, Ray’s personal life was in a tailspin and his health declining thanks to his constant drug and alcohol use. Ray collapsed during the shooting of 55 Days In Peking, and the movie had to be taken over by Andrew Marton, the second unit director and an experienced shooter of action sequences, until the former cinematographer turned director Guy Green was hurriedly brought in to finish it. The results were punishing for all concerned: the film’s budget skyrocketed to the then-astronomical sum of $17 million and only made half of it back at the American box office (although it seems to have been much more popular elsewhere), beginning the collapse of Bronston’s fortunes. Ray himself was finished in Hollywood, only turning out sporadic collaborations with film students and a final testimonial with Wim Wenders, Lightning Over Water (1979), in the rest of his days. Today there are reasons to hold 55 Days At Peking in misgiving, on top of what it cost Ray. It’s set in China but at the time it was impossible to actually shoot there, so Bronston simply built a replica of Peking in a Spanish field. Major Chinese characters are played by Caucasian actors in Asian makeup, despite being released at a time when that sort of thing was falling firmly out of favour, whilst about 4,000 genuine Chinese extras were obtained from all over Europe. It depicts history that’s still a touchy subject, the infamous Boxer Rebellion of 1900, largely from a western perspective. Some of the gaps from the production turmoil are obvious, like the way a priest played by Harry Andrews suddenly enters the narrative as if he’s been there all the time.

Despite such obvious and not-negligible problems, I feel some sort of love for 55 Days At Peking, an ungainly problem child shot through with flashes of unexpected art. Like some of the other epics made in that early 1960s moment that were largely dismissed by both critics and audiences, it’s much richer and more complex than it was given credit for, as well as a movie where, as the cliché goes, the money can all be seen up on screen. It’s a transitional work, mediating the end of classic Hollywood and looking forward to where certain things were heading, and despite his tragic exit from the production, Ray’s distinctive blend of sour realism and stylised romanticism still permeates the whole of this, a fervent and fretful kiss goodbye to the age of cavaliers and gilded kingdoms and an uneasy bow to the modern world’s complexities. One of a string of expensive and often ambivalent movies about besiegement made at the time, along with The Alamo (1960), The 300 Spartans (1962), and Zulu (1963), 55 Days At Peking shares their nervous preoccupation with the Cold War zeitgeist as mediated through historical likenesses, as well as marking the first Hollywood film exploring what would eventually become clearly identified as Vietnam War angst. The film’s contention with the possibility of political blocs forced into cooperating takes as its intrinsic subject the birth of the modern world springing out of the colliding egotisms and breakdown of the old.

Today, with China a verified world power, the fractious and unruly state of the country 123 years ago can seem rather shocking, and even when 55 Days At Peking came out its look back to the turn of the century seems charged with bewildered fascination for how the world have both changed and not changed, its narrative hinting at the seeds for what would later happen to all the countries involved as found in this peculiar window of history. The Boxers, more properly called the Yìhéquán or the Militia United in Righteousness, gained their common sobriquet for their practising of martial arts disciplines, or Chinese Boxing as it was called at the time. The Boxers were a coalition of societies built around such activities, some of them uninterested in political matters, others obsessed with them, but many were unified by their sweeping hatred for various forms of foreign influence muscling in on China in the late 19th century, and evolved into religiously-fuelled quasi-revolutionaries with a militantly anti-Christian as well as anti-Western Imperialist outlook. Boxers created initial alarm and fear through persecution and eventually murders of missionaries and other foreigners. Eventually convincing themselves they had divine protection from modern weapons, they began agitating for a crusade of purification in mid-1900, and marched on Beijing, or Peking as it was styled at the time. Meanwhile the Qing Dynasty, led by the Empress Dowager who had deposed her nephew for trying to impose reforms, was being fatally stymied by lost wars and encroaching foreign powers.

In a storytelling flourish that feels entirely and perfectly Ray-like, political blocs are mapped out musically: the film opens with a survey of old Peking, when the various foreign powers share an enclave known as the Foreign Compound, and the various nations war in the morning with their bands playing their rival national anthems at full volume. The camera descends to two hapless Chinese men trying to have their breakfast, only for one to clap his hands on his ears and ask in desperation, “What is this noise?” His friend answers succinctly: “Different nations saying the same thing at the same time – ‘We want China.’” David Niven’s Sir Arthur Robertson, a fictionalised version of the real British legation chief Sir Claude MacDonald, is presented as a man who, on the surface at least, is the very model of an English diplomat. As an emissary from the world’s leading power of the time, Sir Arthur presses the English point of view and a sense of steadfast resolve and forbearance with such ease and class he obliges all the countries and their less easy representatives to play along in his great and dangerous game of chicken with the oncoming rebellion. He inspires his German counterpart Baron von Meck (Eric Pohlmann) to comment, “You know, I admire Sir Arthur – he always gives me the feeling that God must be an Englishman.”

Lines like that betray the contribution to the script by Robert Hamer, the director of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), credited here with additional dialogue, and his sardonic sense of humour about the great old days of British identity. 55 Days At Peking’s opening credits utilise paintings by Chinese-American artist Dong Kingman to lay down the aesthetic of a lushly stylised view of the past and the setting, slipping over the horizon of general memory. The story commences with tensions on the boil between three factions, the court of the Empress Dowager (Flora Robson), the great foreign powers comprising Great Britain, the US, France, Russia, Spain, Austria-Hungary, Japan, and Italy, and the Boxers. The Empress’s nephew Prince Tuan (Robert Helpmann) is trying to foment resistance to the increasing stranglehold the foreigners have over the country and is surreptitiously encouraging the Boxers, whilst the head of the armed forces, General Jung-Lu (Leo Genn), resists such moves. The Imperial court is portrayed a medieval holdover despite the gilded spectacle, with Jung-Lu fiercely establishing his authority over lessers as a factional power struggle commences by lashing an officer in the face with his fly whip, whilst the Empress orders another officer executed because the argument over his fate, amongst other reasons, “disturbs the tranquillity of the morning.”

A detachment of American Marines under Major Matt Lewis (Charlton Heston) arrives back on rotation to Peking to take over defence of the US legation just in time to behold some Boxers torturing a western priest on a water wheel. Matt tries to buy the priest off them but he dies first, resulting in a discomforting stand-off during which a Boxer is shot by a sergeant, Harry (John Ireland), but Matt manages to defuse the situation by buying the Boxer’s corpse instead and docks the price from Harry’s pay. There’s a discomforting undercurrent to this scene beyond the immediate tension in the square-off between armed gangs, as Matt readily grasps and accedes to an understanding that anything, be it faith, patriotism, revenge, or gratitude, can be translated into a dollar value. Matt finds himself mostly answering to Sir Arthur as the American envoy Maxwell (Ray himself) is ill, and soon witnesses Von Meck’s assassination by some Boxers under Tuan’s direction. When Sir Arthur and Matt are brought before the Empress, it becomes clear she has elected under Tuan’s influence to let the Boxers do what they like to the foreigners. Readying their enclave for siege, the international factions are forced to ally and protect their citizens whilst hoping for relief.

The opening vignette and the locals’ sarcastic reaction to it sets in play a film that remains intensely ambivalent about the political manoeuvring and game of national egos unfolding, the Imperial court envisioned as encrusted in arcane and empty ritual and spectacle no longer backed up by anything resembling legitimacy. The musical motif is matched by the visuals as the mammoth recreation of a large chunk of Peking sees the Foreign Compound littered with transplanted architectural styles like gothic forms amidst Chinese. The international representatives swan about in varied postures of arrogance but little real backbone, with only Sir Arthur’s determination to project unruffled calm and principled grit forcing the others to go along with him, because to do otherwise would be embarrassing. It feels revealing that Ray cast himself as the American representative who dismisses any interest in territorial concessions, as the film expresses a kind of idealism that feels consistent with Ray’s scepticism over grand-sounding ideals, although of course he can’t push this as far as he did in something like Bitter Victory (1957). He does nonetheless insist on portraying his heroes as indecisive, brittle, confused creatures, ironically nearly as unsure of themselves in facing down geopolitical crises as the wayward young folk of They Live By Night (1948) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955).

Heston’s Matt is offered as a prototype, a professional soldier who knows his way around upper crust climes as his job and rank require but who seems like anything but a blue blood, a wilfully rootless figure given up to the demands of the army. A man who tosses out most of his correspondence, collected for him by his hotel in the concession, because “Read it and you might have to answer it.” Matt soon finds himself drawn in close to Baroness Natasha Ivanoff (Ava Gardner), an exile from the Russian aristocracy with still-virulent scandal in her past. The Baroness is persecuted by her late husband’s brother, the Russian delegate Baron Sergei Ivanoff (Kurt Kasznar), who has a singular motive in trying to force her to return an enormously valuable gold-and-jade necklace her husband gave her, a combative relationship spiced by Sergei’s jagged blend of vengefulness and attraction to his former sister-in-law and the Baroness’s offended pleasure in resisting. The Baroness courts Matt’s attention when she’s ejected on Sergei’s behest from her hotel room which is then given to Matt, although her turns of sharp wit almost drive him away: “Clever women make me nervous.”

Nonetheless Matt and the Baroness form a connection in their shared liking not only for each-other but their penchant for ruffling feathers, with Matt agreeing to take the Baroness as his date to a Queen’s Birthday ball thrown by Sir Arthur, giving the Baroness the chance to make a splash wearing the necklace and forcing everyone to be polite to her in the social setting. Ray’s gift for cramming frames with absurd decorative beauty is certainly in evidence in the ball scene, drinking in the riot of colours and the chic allure of a bygone age’s way of expressing confidence and social import. The ritual is quietly violated by Matt and the Baroness’ gesture, Ray noting the reactions of many of the other men in the room when catching sight of the Baroness and her accoutrements with an edge of sexual satire, the Baroness possessing the power through her sheer presence and aura of beauty to disturb social niceties from the level of statecraft down to a few aggravated spouses. This is supplanted by a more calculated and meaningful disruption as Prince Tuan arrives and proposes to entertain the ball guests by bringing in some tame Boxers to give a show of their prowess in martial arts. When Matt is asked to help them in one trick, seemingly to arrange his humiliation in payback for the shooting of the Boxer, he turns the tables by striking not at the Boxer he’s supposed to but suddenly bailing up and tripping a huge Boxer.

Matt’s show of slyness and toughness gains a proud cry of “Bravo!” from Von Meck, but Sir Arthur senses well some delicate balance of politesse and all too substantive political arm wrestling has been upset. Rather than put up with the crowd any longer, Matt and the Baroness leave and enter a Buddhist temple where they waltz away to the strains of the orchestra surrounded by ancient, abiding idols. This image the feels like one pure crystallisation of Ray’s sensibility in the film and its emblematic pivot, west and east, vivacity and boding, male and female, old world about to crumble and be supplanted by the new, two pan-global lovers dancing along the precipice. In basic concept Matt and the Baroness are stock melodrama figures. And yet, rather than their romance becoming the dramatic pivot of the film a la great romantic epics like Gone With The Wind (1939) or Titanic (1997), however, they’re become instead very Ray figures, polarised, consumed by their divergent needs and by the quality of separateness, of wilful repudiation of the world, that brings them together in the first place, unable to properly connect and instead doomed to labour through the consequences of their emotional stymies. Both are ultimately obliged to become figures with a duty of care and rise to the challenge in different ways connected to the larger drama around them.

The film somewhat undercuts its attempts, from a contemporary perspective, to comment seriously on racism and cultural schism with its casting. Try as they might, Robson, Genn, and Helpmann can’t help but give the impression they’re starring in a high-class production of The Mikado. The resemblance might not be so accidental: Helpmann in particular seems to have been cast to put his dancer’s skill to good use in recreating the elaborate formal flavour of the Imperial court. And yet the film’s nuances are surprising as it engages with the theme in a very Ray-like manner, that is, couching it in human terms stemming from the affections and weaknesses of his characters. Matt’s friend and subordinate Captain Andy Marshall (Jerome Thor) has a daughter, Teresa (Lynne Sue Moon), by a Chinese mother: Matt and Andy speak about Teresa before she’s seen in a cool and clinical fashion, with the two men agreeing that Andy must leave her in safe hands in China when he goes home because, as Matt puts it, “She’d be a freak back home.”

But when Teresa comes to find her father during the soldiers’ entry into Peking he snatches her up with a desperately loving gesture, making plain his genuine anguish at the thought of leaving her behind. Later, Andy is killed in battle with the Boxers, leaving Teresa orphaned and facing a bleak future as a mixed race child there, and Teresa begins doting on Matt as an alternative father figure despite his complete lack of any experience or readiness for such loaded gift, no more than he is to help the Baroness. The Baroness’ own transgressive past eventually emerges when, to disarm the threats of Sergei, she tells Matt about how she betrayed her husband, a golden boy of the Russian establishment being groomed for a great career, by having an affair with a Chinese General, heavily implied to be Jung-Lu. “Can’t you imagine yourself falling in love with a Chinese girl?” The Baroness asks Matt, before noting sourly, “That’s not the same.” The political situation begins to lurch towards this conflict when Matt accidentally sees Von Meck’s assassination and he and Sir Arthur visit the Empress in the splendour of her palace, Sir Arthur deftly kicking aside the cushion placed for him to kneel on.

This small but infinitely consequential gesture signals a refusal of any further kowtowing, despite Sir Arthur’s words suggesting to the Empress being patient will benefit her country far more than rash gestures, quickly answered by the Empress and Tuan, who make it plan they will not stop the Boxers from making an assault on the Compound. Initially trying to escape as the war breaks out, the Baroness finds herself forced to return, but then finds her path to revitalisation through volunteering as a nurse under Dr Steinfeldt (Paul Lukas), an elderly German physician who finds himself caring for the wounded during the siege, and the Baroness swiftly becomes beloved by her charges and even the aged doctor. Steinfeldt’s makeshift clinic is a striking islet of Ray’s stylised visual mystique, a crude space transformed into a ward of healing simply by splashing whitewash everywhere. The ever-so-faintly surreal quality here is amplified by the way all colours are subtracted including the costuming of the actors as if to suggest they are part of the space, humans vying towards the angelic, broken up only by the crude blues of the soldiers and the red blood pools stark and bright, the corporeal brutality of the war duelling with the transcendental. Later the Baroness sells off her necklace to buy medical supplies and fruit through the black market.

The credited screenwriters were Bernard Gordon who was just re-emerging after years on the blacklist, and Phillip Yordan, a regular collaborator of Mann’s who had made a good living also serving as a front for blacklistees like Gordon. Such a background is detectable in the Countess’ exile and the very strained politesse of her re-entrance to polite society. “I just do a job patrolling the rice paddies out in the back country,” Matt comments to Sir Arthur in their first confrontation, evincing the first sunrise glimmers of the emerging sense of what the Cold War was becoming via the historical parable. After their visit to the Empress, Sir Arthur and Matt are forced thanks to Tuan’s machinations to head back to the Compound without escort, locked out by the gates of the Forbidden City. This cues a sequence Robert Wise would offer a variation of in The Sand Pebbles (1966) as the Vietnam echoes firmed up and a plain resemblance to TV news reports of unrest in third world locales, as the two men are forced to run the gauntlet of a furious mob.

The diplomat and soldier are quickly rescued by Captain Hanley (Robert Urquhart) and when Sir Arthur makes plain to the other envoys he has no intention of bowing to threats and leaving, he obliges them all to begin barricading the Foreign Compound and prepare for assaults by the Boxers. Matt allies with other capable officers like the British Hanley, the German Captain Hoffman (Walter Gotell), and the Japanese Colonel Shiba (Juzo Itami). Another very Hamer-esque joke gets by as Sir Arthur confesses to his wife, Lady Sarah (Elizabeth Sellers), that he doesn’t mind all the French history books her mother bought him to be used on the barricade because the topic bores him, before Ray cuts to the French ambassador having the same reaction with his books of English history. This joke cuts deeper than it seems: it helps flesh out the coherent theme threaded right through the film about the illusions of factionalism and the opacity of history as a way of understanding them, creating false zones of identity.

The raw and pressing crisis of the siege forces demands communal action illustrate by another good joke as Harry awakens the motley crew of defenders from sleep, offering versions of “Good morning” in each language until he’s stumped by a Japanese sailor and so says it in English, to which the sailor replies in perfect English. Sir Arthur, the perfect diplomat, is meanwhile revealed to hold serious doubts as to both the wisdom of his actions and his own motives. Glimpsed early on satirising himself by dryly suggesting cutting the family dog in two to please his two children to his daughter’s annoyance – “Oh father, don’t play King Solomon.” – Sir Arthur is soon left squirming in a morass of guilt and questioning when he son is shot and lingering close to death in hospital, ransacking his actions and the reasoning behind his choices. His wife has fits of dark reckoning in questioning whether the soul of someone who’s never been “home”, that is has never actually lived in England as their children haven’t, could ever find its way back or would be stuck in “an enormous, empty Chinese limbo.”

The troubled but ultimately tender relationship between the Robertsons is another Ray-like flavouring that contrasts the other, more ambivalent relationships in the film. So too is the motif of children paying the price for their elders’ actions and blindness, in both the Robertsons’ son’s ordeal and Teresa’s status as the unwanted avatar for the possibility of fusing worlds. Matt is pushed to face paternal responsibility towards Teresa when first Harry prods him determinedly to explain her father’s death to her, and then by a priest, Father de Bearn (Andrews), dedicated to looking after the orphans hiding out in the Compound: the Priest comments, “Someone, somewhere said that every man is the father of every child – but I suppose it’s only true if you really feel it.” Father de Bearn, sudden as his entrance into the film is, is a great character who ironically has more military inventiveness than the professional soldiers, improvising canons and mortars to fend off the Boxers’ increasingly ambitions attempts to attack the walls of the compound, including bringing up artillery and a siege engine, alternating warlike arts and soft-spoken humanism. De Bearn stands in for the so-called contingent of “fighting parsons” led by missionary Frank Gamewell, who took on the task of fortifying the Foreign Compound during the real siege.

Ray’s signature visual lushness serves the purpose of illustrating the dramatic concerns, in marvellous shots like one of Teresa hiding after setting up a flower in a gesture of domestic loving for Matt while he’s off in battle, only for the warrior to return bedraggled and exhausted, sitting upon his bed in a room festooned with aged artworks painted on the walls and the huge statue of a warrior with sword. The shot dramatizes the gap between people, between cultures, between aestheticized past and the all too painful now. Undercurrents of satire are readily detectable in the way the puffed-up envoys of the foreign nations are filmed in surveys of bloviating in rooms of plush Victorian only to find themselves forced to commit to a course of action because Sir Arthur is, whilst the Imperial grandees commit themselves to arcane rituals in realms of splendour, fronts of grandeur that have their crude brick backings. The Empress is eventually convinced by Prince Tuan to give the Boxers proper backing against Jung-Lu’s counsel, and the Empress orders Jung-Lu to give the help of the Imperial troops to besieging the Compound and holding off a relief force. This means the defenders of the Compound must face artillery fire.

Before they are handed such weapons, the Boxers try scaling the stout fortifications of the city walls adjoining the Compound and making a charge at dawn, but Matt, Andy, a French officer, and some other stout soldiers use a cobbled-together rolling barricade, backed up by Hanley with an equally cobbled-together canon, and push back the Boxer onslaught. Until the canon explodes and kills Hanley, and Andy is shot on the ramparts. The film was essentially completed by experienced action directors, and as you’d expect the action is strong, amplified by the awesome scale of the sets Bronston was able to build, aiding Ray and the other filmmakers in recreating the popular images of the Rebellion disseminated through correspondents’ artworks in the years following. One great portion of epic moviemaking comes late in the film when the Boxers drag up a rocket-festooned siege tower in the night, men with torches appearing in the dark, leading a horde hauling the tower into view. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin’s scoring is particularly good here too, in combining slow-thudding drums and a deep-voice male chorus to unnerving effect, as if the Boxers are bringing some kind of monster into battle. The tower’s alarming appearance is however quickly answered as De Bearn improvises a mortar and manages to set fire to the war engine.

Cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s brilliant work made the most of the Super-Technirama 70 scope and Technicolor, capturing all the lush colours of the sets of costumes of course as well as the spectacle of battle, but also backing up Ray’s compositional élan. A dialogue evolves between balanced geometry and lopsided groupings, indicating the flow of power and desertion of structural certainty. Shots of the Empress Dowager in her palace with her handmaidens see human and architectural elements arrayed in harmony, eloquent of a structure tightly and tensely ordered, counterpointing the ebb and flow of human power in the meetings of the foreign diplomats, where one man – Sir Arthur – ensconced behind his desk can contend with many standing on the other side. Even the most chaotic action sequences have a painterly integrity to them.

Shots of Matt barking orders to his men on the city ramparts with the soaring brickwork and overhanging eaves see them dwarfed and enclosed by the infrastructure of cultural, military, and historical might. A visual joke is apparent as the Baroness is glimpsed standing by a guttering lantern whilst Jung-Li hides in the corners, the literal old flame. One major set-piece is more familiar in terms of old-school action-adventure but well-done in its own terms, as Sir Arthur talks Matt, Shiba, and others into a nocturnal venture through the sewers to blow up an ammunition dump whilst the Empress is celebrating her soldiers’ victory over the relief forces. Sir Arthur joins the venture but the guerrilla unit has to contend with interruptions and delays that almost get them blown up, before they finally succeed in lighting the conflagration. Later Matt and one of his men set out to try and fetch reinforcements on a railway handcar, only to hit a mine on the tracks, leaving both men injured, with Matt carrying the other on his shoulders back to the Compound.

Young Teresa stakes a claim to instinctive heroism when she manages to rescue a wayward toddler who’s wondered into the temple during an artillery barrage, seconds before a shell knocks the structure flat. Meanwhile the Baroness is injured when she brings in the load of supplies she managed to purchase with the necklace only for a brokered ceasefire to suddenly collapse, and she dies under Steinfeldt’s care. The film takes an interesting approach to the Baroness, despite the fact that Gardner always feels miscast as an exotic and multivalent Russian aristocrat if not so much as a love goddess incarnate, as she’s revealed to have both sacred and daemonic power over men, able to incidentally destroy her husband and also able to make rooms full of men fall in love with her, including the aged and cynical Steinfeldt. Again there’s something in common here with Ray’s fascination for characters like Rebel Without A Cause’s Jim who possess a lustre, however endangered, that draws people to them.

Ironically, only Matt seems at all ambivalent about the Countess, in part because he is intimate with her, knowing the sordid story of her background and only able to come to terms with her appeals for help when he declares “a soldier’s pay buys a soldier’s woman,” that is, a prostitute. After the Countess dies, Matt is accosted by a working class English soldier (Alfred Lynch) who became one of her worshipful wards for failing to appreciate her, leaving Matt, who has also just failed to bring his injured comrade back in time to save his life, is left cringing in the shadows, a battered remnant amidst a collapsing historical epoch. It’s odd to strike such a queasy and stricken note in such a movie, and signals for Heston in particular a crucial moment in his screen career, playing the character who seems anointed as the cavalier hero but who is ultimately left confronting his own damaged and damaging machismo, lost within the carnage he cannot end. Some anticipation here of how Sam Peckinpah would make use of him in Major Dundee (1965), as well as his general shift to playing flailing titans in films like Planet of the Apes (1968) and The Omega Man (1971). The ultimate lifting of the siege comes with a return to the musical motif of the opening as what seems to be a last-ditch charge by the Boxers proves instead to be them fleeing before advancing foreign soldiers.

The soldiers enter Peking accompanied by various specific marching tunes, flowing together suite-like as the besieged citizens dash to embrace their soldiers, representing the highpoint of what Matt and Sir Arthur muse upon as a brief episode of international cooperation. Of course, the inevitability of the accord’s collapse is quickly signalled when the victorious forces parade and resume the cacophony of clashing sounds, and the touch of humour in the Japanese Imperial force primly marching in and the very honourable and upright Shiba saluting the leader of the new contingent contains an appropriate undercurrent of foreboding. By contrast the Imperial majesty of China is envisioned as shattered, as the Empress Dowager, dressed in common clothes in preparing to abandon the palace, meditates on the end of the dynasty. But the ultimate potential for nations working for a common end is the far-off but tantalising anticipation of 55 Days At Peking, casting its mind forward to the founding of the United Nations once the great spasm of the new century’s conflicts fall still. The very last moments of the film look forward to the collapse of barriers and the hope for synthesis, as Matt finally reaches out to Teresa as he and he men prepare to march out, taking her onto his horse and accepting his fate at last to be her father. One of my favourite final scenes in a movie and one that again feels very Ray-like, a final, fragile connection between generations and tribes that can grow to something new and splendid.

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1950s, Action-Adventure, Drama, Epic, War

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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Director: David Lean
Screenwriters: Carl Foreman, Michael Wilson, David Lean (uncredited)

By Roderick Heath

My father once told me the story of how when he was a child, he and my grandfather, who had been a professional soldier in the British Army since before World War II and remained one for a time after, went to see The Bridge on the River Kwai. They saw it in a grandiose Piccadilly movie theatre during the film’s first release, a movie experience they had to skirt one of Bertrand Russell’s ban-the-bomb marches to attend. My grandfather, who had fought in North Africa, Malta, and Burma, and survived being struck by a mortar bomb, the shrapnel from which he carried until the day he died, was normally rather disdainful of war movies, but nonetheless he emerged from The Bridge on the River Kwai extremely impressed, particularly by the climax’s realism in capturing an injury he had suffered. He wasn’t alone: the film was granted colossal success, capturing multiple Oscars and proving one of the biggest hits of the 1950s, and fatefully catapulting director David Lean into new and lasting fame as a maker of epic tales. And yet, The Bridge on the River Kwai was and is a strange kind of popular hit, a movie that mediated a crested and now waning surge of nostalgia for the war’s certainties and manifold heroic tales, and the onset of something new, more doubtful and questioning, and did so through a bleak, semi-satirical storyline wielding a edge of barbed cynicism aimed at several key mythologies of the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was adapted from a novel by French writer Pierre Boulle, whose peculiar, acerbic imagination would also produce a very different popular tale nonetheless sharing preoccupation with culture clashes and reversals of dominance, Planet of the Apes. Boulle, an engineer who worked in rubber plantations in what was then called French Indochina, became a spy when war with Japan broke out, only be eventually captured by Vichy collaborators and thrown into a Japanese POW camp, where he was forced to take part in the construction of the infamous Burma-Thailand Railway, where his observations of collaborating French officers would inform his eventual novel’s acidic portrayals. Boulle tried his hand at writing after he returned to France and fell on hard times, scoring an enormous breakthrough success with Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï, his third published work. In his novel, perhaps to avoid controversy with a French readership but also certainly to deploy his sardonic perspective on different forms of national and imperial arrogance contending, Boulle focused on British POWs and amalgamated the officers he remembered in the figure of an imaginary British Lieutenant-Colonel named Nicholson. The novel was brought to the screen by the entrepreneurial, Anglophiliac Polish-American producer Sam Spiegel, but the project owed its inception to writer Carl Foreman, who had left the US after writing High Noon (1952) because of blacklisting, and bought the movie rights to Boulle’s novel.

Spiegel, after considering an array of major directors including Orson Welles, eventually settled on David Lean. Lean and Foreman eventually suffered a clash of vision of Foreman, and when he pulled out of the project Foreman suggested fellow blacklisted émigré Michael Wilson to take over, whilst Lean also later said he contributed much to the script. In a stinging but fairly familiar irony when it comes to the annals of 1950s moviemaking, none of them gained screen credit, with a screenwriting Oscar eventually instead given to Boulle, who didn’t speak English. Lean was already a respected and successful director, although he had not quite been able to recapture the acclaim garnered by his early collaborations with Noel Coward, including In Which We Serve (1942) and Brief Encounter (1945), and his diptych of Charles Dickens adaptations, Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), films where Lean’s rigorous filmmaking and illustrative verve were perfectly suited to his preoccupation with half-stifled, half-rampant quixotic urges. The films Lean made after that legendary run have only slowly gained the respect they deserve, particularly The Passionate Friends (1949) and Madeleine (1950), Lean’s most intimate and agonised portrayals of romantic frustration shading into acts of violence against self and others. The Sound Barrier (1952), Hobson’s Choice (1954), and Summertime (1955) all tackled characters pushing themselves to shatter boundaries that repress and stymie their capacities, with the latter film offering a mediation between the personal, domestic focus of Lean’s early films in depicting a spinster finding love during a holiday in Venice, and a fantastic liberation in a foreign clime realised in splendid colour that presaged Lean’s own emergence into the glare of international spectacle cinema.

The Bridge on the River Kwai was certainly never intended to be a documentary or true account any more than the book had been, although Boulle, working from his own hazy memory of the region where he set the book, wilfully crossed paths with some agonising events. As with the rather more populist The Great Escape (1962), based more directly on a real incident, the fame of the fictional version made the real history invoked all the more stinging for those involved in it, including the real commander of British troops who had built a bridge over the Kwae Hai river in Thailand, Lt-Col. Philip Toosey, and the Japanese commander, who Toosey defended as a relatively humane man amidst the general cynicism and degradation that marked the railway’s construction, the building of which cost upwards of 100,000 lives, mostly South Asian slave labourers but also including 12,000 POWs. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s take on imperialism, and militarism aggravated members of its cast, including Alec Guinness and James Donald, whose fretting about the alleged anti-British streak in the material contributed to the general tension that grew between Lean and his actors on set during the film’s lengthy shoot in Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon. This almost caused a permanent falling-out between Lean and Guinness who was cast as Nicholson, whose movie career Lean had vitally boosted by casting him in his Dickens films, especially when Lean kept reminding Guinness he originally wanted Charles Laughton in the role. The film’s success, and Guinness’ Oscar win, nonetheless proved irrevocably that they were a winning team.

Today some of The Bridge on the River Kwai’s original stature has been reassigned to another great antiwar film about an obsessed military leader released the same year, Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. Whilst feeling both are very great films, I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the superior work in large part because it’s more ambivalent: Kubrick’s film all but screams its humanist principles from the rooftop, where Lean’s sustains the opposing tensions between its many perspectives. The Bridge on the River Kwai’s famous early scene of the column of British POWs under Nicholson marching into the POW camp run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) whilst whistling the march “Colonel Bogey,” is more than just a jaunty interlude in an otherwise cruel and concerted drama: it’s an act of calculated showmanship, the first of Nicholson’s many attempts to hold his men together as a coherent team despite captivity and privation, obliging them to mark time march on the spot as they whistle. The sight is at once inspiring and more than a little sadomasochistic. The scene is also an evergreen example of Lean’s technique, his ground in editing and sense of cinema as a rhythmic thing that could stand being stretched or curtailed to any degree in service of a point. The scene has no particular dramatic necessity, and yet it illustrates everything about what we’re about to see, expostulating the essence of the drama entirely through cinematic gesture. The tune’s ear-invading catchiness officially invokes regimented yet waggish defiance. Nicholson’s stiff-necked pride and force of command over his men who play along, despite sceptical glances to one-another, is plain, as the men march in past the graves of their predecessors in this fetid little hell. Survival is the name of the game, survival must be communal, and Nicholson feels fully the lot given to him as commander to lead. Composer Malcolm’s Arnold’s counterpoint arrangement rises up to give accompaniment to the whistling, interlacing it with a sarcastically carnivalesque quality that resurges in the film’s very last scene.

Circularity is also staked out by the opening and closing shots of eagles reeling in the sky above the jungle, before Lean and his cinematographer Jack Hildyard offer sweeping helicopter shots descending into and retreating out of the greenery, the viewpoint of gods and carnivorous birds aligned in considering the mean human drama about to unfold. The opening credits unfurl over shots of Nicholson and his men, deposited at the end of the completed line by train in the middle of the jungle where desperately thin and exhausted men are working on digging cuttings, before marching through the jungle and looking down upon what is to be their new home, the River Kwai, which they’re to build a bridge across as part of the railway. Nicholson’s solution seems to be to pretend nothing is wrong, that he and his men are still on the parade ground back in old Blighty, under the comforting sway of the Union Jack rather than the Rising Sun. But Nicholson’s choice to bring his men into the camp with a show of discipline and spirit is really the first shot in a different kind of war, one where one side seems to have all the cards. Saito looks on, perhaps sensing the oncoming battle of wills and grasping the soldiers’ defiance of his particular, very different sense of honour.

The last gang of POWs kept in the camp, including the hardy, wily American Navy man Shears (William Holden), are a mostly shattered and withered remnant, many resident in the camp hospital: Shears himself has stayed strong through his talents as a scrounger and the nourishing nectar of his own cynicism. He’s introduced bribing a guard to get put on the sick list with a lighter purloined from a soldier he and another captive have just buried. Holden was plainly cast as Shears as an extension of his Oscar-winning role as J.J. Sefton in Billy Wilder’s Stalag 17 (1953), although where Sefton was a misanthropist, Shears is decent, but sceptical about warfare in general, representing an articulate everyman’s perspective: Shears, who has been accepted as a Commander but is actually, secretly a ranking sailor, having put on an officer’s uniform in the hope of getting better treatment from his captors only to suffer Saito’s utter indifference to such things, presents the polar opposite to Nicholson’s governing philosophy and outlook. “I don’t mock the grave or the man,” Shears assures his comrade as he knocks a crude crucifix grave marker into the ground over the new grave, after he delivers an acerbic eulogy, just as he surely means nonetheless to mock the forces that put the man in the grave.

The first half of The Bridge on the River Kwai depicts Nicholson seeming to prove himself right as he stands up to Saito’s harshest punishments and humiliations. Nicholson determines to insist he and his men be treated according to the Geneva Convention, which in particular means resisting Saito’s insistence that the officers work with the men, because as Nicholson formulates it, “our men must always feel they are still commanded by us and not by the Japanese – so long as they have that idea to cling to they’ll be soldiers and not slaves.” The degree to which Nicholson is directed as much by snooty pride as by gallant motives is left ambiguous, although perhaps such things can never entirely be separated. Saito responds furiously to Nicholson’s defiance, smacking him on the parade ground and leaving him and his officers standing at attention through a broiling hot day. Saito tries to threaten Nicholson with shooting him and the officers, but Nicholson’s medical officer Clipton (James Donald) intervenes, warning Saito that he can’t kill all the potential witnesses in the sick bay, a move Shears has already, sullenly anticipated. But Clipton’s intervention, which uses Saito’s own invocation of his bushido against him – “Is this your soldier’s code? Murdering unarmed men?” – works.

Saito instead has Nicholson beaten and flung alone into a corrugated iron box to swelter away, whilst the other officers are similarly imprisoned. Saito doesn’t realise the moment he reveals there are limits to his methods he loses the fight. Hayakawa, who forty years earlier had been Hollywood’s most popular male actor with a niche playing cruel and destructive “exotic” lovers, made a sudden resurgence thanks to his performance as Saito. Hayakawa, who unlike Guinness got along famously with Lean, proved his charisma hadn’t entirely deserted him even though he was pushing 70 at the time, as well as his tendency to get typecast as Asiatic brutes. Hayakawa nonetheless is quite brilliant at portraying weakness hiding within apparent strength, apparent in Saito’s frantic, incompetent reaction to being challenged, and his desperately smarmy attempts to save face even whilst trying to get Nicholson to let him off the hook, before he again erupts in a quivering harangue: “I hate the British. You are defeated, but you have no shame. You are stubborn but have no pride. You endure but you have no courage.” Nicholson remains steadfast: even when Clipton eventually talks Saito into letting him attend to him in the hot box, he finds Nicholson retains all his strength of purpose as if he’s the one being perfectly reasonable, commenting with exasperation, “That man is the worst commanding officer I’ve ever come across – actually I think he’s mad,” a judgement Saito in turn passes on Nicholson. “Without law, Commander, there is no civilisation,” Nicholson tells Shears, who ripostes that here there is no civilisation: “Then we have the opportunity to introduce it.”

Nicholson’s approach to his new and his men’s new situation emerges as he resolves that, with escape more or less impossible and his legal situation strange – he explains that he was ordered to surrender when Singapore fell, which might mean escape attempts might well constitute a breach of those orders – he resolves instead that “here is where we must win through,” particularly after Shears and some other men seem to all be killed attempting an escape. Nicholson’s defiance stokes his men’s resistance, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” as he’s put in the hot box, and they sabotage and generally foul up the bridge-building attempts, causing the project to fall far behind schedule. Saito’s anger falls heavily on his chief engineer, eventually taking over the construction himself, but to no avail. Eventually Saito makes overtures to Nicholson, first trying to win him over by offering to let him remain exempt from working, but Nicholson refuses. Finally, under the cover of a magnanimous deed in celebrating the anniversary of the Battle of Tsushima, Saito agrees to Nicholson’s demands. Soon, Nicholson sets his engineering officers to the task of building a better bridge, to give his men something to labour on and take pride in, and leave something to posterity even in their defeat.

Lean’s films hinged on crucial identification with his heroes as mediators of his intense but divided personal nature, his creative and emotional passion clashing with his firmly instilled personal morality stemming from his Quaker upbringing, with his unique talents for animating landscape, either through the careful studio stylisation of his Dickens films or the dynamic sense of landscape exhibited in his epics, offering elemental contrast to the human irony of his stories. And yet Lean resisted identifying too overtly with Nicholson for both himself and the audience, reportedly insisting that Nicholson needed to be a bit of a bore, despite Guinness’s desire to make him more appealing. I think I know why. The first time I ever watched The Bridge on the River Kwai as a child, I burst into tears at the climax, for I had granted Nicholson all my sympathy in the story, identifying with his pride in creation without quite understanding the depth of his breach of duty. Lean understood this, and guarded against it: the story’s rich irony demands both sympathy with Nicholson but also some distance from him. But it’s also plain Lean knew Nicholson was the avatar for his creative-romantic streak. Hayakawa, in an interview given to Films and Filming, recalled one of the crew complaining that Lean “shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddamn bridge!” It’s impossible not to see Lean and Nicholson almost fusing there in their near-religious sense of craft, just as it also offers pertinent context to the scenes Lean’s next hero, T.E. Lawrence, dreaming up his attack on Aqaba in a similarly contemplative position.

By contrast, Clipton offers a constant counterpart also constant in Lean’s films, the figure of moral authority and adamant perspective, a figure that would splinter across various protagonists in Doctor Zhivago (1965) but reconfigure as the priest in Ryan’s Daughter (1970) and Fielding in A Passage To India (1984). Clipton’s business is saving lives, a service he performs for Nicholson, but later prods him with questions as to whether he’s now collaborating with the enemy, and the end refuses to be involved in the christening of the bridge, a choice that accidentally saves his own life. Nicholson’s arguments in riposte make sense to a degree: assuming the bridge will be built somehow and either by his men or atop their graves, Nicholson determines to make it suit his purpose. Trouble is, Nicholson’s sense of the camp and bridge as their existential amphitheatre forgets there’s still a world beyond. Foreman’s attraction to the story seems fairly obvious: like High Noon it’s a story of a man suffering to stand up for principle, and culminates with the whistle of a train announcing an imminent battle.

But that film’s moral certainty and elemental approach to violence-as-justice have been scattered all to hell. Nicholson’s rigid stance against Saito is at once heroic and unnerving, a matador provoking the bull’s horns, in part because Nicholson knows as well as Saito that killing him would be, in a strange way, to lose the game. Saito in turn, although he seems clearly tempted to kill Nicholson at several points including by stabbing him after Nicholson refuses his peace offering meal, nonetheless holds off. Saito’s restraint matches Nicholson’s, as if proving the British officer’s stance by responding to his show of fortitude with his own. Saito, however, is in a radically different position, knowing he’ll be expected to commit seppuku if the bridge isn’t completed on schedule, and his vehement, shuddering displays of anger and disdain for his British counterpart register the overtones of fear lurking behind his own cruelty. Nicholson and Saito represent, at their broadest, symbolic conceptions of the respective British and Japanese armies, the former defined by a mysterious high-tensile ability to be rigid and flexible at once in hyper-courteous browbeating, the latter by the maniacal severity of its concepts of honour and purpose.

But the narrative plays some intricate games with these presumptions. The Bridge on the River Kwai glances back at Lean’s films with Coward, in their mythological engagement with the wartime ethos of the stiff upper lip, particularly In Which We Serve, where Coward’s idealised Captain hero figure coaches his men through disaster. Here the fortitude is laced with irony and delusion, the adamantine strength of purpose questioned and eventually found confused and self-defeating. Saito is the official representative of the barbaric treatment meted out by the Imperial Army on just about they considered their inferiors, but as the story unfolds he becomes a faintly comic figure, outmanoeuvred by Nicholson. Lean and Hayakawa oblige sympathy for Saito for glimpsing his deep, weeping humiliation after caving in to Nicholson. This vignette proves one Saito never truly seems to recover from, spending much of the rest of the film in a near-silent, almost zombified state, gazing on silently and beggared as Nicholson and his men set about feverishly doing his work for him, whilst also aware that Nicholson’s purpose, to triumph in the face of shame, is one he cannot encompass. Nicholson earns the love of his men as the seeming exemplar of his creed, and yet collaborates actively with the enemy to fulfil his own ends, however self-justifying those ends are. Saito, a prisoner of his own values, can’t do that, and it’s made plain late in the film that he intends to commit seppuku upon the passing of the first train down the railway line, even though he and Nicholson eventually seem to work up an odd kind of camaraderie.

That militarism eventually consumes all its children, British or Japanese or anyone else, is made abundantly clear in the climax, particularly when Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) mortar bombs some of his own people to prevent their capture, and the possibility of any kind of private achievement or separate peace eventually, literally goes up in flames. The stand-off between Nicholson and Saito consumes most of the film’s first half, and whilst in many ways it presents the inverse situation to the first half of Lawrence of Arabia with its sweeping portrait of Lawrence’s desert-spanning, myth-making raid on Aqaba, in concentrating on a tiny microcosm that gets even smaller when Nicholson is jammed in the hot box, it nonetheless has the same rolling, compulsive power and sense of punishing physical straits. Lean shoots extremely low-angle shots of the sweltering, at-attention soldiers with the glaring sun above, and makes maximum use of the widescreen frame’s expanse and depth of field in moments like when Shears comments balefully on Nicholson’s actions as he and other men in the sick bay watch the officers on the parade ground, one man fainting dead away as they speak in the distance of the centre frame. One moment of sublime accord for Lean’s direction and Guinness’ performance, one indeed Guinness himself felt was his best screen moment ever, sees Nicholson, exhausted, bedraggled, and barely able to stand, nonetheless forcing himself to walk unaided from the hot box to Saito’s office with an automaton-like gait (which Guinness said he based on his son, who was recovering from polio), watched with deadpan patience by the camera in a tracking shot with his men saluting as he passes.

Something of Boulle’s more sarcastic, quasi-satirical sensibility filters to the surface in the scene where Nicholson and his officers take over Saito’s conference on how to proceed with building the bridge, Saito now the one acting mechanically with his repetitions of “I have already given the order” in response to Nicholson’s utterly reasoned and quietly irresistible logic. The same streak returns later on as Shears, softly blackmailed into joining a commando raid on the bridge, is repeatedly acclaimed with the arch old-boyism, “Good show!” Shears’ story, pushed off to one side during Nicholson’s resistance except for a brief depiction of his and his companions’ escape attempt, which seems to end brutally when Shears is shot and plunges into the river. But Shears, only lightly wounded, crawls out of the river and stumbles desperately through the jungle, where, in perhaps the film’s oddest and most misjudged touch, he mistakes a kite for a buzzard swooping to pick his carcass: the kite proves to be flown by some kids from a nearby village. The villagers happily give Shears a boat so he can continue downriver, but when he runs out of water he makes the mistake of drinking the river water, and drifts out of his mind with fever down to the ocean, where he’s eventually spotted and rescued by a plane and taken to Ceylon. Cue another unfortunate moment, this time the result of Columbia’s insistence at least one white woman be added to the cast, adding a romantic scene for Shears cavorting with a nurse (Ann Sears) from the hospital where he recovers on the beach.

This scene nonetheless serves as the moment Shears meets Warden, a former Cambridge teacher of Oriental Languages turned demolitions expert and commando (“We’re trying to discourage the use of that words, it’s come to have such a melodramatic air about it”) with a group called Force 316. The Bridge on the River Kwai is in essence two separate stories, and Foreman put that down to it having two writers who never quite reconciled things. But the stories are also deeply entwined, one commenting on the other and coinciding in the finale. Shears’ story is a more traditional kind of adventure story than Nicholson’s, but no less barbed a story of people who prove avatars for incoherent values. Warden, who keeps alive a sort of happy amateur ideal of the English gentleman of war as he playfully shows off the new wonder of plastic explosive, invites Shears to join the group. They want him to guide them from the village he visited back up to the Kwai bridge, so they can sabotage it. Shears, who’s been maintaining his pose as an officer in the hospital, confesses his deception in the course of vehemently refusing to go back, but Warden reveals that he and his superiors had already learned about this and the US Navy, to avoid embarrassment, has handed Shears over to them.

Shears sourly volunteers, and at least gets the rank of “simulated Major” out of it. Asked by the commander of 316, Colonel Green (Andre Morell), for his impressions of the prospective team, Shears is less anxious about the young, unblooded accountant-turned-warrior Lt Joyce (Geoffrey Horne) elected to the unit than by Warden, who strikes him as playing a game of war. Green starts telling him about Warden’s combat experience, including of being captured by the enemy, an anecdote left crucially unfinished. When they are eventually parachuted into the jungle, one member of the team is killed in the drop. The rest reach the village Shears visited before, and the village chief, Khun Yai (M.R.B. Chakrabandhu), and six of their young women volunteer to help their mission. They begin a trek through the jungle. Joyce’s hesitation in stabbing a Japanese soldier they encounter obliges Warden to do it for him, but injures his ankle in the process: Warden insists on continuing with the team, limping along in agonising fashion.

Lean’s emergence as the doyen of “epic” filmmakers entailed a new way of filming, some of it engaged with the changing nature of cinema itself. Widescreen formats had been introduced in 1953 to counter television with a new expanse and vividness of visual experience. Despite Fritz Lang’s infamous comment that it was only good for snakes and funerals, many major filmmakers immediately began experimenting with what could be achieved in widescreen, but most of the movies made in the format were very brightly lit and glossily colourful. Lean, seeing the widescreen style was punishing on any sort of artifice, completely eschewed any shooting shortcuts like rear projection or sets, helping imbue a monumental, tactile quality that immediately changed the way other filmmakers would approach such things, where just a year before epic cinema had meant the total artifice of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. The Bridge on the River Kwai has a palette of muddy greens and browns and shaded, shadowy frame reaches. In its way, Lean’s film might well have done the most of any movie up until that time to demonstrate that colour cinema could be as compellingly immersive and realistic, just as black-and-white had become the accepted language for realism as opposed to the usually decorative effect colour was put to. Lean had filmed stark figures amidst bleak, near-animate landscapes in the opening scenes of his Dickens films, creating backdrops that seethe and overwhelm in a manner harking back to J.M.W. Turner, an artist Lean had vital traits in common with. He expanded on this motif in The Bridge on the River Kwai, which is now part of the basic lexicon of large-scale moviemaking, in the sequences depicting the demolition team’s march through the jungle, bestriding cliff faces and marching up the flanks of hills, humans dwarfed by natural forms, in a reversal of the deadly intimacy of the first half.

Unlike filmmakers who would absorb his influence and transmute it into a more rarefied thing, including Werner Herzog and Terrence Malick, Lean’s approach to the natural world doesn’t regard it as sublimely indifferent but rather as a stage humans can’t escape from, nor it from them. The narrative is on one level a straightforward adventure movie, with the heroes braving the wilderness to achieve a difficult, noble objective. But as Lean would reiterate more completely in Lawrence of Arabia, the punishing drive of his heroes, Tennyson’s Ulysses-like, to cross and conquer the earth feels more like neurotic compulsion than straightforward intrepidity, as if identity can only be gained by risking its negation, becoming part of the landscape – death, in short. The jungle trek is defined by its objective, one where the characters are searching for an answer to a question, sometimes asked aloud, sometimes not. Whether Joyce can kill a man. Whether Shears can escape hell twice, and whether there’s something he would actually consider worth dying for. Whether Warden can prove he’s the man he wants to be, the great war commander. They counterpoint Nicholson, who finds the last chance for identity in the project of building the bridge, something to leave to the age. And of course the commandos want to destroy his brainchild, meaning that inevitably the men will destroy each-other in their pursuit of identity. Nicholson’s first fight with Saito is at its heart that same quest, as Nicholson knows being reduced to chattel will destroy him and his men as men. Nicholson’s quasi-messianic sense of mission eventually sees him leading out the sick and lame men from the hospital to work, and Nicholson’s strange genius is his ability to make it all seem utterly reasonable.

The trek culminates when Shears, Joyce, and Warden gain a vista over the Kwai, camera tilting down vast horizon until the bridge comes into view, seen for the first time in its complete state. That the bridge proves to be an all-wood pastiche of the Forth Bridge, that signal monument to the emergence of the industrial age’s height in Britain, is both a mordant underlining of Nicholson’s desire to make British genius bloom in the desert, and an entirely earnest nod to it, the last stand of imperialist export. Nicholson is right in one regard: here is where the stand must be made, but civilisation isn’t just righteousness and tea. It’s also rivalry for resources and tests of strength and will — in short, war. So inevitably Nicholson’s desire to build civilisation must meet the determination to destroy it. Lean’s roots in editing are equally crucial in his then-unusual approach to building scenes, most indefinably yet vitally in the rhythmic unfolding of Nicholson’s resistance, and sometimes more overtly. The scene where the commando team are surprised by a unit of Japanese soldiers whilst swimming at a cascade is a fine example, in the way Lean circles around standard action staging to instead present quick, vivid tableaux and symbolic force. The scene starts playfully, the soldiers and the women taking a last chance to enjoy themselves, before the enemy arrive: they, seeing only the women, seem to have the same end on their mind. Lean cuts from Warden throwing a grenade and the commandos firing down on the enemy to shots of teeming fruit bats scared out of the trees and flocking madly in the sky, their screeching panic mimicking the violence. When Lean returns to the Japanese soldiers they’re now dead, blood pooling in the water. Life and death, human and inhuman, natural and unnatural, all stirred into a state of flux, thesis and antithesis.

The march through the jungle, whilst describing human smallness and mutability, is punctuated with personal vignettes noting the growing bond between the men and the village women. This skirts potentially risible romantic interest but instead registers an extra, finite emotional texture that rubs salt in during the climax, where the women, each with their own preferred potential warrior-mate, have to watch as they die, as much unwitting priestesses in a death cult as lovers. One of the film’s notable descendants, Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), would provide the peyote-soaked take on all this; Herzog’s Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) would strip it down to maniacal-visonary essentials. When the raiders finally arrive at the Kwai, Nicholson is at the same time inspecting his construction, indulging pride, and he muses on his career and disappointments to a quietly receptive if bewildered Saito, and it becomes clear why all that’s happened on the Kwai has happened, a last stage for Nicholson to make his life matter. Guinness was aggravated by Lean choice to shoot the scene from behind, but why is very clear when viewed, Nicholson allowed a degree of privacy even as he confesses something poignant about himself, the weight of emotion carried by Guinness’ lilt.

Nicholson then attends a celebratory performance his men put on, including drag acts and dubious song numbers, intercut with Shears, Yai, and Joyce silently and methodically stealing up on the bridge and laying explosive charges on its stanchions, in a sequence that suggests the influence of the quiet robbery scene in Rififi (1955) as the men do their best to not make noise and attract the attention of guards above nor ruffle the moonlit water. The attention to the saboteurs’ method and the deadly seriousness of their endeavour sharply offsets the festivities echoing from above and the placidity of Nicholson’s musings on life and the glorious sunset, tension slowly building all the while. Finally, with all their preparations deployed with nerveless patience, Shears leaves Joyce to his job to set off the explosives, which has been deigned will go off as the first train crosses the bridge and must be detonated from the only good cover within reach, located on the other side of the river from where his fellows take up position. When dawn breaks, the commandos realise to their cringing horror that the water level has dropped and the wire to the charges is visible at points. Joyce does his best to conceal the length closest to him, whilst Shears gives a smile of something like pride when Nicholson’s men march out over the bridge, again whistling “Colonel Bogey.” Whatever else he’s done, Nicholson certainly helped his men survive.

The climax of The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greatest in narrative cinema, charged with dizzying, bone-jarring physical force and tragicomic wildness, the long and patient build-up justified as the many threads of story and character collide in a spasm of apocalyptic violence. Nicholson spots the explosives wire as he again bestrides his precious bridge, and he and Saito descend to puzzle it out. As Warden and Shears both from their positions cringe in agony as they near Joyce and realise their own man is about to foil the operation, Joyce works up the nerve to spring out of cover and knife Saito, but it’s Nicholson’s panicked reaction to Joyce’s explanation about what’s happening, grabbing the young man and trying to hold him down, that attracts the guards’ lethal attention, and bullets start flying. Shears, screaming out for Joyce to kill Nicholson, leaps into the river and swims across to aide his pupil, only to be wounded by bullets, whilst Joyce is also shot by the advancing guards. Nicholson’s look of pure shock upon recognising Shears as he crawls out of the river, knife in hand, face twisted in warlike grimace even as he dies, completes the circuit.

Meanwhile Warden rains mortar bombs down on the area, through his own, traumatised conviction they’re all better off dead than captured and tortured, at the cost of having the village women retreat from him in fear. Lean’s control over the eruption of frantic action and the dovetailing of so many narrative and thematic strands into a singular sequence remains quite remarkable, utilising the widescreen expanse to encompass multiple planes of action with a blend of ferocity and grace, ironic distance and immediate furore, building to the epic close-ups that ram home the drama – Nicholson’s look of profound surprise at recognising the wounded Shears as he stumbles ashore, his exclamation of “You!” answered by Shear’s own, enraged, agonised utterance of the same word before collapsing. Boulle pointedly did not have the bridge blown up in his book, leaving it as an ironic monument to war’s madness. The film needs the bridge destroyed, both for the sake of climactic showmanship, of course, but also because the story of the film as opposed to the book demands it, particular in Lean’s private moral scheme, which emerges in harkening back to Great Expectations where Miss Havisham murmured “What have I done?” when she realises she’s destroyed people’s lives.

Lean again (and if he did actually contribute anything to the script, it’s hard to doubt this was it) puts this question in Nicholson’s mouth as he experiences a moment of devastating clarity even as all hell breaks loose about him, the proof of his own blinkered convictions littered about him and bleeding out. Nicholson sets his sights on the plunger and moves for it, only for one of the mortars to land behind him, killing Shears and Joyce and leaving Nicholson with a gouge wound in the back of his head. Nicholson stands and once more makes a controlled effort at recovering his soldierly bearing before resuming his advance, only for him to collapse dead. Fortunately, he falls on the plunger, and the bridge blows apart in a thunderous calamity, train plummeting into the river. Lean was apparently bothered until he died that he didn’t make it clear enough that Nicholson intended to destroy the bridge and the explosion wasn’t just dumb luck. I’ve never doubted it, as Lean’s careful scene grammar plus that crucial line makes Nicholson’s chain of thinking very clear, but I can see why some didn’t. The fact that Nicholson doesn’t quite set of the blast with his last breath, but instead stumbles towards his final, redemptive act of refutation, is nonetheless just as important, taking the moment out of the realm of melodrama and placing it rather in the absurd.

The destruction of the bridge that takes the train with it provides the orgasmic moment of destructive carnage and spectacle, amplified immeasurably by the undeniable reality of the staging, the wonderful bridge, a real, strong thing, and the train crashing into the river, huge logs and rigid iron crashing and breaking, waves of smoke and steam wafting. Cinema staging had scarcely been so immediate, so wantonly mighty and reckless, since the silent era. The visuals underline the descent of all art and pretence into pure chaos, but the final gestures retain meaning. Warden hurls his mortar away into impotent frustration before retreating, successful yet chagrined, back into the forest. He has succeeded in the letter of his mission, but what he stood for has gone bust, failed to reclaim his creed as the locus of stability and sanity in the world, and now the village women are afraid of him, the first flutters of the post-war, post-colonial wind. Meanwhile Clipton’s immortal, stunned, cringing cries of “Madness! Madness!” as he surveys the scene of carnage became the essential viewpoint of an entire generation still children watching the film but soon to be all too aware of the knife-edge that was the post-war, atomic-age world. And that last shot, sailing endlessly up into the sky, leaving the follies of humanity in splinters on the ground, the ghost army still marching.

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