Jerry Tallmer Blows Up 'River Kwai'

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August 27, 1958, Vol. III, No. 44

Notes a Bit Late on 'River Kwai'

By Jerry Tallmer

"The Bridge on the River Kwai" was one of those exceptional movies that seemed to please everybody -- in-group, out-group, the film professionals, the middle-brow critics, the mob, the dissident eggheads. Certainly no picture that ever won so many "Oscars" ever was also so well received by what we loosely consider our intellectuals.

Into which of the foregoing bottles I myself should most properly be shoved and corked I do not know, but in one way I came to the film with an advantage over a lot of friends of mine and other people: I came to it late. Very late and through a bug-streaked windshield, only perhaps two weeks ago at a wide-screen drive-in theatre just outside New London, Connecticut, with swings and see-saws down in front for the kids to play on before the picture began. And now that I have finally seen it, I'd like to ask the single dark question that seems to lie all around me, waiting.

Has no one else found it highly peculiar that damn near everybody's choice for the best movie of (let's say) the decade should be dedicated, inferentially but absolutely, to the proposition that Courage is Madness and Cowardice is Best? For this, absolutely, is what "Bridge on the River Kwai" tells us, and not just once but over and over again in every frame, by every skillful visual-verbal device known to the most expert technicians and finished movie actors -- some of them, especially Guinness as the fanatical bridge-building British colonel, not rising to their subtle best despite all the later huzzahs and awards. Was he too, deep in his heart -- this supremely English Englishman -- just a little bit dubious about what ends, and whose, he was actually serving?

But I need not write a tract. The movie does it for me. At least three times, perhaps four or five, it has its young medic, the Man in the Middle Who Observes All, clap his hands to his fevered brow and say: "Madness! Madness!" Through adroit intercutting this comes as a "finalizing" comment to each of several sequences centered on the driving, disciplined actions of one or another of the main protagonists (Sessue Hayakawa, brutal opposite number to Guinness; Jack Hawkins, urbane professor turned implacable commando; William Holden, American cynic turned hero-martyr in spite of himself) and to the big destructive conclusion where these four figures vector together like fated arrows to blow the bridge and find their deaths. One remembers Walter Huston's hollow gale of symbolic laughter at the end of another dramatically expert filmed editorial, "Treasure of the Sierra Madre."

Let us return for a moment to the young medic and dwell on him. He is, as I say, that beautiful thing, the perfect neutral. He fights not, neither does he build the bridge. He won't even participate in ceremonies attending the opening of the bridge. He is above the battle; he has clean hands; he s an Observer. He says so, to Guinness, several times over, to which his poor colonel is only allowed to reply: "You're a good doctor, Jones" -- Smith? Naismith? No-namesmith? the blank is significant -- "but you've got a lot to learn about the army." What I shall say now is purely personal, private, and bigoted, indeed absurd, but whenever I heard young Naismith saying "Madness! Madness!" as I stared through that windshield, I kept seeing in his place the scared simian face of young Albie X, whom I once went to camp with and later heard tell me there was nothing ever worth fighting for, he had seen some movies of planes blown clean into dust as soon as a bullet hit them, and later still was encountered for the last time at a cocktail party on 55th Street, now a British ambulance driver back on furlough from Africa, still telling me, with a defeated smirk I cannot communicate on paper, that there was nothing, just nothing, ever worth fighting for. Soon after he became a homosexual. I said that this was going to be bigoted and absurd.

I do not suppose there are many people with a reasoning brain who will stand up and say that war is heaven, or sane, or for that matter any longer possible. I will not. But there are, or at least there once were in this world, such things as courage, commitment, and dedication. One could be committed to the furtherance of the race, if not, God save us, to ordinary last-ditch unspoken patriotism. Among all that strikes me odd about "Bridge on the River Kwai" I find it perhaps oddest that no one has written of it (has anyone?) as this decade's glaringly obvious put-up-or-shut-up ultimatum to the decade of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," a book and movie also about blowing-up of a bridge, but with what a difference!

One piece of sleight-of-hand should not be allowed to slide by, however. The war of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" was intrinsically the same war as in "River Kwai." Gentlemen of those decades -- gentlemen and intellectuals -- don't look now but they've neatly taken it away from you.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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