"There's always the unexpected, isn't there?""The future of poetry," wrote Matthew Arnold," is immense, because in poetry, where it is worthy of its high destinies, our race, as time goes on, will find an ever surer and surer stay."
Had Arnold been writing today, would he have pinned the same faith on the cinema? The question is appropriate, for it is over a hundred years since the Lumière brothers first set up their flickering films outside factory-gates after closing hours.
An epic on celluloid must, in that case, contend, or compare favorably, with an epic that had been written on the human memory, and later transferred to paper. The external circumstances contributing to the Iliad were, to a large extent, present in the first half of the last century. Two world wars had been fought, heroic deeds done and recorded, nations ruined and conquered...a subject crying out for an epic. And yet the similarities end there. The passage of three thousand years has seen the rise of the state, the rule of law, the conquest of nature...dissimilarities striking enough to frustrate any attempts at an epic.
Yet great art rarely concerns itself with reality, but with the ego's self-transcendence in reaching out to other egos. The Iliad is not so much about Ilium, as Achilles. The ego was Homer's theme. Art, one may say, is a Cartesian rejection of the world's reality trying to reach the world. Or, to be relevant in our vocabulary, art bridges the distance between selves.
The Cartesian denial of reality begins with the reversal of the roles of victor and vanquished — the British, the real victors of the war, are seen as defeated. Denial extends to technology, as the audience is whisked out of the familiar world of electricity and running water to the hostile indifference of the jungle. Finally, to detach the viewer from all feelings of security, the state itself disappears.
The absence of law and creature comforts would not have been terribly alarming to the citizens of a Greek polis, who were almost always in a state of war. Unreality, for them, consisted in the appearances of gods and goddesses and rivers pursuing heroes! The level of social organization presupposed by the film far exceeds the requirements of the remembered, or written, word. (Epos, the root of epic, means 'word'). The contents of the cinema, therefore, cannot negate the organised world without appearing ridiculous.
On the other hand, the cinema is the child of the era of mass production. Like the spoken word of yore, the reach of the film extends to every person (for a small fee). Once again, heroes not only become possible, but necessary. The monopoly rent accruing to a famous actor originates in the ordinary man's need for an extraordinary man. The nature of the extraordinary man has evolved: unlike Achilles, who creates disorder out of order, the latter-day hero must be seen to create order out of disorder. The bridge on the river Kwai, then, bridges the distance between conquered and conqueror as well as between director and audience. Yet half the film serves as a prelude to its construction. The sticking-point is Colonel Nicholson's insistence that officers should not have to do manual labour per the Geneva Convention. "Do not speak to me of rules!" huffs Colonel Saito, the Japanese commanding officer. "This is war, not a game of cricket!"
The film devotes itself at the beginning to explicating the difference between slaves and free men. The relationship between master and slave is arbitrary and despotic; between free men, even in captivity, one of order and predictability. "Our men must always feel they're still commanded by us and not by the Japanese," insists the Colonel. "So long as they have that idea to cling to, they'll be soldiers, and not slaves."
Commander Shears, the American they had found in the camp on arrival, bases his reservations on experience. "Well, I hope they can remain soldiers, Colonel. As for me, I'm just a slave, a living slave." Clearly, Nicholson and Shears are hero and anti-hero, respectively (superbly performed by Sir Alec Guinness and William Holden).
The introduction of fate through the notion of law raises the film nearly to the level of a miracle. In the Iliad, the hero, even the gods, are subject to the tribal concept of Fate — a blind, inexorable power. The poignancy of Achilles' choice to avenge the death of his friend stems from the certain knowledge of his own death. And his heroism lies in the clarity of his choice.
"Amor fait is the core of my nature," says Nietzsche, and the free man chooses his fate, not by submitting to it, but by accepting it, and its consequences. The diametrically opposed personalities of Colonel Nicholson and Commander Shears dramatise the difference between the refusal to accept one's fate and the decision to face up to it.
To Colonel Nicholson, Fate appears as the Geneva Convention and Command Headquarters' order to surrender, implying, so the Colonel infers, that he and his men must not try to escape. Contrasted with his active acceptance of Fate (Nietzsche's amor fait, love of fate), Commander Shears' passive submission to fate appears as an attempt (literally) to escape. And it seems that he succeeds in escaping, when we find him cavorting in the waves of the Indian Ocean in Ceylon with a nurse, sipping homemade alcohol!
The subsequent scene in the botanical garden records the undoing of Commander Shears as the giant hand of Destiny assumes the guise of Major Warden. A very light-hearted, almost comical, scene in which the Major inveigles, and finally, entraps, Shears into joining an expedition to blow up the bridge, conceals profound insight into the nature of slavery. The essence of slavery lies in denial of the ego, in trying to be what your master wants you to be, and not affirming your true self. Commander shears turns out to be an impostor!
"Look, I'm not a navy commander, I'm not even an officer," confesses Shears, desperate to wriggle out of any trip back to Kwai. "No, the whole thing's a fake! I'm just an ordinary swap-jockey, second-class! When the Houston sank, I made it to shore with an officer, a real commander. Later on, we ran into a Japanese patrol, and he was killed. I figured it was just a matter of time before I was captured, so —."
"You changed uniform with the dead man?" suggests the Major.
"Not that it did me any good, because at Saito's camp the officers work along with the rest!"
"Yes, there's always the unexpected, isn't there?" the Major observes sententiously.
The last line occurs several times, like a refrain, and is loaded with meaning. It emphasises man's limited ability to look ahead, no matter how organised the social structure, and the corresponding necessity for constant vigilance and readiness to accept the unexpected. The aphorism reiterates the terrible potency of Destiny.
Meanwhile, destiny had sunk its claws into Shears (later given the simulated rank of Major). "Your navy's in an awkward position," explains Major Warden." In one sense you're a blasted hero, for making an escape, through the jungle, but, at the same time, they can't very well bring you home and give you the Navy Cross for impersonating an officer, can they? I suppose that's why they were so happy to hand you over to us. You see?"
What Major Warden did not see was why he should have to go back to Kwai after a miraculous escape through jungle and over sea. "You shall become who you are," was an aphorism Nietzsche had borrowed from Pindar. As I have said, the idea of Fate, in a technological age, had been supplanted by Law, and it is through legal coercion that Major Warden gets Shears to return to his destined spot, the river Kwai. Translating an epic into modern terms is well nigh impossible, but Sir David Lean had pulled off a miracle.
The distinction between freedom and slavery, then, finally boils down to acceptance or rejection of order, whether fatal or legal. The treatment of this theme has made or marred Sir David's other attempts at an epic. Altogether, he made four 'elemental' films dealing with the jungle (Kwai), sand (Lawrence of Arabia), snow (Dr. Zhivago) and sea (Ryan's Daughter). Only in the first two instances was the notion of necessity given the attention one expects in epic: Dr. Zhivago and Ryan's Daughter were artistic failures to that extent.
Finally, Colonel Saito, commanding officer of Camp 16, gives in to his prisoner, Colonel Nicholson — another Cartesian reversal of reality. The former agrees to abide by the Geneva Convention that officers should not do manual labour. The first step towards the bridge between their respective egos has been taken by means of a contract. The cinema undergoes a transformation at this stage, which is its climax. The moment the protagonists have agreed to actualise the imagined bridge, and the audience impatiently begins to wait for it to materialise, and the audience-actor rapport has been firmly established, two parallel events tauten the drama yet again.
On the one hand, the anti-hero undergoes a forceful transformation to demolish the bridge-to-be. On the other hand, the hero undergoes the subtle transformation from a man of principle to a man of pride. He loses his ego in the bridge, which becomes an obsession. The destruction of the bridge, with the attendant loss of the lives of all concerned, becomes a symbol of the necessary demolition of pride.
A casual remark by Major Reeves, the engineer, that the elm used in London Bridge lasted six hundred years and there were trees in the forest very similar to elm, triggers off a vision of immortality — the infinite extension of the ego — in the soul of Colonel Nicholson. "Six hundred years!" he wonders. "That'll be quite something!"
That which makes the bridge a bridge between master and slave, between Saito and Nicholson, between actor and audience, also makes it a source of obsession. For the distance between master and slave lies in work — only in work does the slave realise that he has a separate identity, law being merely a theoretical or abstract recognition of their separateness. And work inevitably involves specialisation — the ego's focus on only one aspect of the world, to the exclusion of all other. After all, the ideal of work is that one must take pride in one's work. As the Colonel puts it, "I know the men. It's essential they should take pride in their job."
A little digression, therefore, may be in order here. A cinema, like any other product that's exchanged in the market, embodies work, just like the bridge. And like any other product, it competes for attention with other products (unlike the bridge, but more on that later). Consequently, a cinema, in order to hold the audience's attention for nearly three hours, needs to rivet the collective mind on a single, unwavering subject. In our case, the bridge serves the purpose magnificently. From beginning to end, we're never allowed to take our mind off the bridge, until we're obsessed by it, so much so that Nicholson's obsession does not seem extraordinary at the end .Of course, some people believe a cinema should not be a commercial success — they are entitled to their opinion. Euripides, the most successful of the Greek tragedians, introduced the prologue, an outline of events, to focus the audience's mind on the play. More recently, Somerset Maughm observed: "It is the public that pays, and if it is not pleased with the entertainment that is offered, it stays away." Therefore, his dictum was: "...I think the secret of play writing can be given in two maxims: stick to the point, and where you can cut, cut." (Interestingly, Sir David was once fired for cutting too much!)
A film that can focus the viewers' minds succeeds, those that can't fail. Bridge on the River Kwai succeeds, and its success, on screen, appears as Nicholson's success. In perhaps the most masterful scene ever shot, Nicholson and Saito, master and slave, stand on the same bridge, as equals, admiring the sunset and the work accomplished. The sonorous soliloquy delivered by Sir Alec Guinness almost sounds soporiferous, in the absence of all inner contradictions and a sense of utter fulfillment. "There are times when, suddenly, you realise you're nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum-total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know if that kind of thinking's very healthy, but, I must admit, I've had some thoughts on those lines from time to time. But tonight...tonight...!"
And precisely at this moment, he drops his swagger-stick into the river!
Now, does the film hold any lessons for us today? Can't it be argued that Bangladesh, and every man in Bangladesh, is in a situation of debt-slavery to the other nations that ride roughshod over us, and pervert our imagination to deny ourselves? Our present predicament prompted me to go back to the film, again. Unlike the Bridge, which was meant to be used for war or destroyed in war, our nation competes for nobody's attention, not even ours. Indeed, most of us are intent on escape, instead of seizing our fate firmly and denying baser choices — just think of the level of brain drain to Western countries. For we must remember, with Nietzsche, "You shall become who you are." Whether we go abroad or escape from our conscience here, we cannot truly escape. At the end of our lives, we shall always inquire, like Nicholson, what the sum-total of our lives really represents. Some will insist that in our country, effort does not pay; materially, perhaps, but spiritually this can never be true. And some will seek escape in individual fulfillment, forgetting that each of us is part of a whole. The tragedy of Nicholson should warn us against that route also.
Check out Iftekhar's web page at http://www.geocities.com/if6065/farvardin.
On target, as usual. I find it strange that those who
follow this critic jam their work with jargon.
They should not only read this review, they should
also take it to heart.
Maugham, by the way, is not usually taught in uni- versities; unfortunately, in my view. I guess WSM fulfills the dictum regarding success.
I found the review by dumb luck, although I now hope it was Fate.