Monday, December 14, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957)

Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Bridge on the River Kwai
Release Date: December 14, 1957
Director: David Lean
Written By: Pierre Boulle (Novel), Carl Foreman & Michael Wilson (Screenplay) 
Starring: William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Genre: Adventure, Drama, War
Running Time: 161 minutes

Oscar Wins: 7
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Alec Guinness)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Editing
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Supporting Actor (Sessue Hayakawa)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Peyton Place
-Witness for the Prosecution
-12 Angry Men

And the winner is...

Even if you're not aware of director David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai, there's a small chance that you're familiar with its music. In the many decades of movies, there have been few whistling march tunes as that of "Colonel Bogey March." Its simple, infectious melody is something that has transcended the film and become its own phenomenon. However, the film that it comes from is itself an impressive piece of film making with some of the best visual story telling to win Best Picture. Even if the ending is what the film is best known for, the build up to that moment features a rather ingenious story for something that is rather mundane and simple: building a bridge. The film is more than its plot would have you believe. It may be a war film without much war, but it still gives one of the most intense and enjoyable looks into a different side of World War II the likes of which aren't often seen. 

The book was written by Pierre Boulle, who based his story on his time as a prisoner of war in Thailand. Writer Carl Foreman picked it up when he moved to England, becoming entranced by the story. Around the same time, producer Sam Spiegel bought a copy and became adamant on making a filmed adaptation of the story. He was so intent that he even flew around the world reportedly three times while scouting locations. Seeing as he was also a very persuasive speaker, he is responsible for drawing most of the cast in. He famously managed to persuade Alec Guinness over the course of a few hours during a dinner after Guinness initially believed that the book was "anti-British." Despite the studio's initial hesitation that there wasn't any female love interest (and thus would not be profitable), director David Lean wrote into the story a subplot involving a love affair with a nurse. Lean was also only selected because "everyone else" rejected. This included: John Ford, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann, and Orson Welles.

The writing process was also complicated. Despite being occasional collaborators, Spiegel and Lean were always in disagreement over what the story would be. When Foreman turned in the draft to Lean, the director was annoyed with its depiction as a pulpy action adventure movie starring Humphrey Bogart with submarine battles and a villain worthy of B-Movie culture. Spiegel actually encouraged the conflict, believing that the payoff would be worthwhile. After several arguments, Foreman left the project. He was replaced with Michael Wilson, of whom did a more appropriate job on the script. Seeing as everyone so far was British, the idea of being blacklisted in America didn't seem all that complicated. However both Foreman and Wilson were, which would create conflict when The Oscars came up. This would throw credit to Boulle, who had little-to-no involvement on the film and didn't even speak English.

After much scouting, the film was finally set to film in Ceylon - by suggestion of actor Jack Hawkins. This was largely due to the destination from the story having a very unimpressive river. Construction on the titular bridge was being done for months before anyone had been cast in the movie, with Spiegel claiming that it cost $250,000 (though reports vary as to how much of that is hyperbole). The set was secluded and required little camps to be built. There was also a need for extras, which were a mixture of cast and crew as well as Ceylon natives who were given make-up to look white. For Lean, the shooting was simple because he enjoyed the hot and dangerous landscape. For everyone else, the heat caused many to have sick days and the dangerous wildlife often created problems. Many people, including Lean, almost drowned after falling into the river. Due to the location, dailies had to be flown to London to be processed before they could be seen.

Despite Lean not having trouble, he was met with conflict regarding Guinness. While the two had collaborated before on Oliver Twist, they still would have a rocky partnership. Guinness was known for his comedies and believed that his character should have more of a comedic undertone, whereas Lean wanted him a serious figure. Along with Spiegel, Lean had conflicts with everyone. This was partially due to his perfectionist style, which caused him to take his time while trying to get the perfect shot. In one crucial scene, Guinness and Lean complained about if his character should be shot from the front or back - of which Lean compensated by having Guinness' monologue tie into a sunset. For whatever reason, Lean was more accepting of American actor William Holden - of whom provided no real conflict. Of course, Holden was only involved because the studio believed that he would be a box office draw. Despite this conflict, Guinness and his family would claim that it's the best work that the actor had ever done. Most of the crew were gone by the time that the final scene was shot, which mostly involved Lean shooting the actor from an aerial view.

The film's soundtrack is largely diegetic, with most of the background sound being natural. However, there's the famous whistling march that the prisoners sing. While the march was originally written  by Kenneth J. Alford, Lean intended on using the parody "Hitler Has Only Got One Ball." Spiegel found it too vulgar. Likewise, the producer wanted the film to be released in time for the 1957 Oscars deadline. He turned to composer Malcolm Arnold with hope for quick turnaround. This resulted in Arnold creating it in only 10 days. They met the deadline with a few weeks to spare. Among other conflicts in the post-production, the famous train sequence was almost lost. While they had taken extra caution by shipping the film on five different planes (other transportation was impossible due to ongoing conflict in the region), the can with that portion of the film was missing. Spiegel did a worldwide search for it before discovering that it was laying on a hot tarmac. Thankfully, the footage was still in tact and hardly damaged.

The film's release was very successful. It became the highest grossing film of 1957. However, it received a lot of negative opinions from various parties. Other prisoners of war from similar situations felt that the film's depiction was too optimistic. In a rebuttal, the studio claimed that it would be too depressing to show the realities in full. Likewise, the Japanese took a different offense to it. Beyond the complaints that it made the western culture look far more intellectual and advanced, they believed that it took too much credit. Many of the Japanese people who would have been involved with the building of the bridge were actually graduates of prestigious schools, including some in America. Despite these claims, the Ceylonese renamed the area of the filming as the River Kwai, likely due to the area's popularity following the film's success.

There weren't too many complaints that came out of The Academy Awards that year. However, it did spawn one of the strangest controversies. When the Best Adapted Screenplay award was given out, Boulle accepted the award. While author of the book, the award generally went to the screen writers. It wasn't just that Boulle had almost no involvement with the film, it was also proven during his acceptance speech that he couldn't speak English. It was reported that Lean dueled Spiegel with their newly won Oscars following the revelation that he was the recipient. This event took place largely because Foreman and Wilson were discredited for being blacklisted in Hollywood. While this held up for many decades, the two writers would eventually receive their credit in 1984, despite both being dead (Wilson in 1978, Foreman in 1984).

To that point, The Bridge on the River Kwai was the longest film to be played on a single night on a major broadcast station. It was three hours before limited commercial interruptions were added. Holden attempted to stop it, believing that it would hurt future box office residuals. This was also because he signed a contract that promised him 10% of box office profits - he would eventually be bought out with a lump sum. The film's remaining legacy is itself just as prolific as Lean's follow-up: Lawrence of Arabia. Both are considered great epics that are majestic, beautiful, and the best work that Lean, Spiegel, and Guinness would ever do. Despite initial controversy, the film became a template for visual story telling with the final bridge explosion scene being a key example. While the events happened differently, the poetic beauty of that moment itself made art's sacrifice of truth plausible, if just for that situation. While Lean's follow-up is considered the superior epic, both of these films regularly appear on best movies lists. Among the lesser known credits is the parody record "Bridge on the River Wye," which was recorded by Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook, and Jonathan Miller. 

While the film may mostly be known for one scene, it's still one of the best scenes in film history. The film as a whole is masterfully shot and features some of the best British acting in a WWII film. Despite the many conflicts and the struggles between cast and crew, the final product speaks for itself. Over many decades later, the film continues to entrance and make the story of a simple bridge building into something far more complicated and puzzling about masculinity and control in times of war. Why does it matter at all? Nobody is entirely sure, even though Lean did a fantastic job of showing its demise. Even with its few blemishes, it does have a lot to offer in cinematic technique as well as being just a great story period. 

No comments:

Post a Comment