Retro-Review: Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean is a master of spectacle. This World War II-era film is a deserved classic of cinema with great characters in epic locales. It’s a treat to the eyes and ears and, even though it might be a little slow and old-fashioned, it’s still one of the all-time great films.

The story, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, is about the Japanese army using prisoners of war to build the Burma-Siam railway and the Allied efforts to sabotage it. It opens in the camp run by the stern disciplinarian Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) where a ragtag assortment of POWs (including William Holden as Shears) are laconically carrying out the orders to build a railway bridge across the River Kwai under hellish conditions. One day, a huge number of British army soldiers and officers led by quintessentially stiff-upper-lip Colonel Nicholson (the splendid Alec Guinness in Oscar-winning form) march into camp as the newest prisoners. After a clash of pride between Nicholson and Saito a strange, grudging respect forms and soon Nicholson, out of an excess of pride, has his officers and troops helping to build the bridge, but a better bridge built to British engineering standards. Meanwhile, Shears escapes and reaches safety but is soon recruited into a British mission to sabotage the bridge, based on his first-hand knowledge of the area.

The movie was a huge winner at the Oscars, winning seven of the eight categories in which it was nominated, including best picture, and it’s not hard to see why. The film is really spectacular with huge set pieces involving hundreds of extras in really exotic locations. Today these things could be done easily with CGI, but in 1957 everything you saw on screen had to photographed and that fact makes the images all the more astounding. Anchoring the story, however, are great performances by Hayakawa and Guinness as men of immense pride and pragmatism, who might have been friends in another time and place but are forced by circumstance to be adversaries. It’s a very interesting balance and Alec Guinness is truly magnetic as the perfect army officer whose optimistic belief in civilization, especially in its British form, is absolute. I loved him from start to finish.

The movie does have some drawbacks, in my opinion. For one, it is very long, clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, and it is slow-paced, so you kind of feel every minute of the running time. As impressed as I was by the Guinness/Hayakawa plotline, I found the William Holden plotline somewhat less engaging. I like Holden, but he’s a bit of-his-time in his acting style, in my opinion. The film has a very old-fashioned feel in some of its performances and slightly stagey action, but it’s not an action movie so I can let it go. It also has the ring of unaware racism appropriate to its era in the way the British officers haughtily dismiss the engineering attempts of the Japanese, but it’s hard to be sure there isn’t some intentional ring of irony. I mean, Nicholson is almost over the top in his Britishness while still being charismatic and endearing. I think the filmmakers were sophisticated enough to be poking gentle fun at the attitude of people who were, after all, a generation before themselves while recognizing there is something to be said for uprightness and propriety.

I really liked Bridge on the River Kwai for a lot of reasons, Alec Guinness being far and away the first. I also thought it was absolutely beautiful to look at and the plot was interesting enough that I enjoyed the film’s leisurely pace. The suspense of setting up the charges to blow the bridge and the ensuing risk of discovery worked very well, in my opinion, and the explosion (spoiler alert!) is quite a feat of pyrotechnics for 1957 which stands as strong as most things done today. I thought the film had an interesting philosophy about pragmatism and pride which came out in the good writing and great performances. All-in-all, I think Bridge on the River Kwai is a great example of big-scale classic filmmaking and a lot of fun to watch.

Film Review – The Death of Stalin

From writer-director Armando Iannucci, the man behind political comedies like VeepIn the Loop and The Thick of It, comes this wickedly satirical movie about the power vacuum created by the death of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin in 1953 and the struggle between members of his inner circle to take control. I thought it was a great mockery of power structures and the immorality of self-appointed leaders, a masterful balance of tragedy and comedy that was as dark and disturbing as it was hilarious.

The cast is marvelous. Simon Russel Beale is pure evil as the ambitious Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s chief torturer and executioner; Jeffrey Tambor is the feckless Georgy Malenkov, Stalin’s supposed replacement according to party protocol; Michael Palin is wonderful as Vyacheslav Molotov, the last of the original revolutionaries, now a largely broken man; and Steve Buscemi is terrific as the craftily pragmatic Nikita Kruschev, the man who really did go on to succeed Stalin. The supporting cast is populated by great talents as well, but for my money the most fun character by far was Jason Isaacs’ rendition of Field Marshal Zhukov, a swaggering war hero and vanquisher of the German army whose uniform is cartoonishly festooned with medal upon medal.

The script is sensationally well written, adapted from a French graphic novel with a clearly strong Iannucci spin. Time and again characters are faced with idiotic choices while pretending that nothing is wrong and everyone is constantly paranoid about being arrested or shot, which is completely valid in an atmosphere which saw all the best doctors either killed or exiled to the gulag, thus making the search for a doctor to treat Stalin in his death throes all the more darkly funny. A system where fear is the primary motivator and murder a technique of enforcement fosters a culture of avoiding responsibility and co-operation, and I felt this movie hilariously demonstrated that.

What made the movie work for me the most was the way in which it shows the totally amoral and sociopathic behaviour of vulgar brutes masquerading as civilized men, which is really comical. As Stalin’s inner circle competes for power, people are murdered quite casually and, in one scene, en masse. These moments cast a stark contrast against the political comedy unfolding behind closed doors, lending a bitter sting to the ludicrous maneuverings of the party chiefs which feel only too plausibly real. It’s difficult to know the true history of Soviet Russia, especially under Stalin, but I don’t imagine the real events were too far from what is depicted in this movie. Obviously, things are heightened for comedic effect, but you only need to look at the current situation at the White House to see some funny shit.

I loved The Dearth of Stalin. I thought it was tremendously funny, razor-sharp in its writing and populated by truly talented and perfectly cast personalities. I found it to be very lively and funny but also a little disturbing given the murderousness of the regime depicted. I still think it’s one of the best comedies about politics that I’ve ever seen, though, and highly recommend it even if you’re not into history or politics because it’s ultimately just a very funny commentary on human nature and power.

Stars Trek Versus Wars

In the realm of popular sci-fi entertainment, Star Trek and Star Wars are the titans. Despite superficial similarities, the two are really designed for different audiences whose qualities come out in their respective fandoms. I think that Star Wars, with its simplistic good-versus-evil morality tale, is really more for children, while Star Trek skews toward a slightly more mature audience. Allow me to elaborate.

I think concepts like “good” and “evil” are basically childish. They are code for “us” and “them”, promoting a closed-minded tribalist attitude and enacting power fantasies of vanquishing the wrong and making everything right. As people grow and mature they should come to learn the complexity that attends life and how choices are not always so clean-cut.

Star Wars does touch upon the themes of point of view, but barely. It is still centrally and essentially a simplistic morality play in every iteration. Star Trek, on the other hand, tells a wider range of stories, some pulpy, some political and some just weird enough to challenge the way you think about your perceptions. One other key difference that distinguishes Star Trek as being for older audiences is the sexual content: Kirk and others are often in romantic liaisons whereas kissing is about as racy as Star Wars gets.

Writing this in the wake of Kelly Marie Tran’s on-line harassment by the worst elements of Star Wars fandom, I can’t help but think how basically immature they are. Personally, my favourite aspect of the new Star Wars movies is their on-screen diversity. I am all for seeing more faces and hearing more voices, but it is apparently a threat to some who are maybe not as secure in their own being. Of course these trolls exist in all forms of fandom, but I can’t imagine even the worst Star Trek fans being so loudly and vocally hostile that a cast member would remove him or herself from all social media.

Obviously, the trolls in this case are not representative of Star Wars fans in general and, as I say, Star Trek has it’s trolls too, but I can’t help but think there is something in the material they obsess over that fails to challenge their childishness because it is itself for children. I don’t think Star Wars fans have ever had the necessary humiliation that Trek fans were dealt by William Shatner’s “Get a Life” sketch on Saturday Night Live. That kind of public calling-out to stop taking it so seriously is precisely what Star Wars fans kind of need, certainly the cretins who attacked Kelly Marie Tran. I might even argue that The Phantom Menace was just that, but nobody seemed to get the point. They just got angry and bear the grudge to this day.

I’m not calling Star Wars fans immature, just the trolls. However, I do think being overly obsessed with a children’s entertainment might be bad for a person’s perspectives. I think it’s good to obsess over something until you figure out what it is about it that turns you on, but then you ought to pursue that quality in something more challenging, to test your assumptions and refine your perspectives instead of blunting them with endless repetition of the same thing and then getting upset when new product doesn’t meet your demands.  I’m still deeply in love with sci-fi, to which Star Wars was the gateway when I was a kid and  Star Trek sustained me as a teen. I just find they can’t deliver what I want from the genre anymore.

DC versus Marvel

I like comics books. I generally love visual storytelling, so it’s a natural. I’ve never been an obsessive fan, but I’ve been buying on and off since I was eleven. Super-heroes are what comics are best known for, of course, and both DC and Marvel have legions of fans. I have a more casual interest and am not exclusively devoted to one or the other. However, on balance I would have to say I lean toward DC more.

I have loved Spider-Man for as long as I can remember – the Ralph Bakshi cartoon was my gateway when I was too young to read. I was crazy about the Hulk tv show with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno when it was on the air. Christopher Reeve’s Superman was flying high in the movies, but my first exposure to super-hero comics was issues of Amazing Spider-Man my brother had lying around. It wasn’t until I was eleven that I bought my own: a copy of issue #281, October 1986. I was an avid reader for the next 4 years but lost interest after Todd MacFarlane’s run as artist ended.

I drifted in and out of comics for a while after that, guided by the principle of buying them solely for their art because I had a very low opinion of the writing (except for Alan Moore who was light years ahead of everyone else with Watchmen). What really drew me back in was the Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee team-up on Batman with the “Hush” storyline in 2002. It blew me away. I felt the writing was compelling and the art was spectacular. I began buying comics regularly again and have stayed fairly faithful ever since, but Spider-Man and the X-Men are the only Marvel properties I’ve ever really related to. I loved the Hulk tv show as a kid, but for some reason the comics just never kept me engaged. DC, for me, just has a more interesting pantheon of heroes who seem somehow more iconic.

Really, however, the biggest reason I prefer DC is simple: better female characters. I’m too old and too straight to be looking at men in tight costumes, for one thing, but I’m also more interested in different perspectives. I already have a good idea of the value system of male characters because I am male and even though the writers of female characters tend to be male, I usually read comics primarily for the art and want to look at somebody unlike me. Outside of the X-Men, it’s not as easy to name a half dozen major characters who are also female as it is when you look at DC.

Being a movie buff, I can’t help mention the state of the competition there. Obviously, Marvel Studios is killing DC in terms of box office. Wonder Woman has been the only real victory for DC since they launched their cinematic universe with Man of Steel in 2013 (so that disqualifies the superior Dark Knight trilogy which concluded in 2012). However, I’m personally not that keen on Marvel’s movies either; the only one I loved without reservation was Doctor Strange in 2017. I quite like some of the X-Men movies, but technically they belong to 20th Century Fox, not Marvel Studios. I am a very hard audience to please when it comes to film.

What is anarchist rationale?

It is an understanding that the values of integrity and respect are vital for trust to exist while acknowledging that people often need more objective guarantees. A handshake ought to be enough to solidify an agreement, but sometimes impersonal institutions and codes of law are necessary evils.

There are no laws that cannot be disobeyed, except the laws of nature. Rules are really just inventions of human imagination and institutions are shared myths. Some are useful, some are not, but they are required for managing large numbers of people.

As someone with rational anarchist sympathies, I go along in order to get along. When laws are beneficial, I have no problem obeying them, but rules only work as long as everyone agrees to follow them. When the system is unjust, such as when the law is applied inconsistently, I have a hard time respecting it.

I always endeavour to live up to my word and honour my agreements, as long as I am being respected in the arrangement. I don’t normally trust people who lie or act in bad faith and I wouldn’t expect the same in return.

This anarchist rationale is the basis of all of my relationships.