How did I miss this one? I just finished watching the classic The Bridge over the River Kwai starring William Holden and Alec Guinness. I’m blown away. Every scene was perfect in this story of Holden’s Shale, a jaded American officer who’s at odds with Guinness’ a British commander’s absolute, unstinting adoration of following codes and rules.
I remember the whistling and the powerful ending from my childhood. I was no more than 6 and annoyed at a family party where all the adults were enthralled by this film. Now I appreciate why as Holden and Guinness deliver perfect performances in these two characters, who couldn’t be more different. They’re conflicts aren’t direct as they’re rarely in the same scenes, but they’re central to the film’s theme.
Both characters are prisoners of war in a Japanese camp run by the brutal Satoo who must get a bridge built in a few weeks. The work is far behind schedule. Satoo operates on the Japanese ancient military code of Bushidoo. which runs contrary to the Geneva Convention, which Guinness insists upon. Guinness shows his dedication to duty when he refuses to let his officers work on the bridge. He’s willing to spend days in a metal box, called the “Oven” to stand up for this belief. You have to admire his courage.
Holden’s Shale looks for short cuts and sees the futility of the war. He has his points, but neither character is clearly right or wrong, which is the key to why the film is so absorbing.
(I wonder how my students would view this film which shows the Japanese as cruel not just to the Chinese, but to the Allied soldiers. I wouldn’t show it because I don’t want to spread anti-Japanese sentiment, which made sense in the early part of the 20th century, but is outmoded now.)
The group is the hero
After work, band practice
The group leader at her breaking point
Akira Kurasawa’s second movie was a propaganda film for World War II called The Most Beautiful. He tells the story of a group of young women, teens most likely, who leave their hometowns to support the war effort by working in an optics factory. The factory has had to increase its quota and the girls object to the 50% increase and ask their manager for a 70% increase. From the start the Japanese cohesiveness is evident. While four or five girls’ experiences are highlighted often we see a large group of 50 or more marching, laughing and working together. The group is the star and how they react when one falls ill or leaves is so Japanese. So is the fact that in addition to their work responsibility, they must play volleyball and practice their drum and fife band’s drills. These girls are the Japanese equivalent of Rosie the Riveter, but they’re far more docile and group oriented. I know I would have balked at having to march and play volleyball. The minute the fun is mandated, it loses its fun.
Much of the story is predictable. One girl receives a letter that her mother’s ill and it’s easy to guess that outcome. The idea of self-sacrifice and following the rules is blatant. Yet, I enjoyed the cinematography and did cheer the girls on as they endeavor to meet the higher goal they insisted upon. I was touched by the kind dorm mother and the managers who truly looked after the girls’ well being.
The film has its comic moments, for example at one point the camera focuses on various signs stating rules. We see a sign admonishing the girls not to stand on the roof and another saying they should air out their bedding daily. Next we see a girl playing on the roof as she airs out her futon. Of course, she tumbles off the roof. She breaks her leg and can’t work. It was fascinating, and I think truly Japanese, that no authority yelled at this girl for being a knuckle head. Instead, there’s an outpouring of care. Also, the animated graphs that show the girls’ increase and decrease in productivity made me chuckle as it’s quite dated.
While the film is sentimental and the unquestioning support of the war, troubling to modern pacifists like me, I enjoyed the slice of life, which made me understand wartime Japan much better.