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The Bridge over the River Kwai ()

Brothers Judd Top 100 of the 20th Century: Novels (78)

We live in an age when "art" has become horrifically bloated.  Every major movie is three hours long, even the insipid Summer blockbusters.  Authors from Don DeLillo to Tom Clancy crank out enormous doorstop-like novels of 700 to 1,000 pages.  The artist Cristo doesn't just paint pictures, he wraps entire islands in pink cellophane.  It is as if artists had lost confidence in their capacity to say anything meaningful and so they opt instead to try to bury us in pure volume.  Heck, Bill Clinton's State of the Union message this year--a message which until modern times Presidents were content to simply write out and send up to the Hill--resembled a Fidel Castro harangue, lasting over an hour and a half. Apparently, if you're not sure about the quality, make up for it with quantity.

The results have been predictably uneven--on the one hand, the perfectly adequate 1934 comedy Death Takes a Holiday, which ran under 80 minutes, was recently turned into the interminable vanity project, Meet Joe Black.  But on the other hand, Tom Wolfe's terrific A Man in Full (see Orrin's review) actually had one of the best set pieces he's ever written, Ambush at Fort Bragg (see Orrin's review), excised from the final novel.  It seem that, just as we would expect, the sheer size of these projects bears no relation to the quality of the finished product.  It is still the case that great writers and directors can produce outstanding longer works, but mediocre artists can not salvage their's, no matter how they inflate them.

All of which brings us to Bridge on the River Kwai.  I'm sure that everyone is familiar with the story from David Lean's 1957 masterpiece, starring Alec Guiness, William Holden, Jack Hawkins and Sessue Hayakawa.  Lean was the undisputed master of the movie epic--with films like River Kwai, Doctor Zhivago, Passage to India and Lawrence of Arabia to his credit--and his film version of Boulle's novel is a mammoth, 2 1/2 hour, panorama.  It is unquestionably one of the greatest movies ever made.

Boulle's original, while every bit as great, is a spare, economical novel, which compacts vexing moral questions and ethical confrontations into a small but powerful package.  It stands as sort of a demonstration that artists who actually have something to say need not resort to gigantism.  The only major element that differs from the movie is that Lean needed an American actor for promotional purposes, so the whole scenario with William Holden escaping the camp and then returning with the demolition crew was added.  All of the moral quandaries that make the story so memorable and timeless remain, despite the brevity of the book.

In fact, some of the themes emerge more forcefully.  Pierre Boulle was himself captured, imprisoned, set to forced labor and then escaped from such a camp in Malaysia and one of the strongest undercurrents in the book is the author's obvious contempt for the Japanese.  This is in many ways one of the most racist (I mean that in a non pejorative sense, if such a thing is possible any longer) stories ever told.  The underlying assumption is that the two colonial powers find these places in a state of primitive savagery.  The Japanese merely seek to exploit them for their own purposes and do so in an accordingly slipshod way.  The British, meanwhile, attempt to bring the highest standards of civilization to bear and try to reengineer the wilderness so that it will stand as an eternal monument to British values.  Boulle uses the construction of the bridge to demonstrate that the Japanese are brutal incompetents and that the British, while they are the world's master builders (both of engineering marvels and of civilizations), are so warped by their own rigid codes of duty and honor that they are blinded to ultimate issues of the propriety of their actions.

I must have read this book or seen the movie dozens of times since I was a kid.  One of the really remarkable things about the story is how different facets stand out each time, or is it just that at different ages or in different social circumstances certain themes seem more important than at others.  When you're a callow youth, the whole thing is just a bang up military adventure.  In the late 60's and early 70's the point of the story seemed to many to be simply anti-war--"Madness! Madness!" as Clipton says.  Today, I read it and see a Frenchman dissing the Japanese and the British.  That Boulle achieves this kaleidoscopic effect with such brevity is a remarkable accomplishment and should serve as a reminder to all that increased size is no substitute for substantial ideas.


Grade: (A+)


Book-related and General Links:
    -OBIT: Pierre Boulle, Novelist, Is Dead; Author of 'River Kwai' Was 81 (WILLIAM GRIMES, NY Times)
    -Pierre Boulle (1912-1994)(kirjasto)
    -Pierre Boulle: VITAL STATISTICS
    -REVIEW: TO THE KWAI - AND BACK War Drawings, 1939-1945 By Ronald Searle (Bill Mauldin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE RAILWAY MAN: A POW's Searing Account of War, Brutality and Forgiveness ( D. J. R. BRUCKNER, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Willibald Sauerländer: The Nazis' Theater of Seduction, NY Review of Books
        'Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany by Stephanie Barron, et al
        The Art of the Third Reich by Peter Adam
        Artists Under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution by Michèle C. Cone

    -AFI Top 100: The Bridge on the River Kwai
    -The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)  (Film Site)
    -Classic Movies: The Bridge On The River Kwai