Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Bridge on the River Kwai and Full Metal Jacket

My memory of the first time I saw "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is watching it on a drive-in screen at about age 13.  I thought then, and think now, that it was one of the best movies ever made.  It is still all over TV, even in high definition, and it is a movie you should see (if you somehow have not).

One of the interesting things about the movie is that it is one of three absolutely great prisoner of war movies made before Hollywood became anti-military, and even anti-American.  The other two great movies are "The Great Escape" and "Stalag 17".  Again, if you have not seen those, you should.

"The Great Escape" is the only one of these movies that comes close to being a "war movie"--albeit the most exciting prisoner of war escape movie ever made.  Back before Hollywood began treating the USA as a major force for evil in the world, Steve McQueen is not to be missed as the archetypical "never say die", brash American taking on what appears to be the entire German army on a motorcycle.  And that is far from the ony virtue of "The Great Escape".

"The Bridge of the River Kwai" (Kwai hereafter) and "Stalag 17 are not really "war movies"  They are movies about honor, and what makes men tick under the pressure of being prisoners of war.  "Kwai" is about a contest of wills between a Japanese commandant using British/American prisoners to build a bridge (hardly seeming the subject matter for an exiting movie), and the British ranking officer in charge of teh prisoners (played to the hilt by Alec Guiness).  The movie is about honor, duty, and will, and even how self-important tunnel vision can corrupt noble efforts).  The ending is dynamite (pun intended). 

None of these movies gets bogged down in anti-war political correctness.  Hollywood has not come close to producing a movie about men under the pressures of war since those three movies (and a number of other great war movies around the same period). 

I recently tried to watch "Full Metal Jacket" for the first time (I LIVED through Vietnam, although I never went there as a soldier, and the movie never attracted me--ditto for "Platoon").  "Full Metal Jacket" is very well made, and not that anti-military.  It has a sanitized version of marine boot camp ("sanitized", because I went through army basic training at about the same time, and the basic training depicted in the movie is not really much more intense than marine basic trainng, and I know that not to be true).  "Full Metal Jacket" still gives an idea of what marine basic training is like, without being overly judgmental.  Still, the movie is too much about the sensibilities of the film maker, and too little about the real experience of marines--or even the experience of marines in Vietnam.  I think "The Long Gray Line" (a book, and not a movie, and about West Point graduates rather than marines) is the best description I have seen of the reality of Vietnam (although I am sure there are books I have not read that may do aspects of it well).  I could not finish "Full Metal Jacket" (that is, could not see wasting my time seeing it to the end).  I got about 2/3's of the way through, and was simply uninterested in what happened to the characters.  It is not that "Full Metal Jacket" is an "anti-war" movie.  To me, it just does not say anything interesting.

That is what is funny.  Hollywood is now free to show the REALITY of war ("Saving Private Ryan") better, and more accurately than ever before.  Yet, the movies are WORSE.  "Saving Private Ryan" may be the best of the recent ones, and I think the "accuracy" tends to overwhelm the movie.  Does it really help you much to see D-Day depicted the way it "really was", with all of the mind numbing violence?  War is Hell.  Sherman said so long ago.  Nevertheless, I regard that as a somewhat sterile, useless message.  Entrails spilling out on the ground are the same, whether the war is a "good war" or a "bad war". I guess there is some value in not sanitizing it, but I wonder whether that really makes for good movie making (not entrails in "Kwai", or "The Great Escape" or "Stalag 17").

In any event, these three movies show just how far Hollywood has descended in its examination of men at war. 

Stalag 17 is about the psycholotical pressures on real life "Hogan's Heroes", and again about how good men can be led into error.  I don't think it is just because our wars have becme more complicated.

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