What makes a film classic? To abstract: what makes any single piece of media worthy of historical cataloging in Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant?” The simplest answer to this question is hegemonic subjectivity: a consort of culturally in-tune men and women with qualification afforded to them via…what exactly? This argument of who gets to rule is an old one, dating back to Plato’s Republic (also a classic) and mentioned throughout cultural and state criticism. Pansocial critic, Chuck Klosterman, mentions this idea in another form: “ratedness,” or how accurately the social sphere “rates” culture. He argued that most pieces of social culture are inacurately rated, that the public perceives it better or worse than some static standard Klosterman himself decrees. This argument, like much of his critique, relies on this same public to judge whether Klosterman has made an accurate measure of a bearer of standards. For film, and especially Best Picture winners, the piece of media can only either be accurately rated or overrated because for 88 years the public has accepted the Academy’s judgement as fair. This blog argues a larger point: that the Academy’s choice further represents a broader message. That not only was the film “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” but also that it was the most of these adverbs. In this respect, even the Academy’s choice can be overrated; most of these films do represent the zeitgeist – mood – of their respective years, but some (“Crash”) do not. In 1957, The Academy selected The Bridge on the River Kwai to represent the year. It is a classic.
Kwai is a classic for three reasons: timeliness, message, and skill. Together, these qualities not only allow exploration of its production and its reception, but also define a mark against which any other film of serious pursuit can be benched.
Timeliness: the key to “timeliness,” in a sense is not necessarily when the team released the film (the criterion is not called release for a reason), but the manner by which the film is shown to the public that includes the release. For example: the film’s historical context matters, as does the subject matter, and the distance between the film’s subject matter and its time-sensitive social or technical circumstances (i.e. films before and after Hays’ Code, before and after color, before and after home video, different wars, etc.) Releasing a film before or after its ideal can dampen its impact. The Bridge on the River Kwai hit theatres 12 years after VJ-Day, far enough removed from American World War weariness – but still burrowed in the salty aftermath of Korea. Viewing it in a past-tense heightens its great strengths with many more, and many more complicated, global conflicts and its message remains vital.
Message: A message is both an obvious and designed takeaway and one coded in motif, double-entendre, metaphor, etc. The obvious messages:
War is messy and unpredictable, but people still make their own, predictable decisions
Principled men make practical decisions, except when they do not
Motivation matters, except when it does not
Nationalism and jingoism have hard ceilings
Lie at one’s own risk, and hope for a net-positive outcome; nothing is guaranteed
Willingness to die for a cause does not remove the edge from or the quick pace of death
Yet, a more non-obvious message still lurked, waiting for a pluck. It was a calm among storms, perhaps, and a time for somber reflection on human desires and motivations. The bridge is most obviously a willing metaphor for a desire to cross-cultural aphasia. The film attempted to non-obviously demonstrate many of the functions the audience will have learned in adolescence. The literal, present theatre of war was disguised as an in-vogue epic for a figurative one, and the world is all the better for it.
Skill: The most obvious and/or subjective measure is a skill evaluation. The most visible “skill” set is that of the acting, and the most visible measure is the Academy Award for Best Actor, given to Alec Guinness for his performance as Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson, and the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, for which Sessue Hayakawa earned a nomination. But the whole ensemble cast, also including William Holden and Jack Hawkins, provided chemistry necessary to the forward-view for the film: skill in acting is not how one reads her own lines, but how a cast can elevate performance: The Bridge on the River Kwai provides a believable web of relationships whose dynamisms only enhance as the film progresses. However: if not for deft writing (the source of which provides material andmotivation for the actors), triumphant direction (whose purpose is to coordinate the relationship-building), and outstanding crew work (for which The Bridge on the River Kwai earned three additional Oscars in editing, scoring, and physical filming [different to direction]), this film finds no place in the Library of Congress or near the top of many lists for greatest film ever made. Buyer beware those who underrate excellent teamwork.
The Bridge on the River Kwai is thus accurately rated: it is neither better than its worth, nor worse. It has cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance and deserves all of its accolades. Yet, it is not the best film ever made, and not the best Oscar winner because, according to this blog’s logic, does not best represent the year it was made, or at least more so than other films. The answer to that inquiry is most likely unfounded in any sort of reason.
In Oscar context, that it beat heavyweights (including another film that will vie for “best” film of all-time, 12 Angry Men) demonstrates that it was the best film to represent 1957’s local zeitgeist. Among its peers, too – Sayonara, Peyton Place, and Witness for the Prosecution – The Bridge on the River Kwai stands out. Collectively 1957’s royal strength begs the question: is this year the best year for nominees in the Oscar’s 88-year history?