Crimson Tide (1995) and The Sum of All Fears (2002)

In the movie Crimson Tide, Russian rebels take control of nuclear missiles, which they threaten to launch, starting nuclear war with the United States, if their demands are not met.  Leaves are canceled, and Commander Hunter (Denzel Washington) is assigned to be the executive officer aboard the Alabama, a nuclear submarine, whose commanding officer is Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman).

When we first see Hunter, he and his wife are throwing a birthday party for their daughter, who is five years old.  He also has an eight-year-old son.  When we first see Captain Ramsey, all we see is a dog, which we assume is the extent of his “family.”  So, we know we are supposed to like Hunter, but be suspicious of Ramsey.

Ramsey is contemptuous of Hunter.  When interviewing him, Ramsey smirks when he reads that Hunter spent a year at Harvard.  Even though Hunter was at the top of the list for replacing the submarine’s executive officer, Ramsey belittles Hunter by pointing out that it was a short list.  He further shows what he thinks of Hunter by saying that the previous executive officer was the best he ever had, implying that Hunter will never be able to measure up.  When Ramsey finds out that Hunter likes to ride horses, his favorite being an Arabian, Ramsey disingenuously remarks that he wouldn’t be able to handle an Arabian.  “Just give me an old paint,” he says, sharing a knowing chuckle with the Chief of the Boat.  They clearly regard the riding of an Arabian horse as elitist.  Then we find out that Ramsey is a sexist and misogynist, as he goes on to compare horses to high school girls:

Yeah, horses are fascinating animals.  Dumb as fence posts, but very intuitive.  In that way, they’re not too different from high school girls.  They might not have a brain in their head, but they do know all the boys want to fuck ’em.  Don’t have to be able to read Ulysses to know where they’re comin’ from.

What do you bet that Hunter is a Democrat, and Ramsey is a Republican?

In any event, Ramsey strikes us as a bully, making fun of a subordinate who just has to sit there and take it.  He is small-minded and petty, holding a grudge against Hunter on account of his education, indirectly referring to him as an “egghead.”  Later on, Hunter’s friend, Lieutenant Ince, explains to Hunter what we have already figured out:

To him, you’re Annapolis, Harvard, expert on theory, well-versed in world affairs. Ha!  He’s had his head up his ass driving ships for the last twenty-five years.  He’s probably a little paranoid about that.  I mean, Navy’s all he’s got.  Navy and that little rat-dog of his.  That’s why his wife left him.

Now, the scriptwriters could have made him a widower, having Ince say, “Navy’s all he’s got.  Navy and that little rat-dog of his, ever since his wife died.”  But that would have made him a sympathetic figure, and we couldn’t have that.  In fact, the writers didn’t even vouchsafe him a no-fault divorce.  Instead, the writers had Ince say that his wife left him, from which we are to imagine that she just got fed up with him because he was an insufferable jerk.

Try to imagine that it was Ramsey who, at the beginning of the movie, was filming his granddaughter’s birthday party when the call came in for him to prepare to ship out, while it was Hunter whose wife left him.  That would have made this an interesting movie, with both Ramsey and Hunter playing less predictable roles.  Instead, we get a simplistic opposition—good family man versus bad family man—leading to a predictable outcome.

After they have boarded the submarine and left port, Ramsey expresses his one regret about heading out to sea:  “My last breath of polluted air for the next sixty-five days,” he says, as he inhales on his cigar.  “I don’t trust air I can’t see.”  Now we know he is a Republican.

Tension builds between Ramsey and Hunter.  Then they receive orders to launch nuclear missiles to take out the rebel missiles.  Before they can do that, they are almost torpedoed by a Russian submarine, which causes some damage.  The end result is that they lose communication with Washington, D.C. just as a final message was coming through, of which they get only a fragment.  Ramsey is determined to proceed according to the last complete order received, which was to launch nuclear missiles at the rebel missile sites.  Hunter argues that they should not proceed, because the message fragment might have been an order to cancel the launch.  Let other submarines, which are not damaged and out of communication, do what needs to be done, he argues.  When Ramsey tries to break protocol and replace Hunter, so that he can have someone concur with his order to launch, the result is a mutiny and then a counter mutiny.

Perhaps the most condescending part of this movie is the way the sailors are depicted as being deep into pop culture.  It’s not so bad when they play trivia regarding submarine movies like The Enemy Below and Run Silent Run Deep, but when they get into fights over the Silver Surfer and have to be inspired by comparisons to Star Trek, we have to wonder what kind of sailors are on that submarine.  Actually, the question we really have to ask is, what kind of regard do the scriptwriters have for the intended audience?  They are obviously appealing to all the science-fiction and comic-book nerds that will be watching this movie, so that they can see themselves as fitting right in on that submarine, just like real men.  And they are presumably appealing to movie-nerds like me as well, to make us suppose we would fit right in too, but I have no illusions on that score.

After Ramsey retakes command of the submarine, radio contact is on the verge of being restored.  He agrees to wait three minutes for a confirmation to launch.  While they wait, in order to keep from being bored, he starts talking to Hunter again about horses:

Ramsey:  Speaking of horses, did you ever see those Lipizzaner stallions?

Hunter:  What?

Ramsey:  From Portugal.  The Lipizzaner stallions.  The most highly trained horses in the world. They’re all white.

Hunter:  Yes, sir.

Ramsey:  “Yes, sir,” you’re aware they’re all white or “yes, sir,” you’ve seen them?

Hunter:  Yes, sir, I’ve seen them.  Yes, sir, I’m aware that they’re all white.  They’re not from Portugal.  They’re from Spain.  And at birth, they’re not white, they’re black.

While I admit that it’s cute the way the scriptwriters use these conversations about horses as a unifying theme for these two men, I have to wonder about the emphasis being placed by Ramsey on the fact that the horses are white.  Is this supposed to be an indirect way for Ramsey to express his attitude of white supremacy?  And is Hunter’s response supposed to suggest that these horses are essentially black, since they are born that way?  It seems almost too dumb to countenance.  And yet, if that is not the point of this conversation, then what is?

In the end, radio contact is restored, proving that Hunter was right:  the order to launch missiles had been cancelled.  Subsequently, at a hearing on these events, Ramsey is allowed to be magnanimous in defeat, taking early retirement and recommending Hunter be given his next command.

Any chance for suspense in this movie is undermined by the fact that the ending is completely predictable.  First of all, in any movie you have ever seen in which someone wants to launch nuclear weapons, that person is either crazy, as in Dr. Strangelove or:  How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); evil, as in The Dead Zone (1983); or wrongheaded, as in Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977).  So, we know there is no way that it is going to turn out that Ramsey is right and Hunter is wrong, though we can try to imagine two possible endings going against this formula.

Ending One:  Ramsey succeeds in launching the missiles. And it is good he did too, because all the other American submarines in the area had been taken out by Russian submarines.  As a result, the missiles controlled by the rebels are destroyed, and even the Russians are grateful for Ramsey’s bold and decisive action.  Ramsey is promoted to admiral, while Hunter is court-martialed and sentenced to thirty years in military prison.

Ending Two:  Hunter succeeds in preventing Ramsey from taking out the rebel sites.  As a result, the rebels are able to launch their missiles, full scale thermonuclear war breaks out, hundreds of millions of people die immediately, and the Earth is poisoned with radioactivity.  Hunter realizes he was wrong, as he and the other members of the crew slowly begin dying of radiation sickness.

Needless to say, those two endings, though certainly possible in real life, are unthinkable for a movie.  On the Beach (1959) has the world coming to an end as a result of nuclear war and the radioactive fallout that follows, but it is not an example of Ending Two because no one on the nuclear submarine is to blame.  Notably, this movie did not come up during the trivia game about submarine movies.

The race of the two officers also makes the outcome predictable.  We cannot simply switch the roles of these two actors, because Gene Hackman is about twenty-five years older than Denzel Washington.  But let’s use our imagination.  Suppose they had selected Morgan Freeman to play Captain Ramsey and Brad Pitt to play Commander Hunter.  And then suppose that everything that happened was otherwise the same.  For example, Morgan Freeman punches Brad Pitt twice in the face for refusing to go along with the missile launch.  But in the end, Morgan Freeman is proven to be wrong.

While something like that could happen in real life, this too would be unthinkable for a movie.

Of course, we could have Morgan Freeman’s Ramsey turn out to be right, launching the missiles and saving the day, while Brad Pitt’s Hunter is court-martialed, as imagined in Ending One above.  That would preserve the requirements regarding race, but at the expense of violating the principle that whoever wants to launch nuclear weapons is crazy, evil, or wrongheaded.

Finally, there was no way that the wholesome family man was going to turn out to be wrong, while the man whose wife left him was going to turn out to be right.

Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie is triply predictable:  the officer that is (1) African American, (2) a good family man, and (3) opposed to launching nuclear missiles must prevail over the officer that is (1) white, (2) a bad family man, and (3) in favor of launching nuclear missiles.

A variation on this interplay of nuclear weapons and African Americans occurs in The Sum of All Fears (2002).  In that movie, a bunch of neo-Nazis have decided to do what Hitler should have done:  get the Americans and the Russians to fight each other.  To that end, they purchase a nuclear bomb on the black market, which they intend to detonate in the United States, thereby precipitating World War III.

In the first part of this movie, we aren’t too worried, because Morgan Freeman plays William Cabot, Director of the C.I.A.  Should the neo-Nazis succeed in their plan to explode the nuke, he will provide the wise counsel that President Fowler (James Cromwell) needs to keep from launching a misguided attack on the Russians.  However, when the nuclear device goes off at a football game, Cabot is mortally wounded.  Now there are nothing but white males running things in the White House, and they are all becoming emotional and irrational.  They want to launch a nuclear strike against the Russians.  We know they would be wrong to do so, because it was not the Russians that were responsible for nuking that football game.  But that knowledge is superfluous, because we already know that anyone in a movie that wants to launch nuclear weapons is in the wrong.

Things are worse in Russia.  At least here in the United States, after the death of Cabot, there are still some low-level, African-American officers and intelligence analysts to help keep things on an even keel; but over in Russia, they don’t have any African Americans at all.

Therefore, it’s all up to Jack Ryan (Ben Affleck), Cabot’s top analyst in the C.I.A.  He knows that the bomb’s plutonium was manufactured in the United States, so the attack must be a rogue operation.  But he can’t get through to the president because he and all his top aides are white, and they won’t listen.

Ryan goes to the Pentagon, but things don’t look good.  They’re all white, and they won’t listen.

But wait!  There’s a black general.  Oh, thank God!  He’ll listen.

And listen he does, allowing Ryan to save the day.

And so it is that if you are going to make a movie about the possibility of nuclear war, the only way the movie will have any suspense is if you make it look as though there are no African Americans around to keep the white males from blowing up the world.

A Guy Named Joe (1943) and Always (1989)

A long time ago, I watched A Guy Named Joe, but just barely.  I would have forgotten about it completely had I not recently seen the movie Trumbo (2015), which begins with a montage of the movies for which Dalton Trumbo had already written scripts before he got in trouble with the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947.  Presumably, the idea was to showcase these movies as evidence of what a good sreenwriter he was.  So, I decided to take another look.  In so doing, I learned that it was one of Steven Spielberg’s favorite movies, leading him to remake this movie as Always (1989).  I find it all so hard to believe.  If there was any movie that Trumbo should have written under a pseudonym, this was it.  And as bad as that movie was, Always somehow managed to be worse.

A Guy Named Joe has two strikes against it.  First, it is a combat film made during World War II.  It is painful to watch these movies today, what with all the gung-ho patriotism they exude.  Second, it is one of those Heaven movies, which are even more painful to watch.  The fact that it belongs to both genres makes watching it all the way through a most trying experience.  But I must say at the outset that as far as WWII combat movies go, this one is about average, but as far as Heaven movies go, this is one of the dumbest I have ever seen.

The title character of this movie is Pete Sandige (Spencer Tracy).  Early in the movie, a child explains that in American slang, “Joe” refers to anyone who is a “right chap,” and that’s what Pete is.  Pete loves being the pilot of a bomber so much that he is constantly taking risks disapproved of by his commanding officer, “Nails” Kilpatrick (James Gleason), and by his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne).  She’s a pilot, working for the Ferry Service, and she takes risks too, for which Pete threatens to put her across his knee and spank.

Nails and Dorinda both want to take Pete out of combat, either by promoting him or by reassigning him to teach new officers how to fly.  Pete is appalled at their suggestions.  He says he’d go crazy sitting around in an officer’s club when he is not teaching “kids,” whom he hates.  One gets the impression that he will be miserable when the war is over, when there will no longer be an enemy for him to drop bombs on.

Dorinda gets a premonition that “his number’s up.”  In a movie, when someone has a premonition that something bad is going to happen, it always does.  She really puts pressure on Pete to accept that teaching assignment and marry her, and he agrees.  But first, there is this one last mission for him to fly in.  His plane is damaged, but instead of bailing out, he flies the plane right over a Japanese aircraft carrier and blows it up.  But then he crashes and dies.

The next we see of Pete, he is walking along on the clouds.  He is still wearing his uniform.  Is that the way it works in Heaven?  Must you wear forever what you were wearing the moment you died?  If so, then listen up, ladies.  Remember when your mother told you always to wear clean underwear in case you are in an accident?  And she was only worried what the nurses at the hospital would think.  Suppose you die in that accident.  Just imagine having to wear those dirty panties for all eternity.  On the other hand, Pete’s uniform is not wet and wrinkled, as you would expect from the fact that he died in the ocean, but is all cleaned and pressed.  So, maybe God will be merciful and give you a fresh pair of panties when you show up for your eternal reward.

Anyway, it’s good Pete is still in uniform, because Heaven appears to be a United States Army Air Force base.  Another dead pilot, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson), explains to Pete that he is dead and in Heaven.  Pete says he never played a harp, but Dick says, “There’s not much time for harp playing up here.  There’s plenty of work to do, and good men to do it.”

Work?  In Heaven?  Oh no!  And here I was worried about what I might be wearing when I die.  Don’t tell me I’m going to have to go back to work, doing what I did for a living for thirty-five years.  Of course, Pete loves being a bomber pilot, and one of the conceptions of Heaven is that we get to do in Paradise what we enjoyed doing on Earth.  He loves killing people by dropping bombs on them during wartime, so he gets to continue killing them now that he is in Heaven.  Almost.  The General (Lionel Barrymore) tells Pete that he will only be helping new pilots learn how to drop bombs on the enemy, so he will sort of have that teaching job Dorinda was talking about.  Obviously, they won’t be dropping bombs in Heaven, so Pete will have to go back to Earth to help out those pilots.  Presumably, there is also a Japanese air force base in Heaven where dead Japanese pilots are sent back to Earth to help their fellow officers become pilots too.  Otherwise, how would Japanese pilots ever learn how to drop bombs on Americans?

Like most Heaven movies, we do not get to see God, the exception being The Green Pastures (1936).  In fact, most of the other Heaven movies never even refer to God.  There is always some administrator, like the title character in Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), who talks about what was meant to be and what must be done.  The people who make these movies probably know that there is something a little frivolous in their depictions of Heaven, and they are afraid that any reference to God might cross the line and move into the territory of sacrilege and blasphemy.  Furthermore, if God did make an appearance, we would expect him to explain why he doesn’t just stop the war himself, thereby plunging the movie into the whole problem of evil that has bedeviled the faithful since the Book of Job and the dilemma of Epicurus.

Pete and Dick head back down to Earth, where no one can see or hear them.  So, we wonder, how are they going to instruct anyone?  They do it by planting thoughts in their heads.  Pete is assigned to tutor Ted Randall (Van Johnson), and he gets him to relax by psychically putting the command to relax into Ted’s head.  Pete doesn’t like Ted because he inherited four million dollars.  “I never did see a guy that inherited a lot of dough that was any good,” he says.  Now, that’s just the kind of commie sentiment that HUAC was talking about!

Anyway, Pete likes Ted even less when he starts wooing Dorinda, and she agrees to marry him.  Then Pete starts trying to sabotage him by putting bad thoughts into his head, making him show off in the airplane, hoping he will be demoted and hoping his hotshot stunts will anger Dorinda.  It doesn’t work, and Pete has to go back to Heaven for a reprimand from the General.  Finally, Pete sees the light and psychically tells Dorinda to forget about him and marry Ted, right after she commandeers a bomber to fly a dangerous mission destroying an ammunition dump so that Ted won’t have to fly it and possibly be killed.  Yeah, that’s right.  The Heaven part of this movie wasn’t ridiculous enough, so they had to throw this absurdity into the plot as well.

And so, as far as this movie is concerned, Heaven is a means to an end, its function being to help someone achieve some worldly good, such as killing the enemy or getting the girl.  By implication, without this world to concern itself with, Heaven would be pointless.  But then, there really is nothing new about this.  Aristotle may have said that God spends all his time thinking about himself, but the gods as conceived of by the rest of mankind always seem inordinately occupied with the doings of man, and so much so that we wonder what they would do without us.  The Bible should have begun, “In the beginning, God was bored.”

While I was girding my loins in preparation for watching Always, the remake by Spielberg, of whom I am not a fan, I was trying to imagine which war would be the setting for this movie.  Since it was made in 1989, the Gulf War was a year away, so my thoughts drifted to the Vietnam War.  But the idea of Pete as a pilot in that war who loves dropping napalm just didn’t have the same feel, especially when he would later be sent back from Heaven to help Ted drop that napalm.  Well, since ten years earlier, Spielberg made 1941 (1979), which was set in World War II, perhaps that would be the setting here.

As it turned out, there is no war at all.  There are World War II planes, however, which pilots fly to drop fire retardant on forest fires, rather than bombs or napalm.  But it just isn’t the same, and Spielberg even has Al (John Goodman) openly express that very sentiment while talking to Pete (Richard Dreyfuss):

What this place reminds me of is the war in Europe….  I wasn’t in it, but think about it.  The beer is warm, the hall is a Quonset, there are B-26s outside, hotshot pilots inside, airstrip in the woods.  It’s England!  Everything but Glenn Miller.  Except we go to burning places and bomb them till they stop burning.  You see, Pete, there ain’t no war here….  That’s why they don’t make movies called Night Raid to Boise, Idaho or Firemen Strike at Dawn.  And this is why you’re not exactly a hero for taking the chances you take.  You’re more of what I would call a dickhead.

And so, through the mouth of Al, Spielberg makes explicit what we would all be thinking anyway.  As if that were not enough, Dorinda (Holly Hunter) does her part to deflate the importance of what Pete is doing after she has her premonition and wants him to quit:  “I could understand how you fly, if you were risking yourself for civilization.”

My guess is that Spielberg decided to remake A Guy Named Joe in a peacetime setting to avoid having Heaven be complicit in killing people, the price of so doing, however, being that the mission of putting out forest fires just doesn’t seem to warrant the attention of Heaven.  But as Al indicates, it doesn’t warrant the attention of those of us in the audience either.

All right, there is a scene in which Pete gets to be a hero, saving Al’s life, but by that time we find the whole business unworthy of a movie, just as Al said.  And Pete hasn’t even gone to Heaven yet.  Well, at this point I figured there would be someone corresponding to Dick Rumney, who tells him there’s a lot of fires that need putting out, and he will  have to help do it.  Instead, there is Hap (Audrey Hepburn), who just says that he needs to help teach new pilots how to fly, just as he was taught to fly by the ghost of a dead pilot, who was taught by the ghost of a previously deceased pilot.  She doesn’t explain how the first pilot learned to fly, however.  She also tells Pete that he will have to spend all his time doing good for others, since it would be a waste of time worrying about himself because he’s dead.

They also talk about Einstein and space and time.  Back when A Guy Named Joe was made, it sufficed to allude to God or Heaven to justify the unrealistic stuff you were seeing on the screen.  But nowadays, when a movie defies common sense, someone will typically utter the magic words “Einstein” or “quantum mechanics” as a way of forestalling criticism that the movie is ridiculous.

Some parts of this movie are played seriously, but some parts are played for laughs.  For example, Pete uses his psychic powers to put thoughts into Al’s head, making him do something silly, sort of like the way Froggy used to do on the Buster Brown Show, which I thought was funny when I watched it as a six-year-old child.

Anyway, just as in A Guy Named Joe, Dorinda flies a dangerous mission so that Ted won’t have to and possibly get himself killed.  Then Pete leaves Earth and goes back to Heaven.  “Wait a minute,” you might be saying, “he’s not through teaching Ted how to fly.  That’s why Dorinda had to fly the mission instead.”  Oh, well, there are probably plenty of other ghost pilots hanging around Heaven who can finish teaching Ted what he needs to know.

Before Pete leaves, he tells Dorinda that she can marry Ted.  And it was important that he do so, because it is only through supernatural intervention that a woman is able to forget one man and move on to another.  Perhaps that is why Pete is allowed to return to Heaven before finishing that teaching job, otherwise he would have had to watch Ted and Dorinda having sex.  On the other hand, it might have been funny having Pete hang around so he could pull another Froggy routine, saying, “And then you put it in her butt.”

Strategic Air Command (1955)

When watching Strategic Air Command, you almost expect to hear Reed Hadley saying, “These are the men of the Strategic Air Command, who stand ready to defend our nation against nuclear attack…,” and so forth, accompanied by triumphal music, determined to inspire us with patriotic admiration.

I am tempted to say that this is a dated movie, one that might have had some resonance in the 1950s, when the threat of nuclear attack seemed very real, except for one thing:  I was around in those days, and contrary to what you may have heard, children were not terrified by the threat of the hydrogen bomb.  We use to love getting out of class to go see those films demonstrating the destructiveness of this weapon.  It was better than doing long division.  The teachers would tell us that if we saw a flash of light, we should immediately “duck and cover,” but we joked about the futility in that.  One wise guy posted a note on the wall, saying, “In case of nuclear attack:  (1) Bend over.  (2) Put your head between your legs. (3) Kiss your ass goodbye.”  So, what I am trying to say in all this is that even in 1955, this movie would have been boring.  It’s just that it is even more so today.

As a check on how people of the day may have reacted to this movie, I consulted Bosley Crowther’s review for the New York Times.  He devotes the first six paragraphs to talking about the visuals.  In the seventh paragraph, he finally gets around to talking about the plot and the acting.  But then, given the plot and the acting, he might just as well have devoted a couple more paragraphs to the splendors of Vista Vision.

James Stewart plays Dutch Holland, a professional baseball player.  He was a pilot during World War II, and now, being in the reserves, he is called back to active duty to fly the long range bombers that carry a nuclear payload in case World War III should break out.  His wife Sally, June Allyson, really shouldn’t worry her pretty little head about the important work men have to do, but being a woman, she is all sentiment and feeling, and she just doesn’t understand her husband, who has to make all the big decisions in their marriage without consulting her, because a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.

Unfortunately, World War III does not break out.  That means the movie must manufacture moments of dramatic tension:  a seemingly hostile situation just turns out to be a drill; an engine catches on fire, causing a crash; a bomber almost runs out of fuel, and Dutch has to land in the fog.  It makes you sympathetic to the device in Top Gun (1986), in which a dogfight occurs between American fighter planes and those of an unnamed enemy, even though the country is not at war.  Let’s face it.  Military movies set during peacetime can be pretty dull.

During the crash that occurred because the engine caught on fire, Dutch injured his shoulder.  This eventually leads to his being discharged, giving us the typical Hollywood ending:  Dutch got the satisfaction of doing the right thing by deciding to make a career out of being in the Air Force in spite of Sally’s objections, and Sally gets her way when he is forced to return to civilian life.  Of course, with an injured shoulder, it is unlikely that he will ever play third base again, which is in keeping with the sense of sacrifice that the men of SAC must make to keep this nation safe, as Reed Hadley might have said, just before the credits start to roll.

7th Heaven (1927) and Seventh Heaven (1937)

The 1927 movie 7th Heaven begins with a prologue:  “For those who will climb it, there is a ladder leading from the depths to the heights—from the sewer to the stars—the ladder of courage.  In the slums of Paris—under a street known as The Hole in the Sock—”  This sequence of prepositional phrases breaks off here, and the movie proper begins.  Presumably, this was intended to be inspirational, but there is a hint of blaming the victim in that message.  In other words, if someone is in the depths, the sewer, as it were, then it’s because he is a coward.  Nor is this cowardice on his part something he cannot help, but rather, he could choose to be brave and rise to the heights, if he wanted to.

Anyway, Chico (Charles Farrell) works in the sewer in Paris shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.  He aspires to rise, literally and figuratively, to the position of street cleaner, but with seemingly little hope of doing so.

Diane (Janet Gaynor) is mistreated by her older sister Nana.  Well, I suppose “mistreated” is a bit of an understatement.  When we first see them together, Nana is lashing Diane with a bullwhip, apparently because Diane is not happy about the way they steal stuff to support themselves.  That is what you might call melodramatic.  Then Nana sends Diane out to fence the watch they just stole and then to get some absinthe.

While Diane is gone, a priest shows up at their apartment.  Nana tells him she is not interested in hearing him spout religion, but he has a different mission.  It seems that Nana and Diane have an uncle and aunt who have returned from the South Seas.  They are rich and they want to take their two nieces into their home.  The next day the aunt and uncle show up with a Colonel Brissac.  The aunt takes Diane in her arms, but the stern uncle first wants to know if they have been good girls.  Diane admits they have not been good girls.  Well, that’s too bad.  Now the uncle wants nothing to do with them.  Did I mention that this movie was melodramatic?

After the uncle, aunt, and Colonel Brissac leave, Nana becomes furious with Diane.  I must admit, she does have point.  I mean, it was one thing if Diane felt bad about stealing.  But when all she had to do was tell a little lie, saying that she and Nana had been good girls, and they then would have escaped the squalid conditions in which they lived, I had to wonder if maybe Diane didn’t deserve a whipping.

Apparently, Nana certainly thought so, because the next thing you know, she is chasing Diane through the street, whipping her.  When Diane falls down, Nana starts choking her.  She is saved by Chico, who threatens to kill Nana if ever she whips Diane again.  Nana leaves.  Chico walks away from Diane, who is still lying in the gutter.  A friend of Chico’s praises him for saving her life, but he says that a creature like that would be better off dead.  Harsh, but if Diane were to have to live that way for the rest of her life, she would be better off dead.

However, he starts to feel sorry for her.  He picks her up and brings her over to where his companions are.  Then he offers to share some of the bread they have, but she shakes her head no.  He tells her that her problem is that she is afraid to fight, which recalls the message of the prologue.  He, on the other hand, says he is not afraid of anything, regarding himself as a remarkable fellow.  He then turns to one of his friends, asking him if he believes in “Bon Dieu” (the good God).  When his friend indicates he does, Chico asks if this Bon Dieu made the woman he just saved, born to be beaten and strangled in the gutter.

He is, of course, advancing the argument from evil:  If there really is an all-powerful, loving God, then why is the world full of so much evil, so much sin and suffering?  But just as we are thinking that his atheism has some depth to it, he reveals a rather naive attitude on the subject.  He tells his friend that he gave God a chance twice.  First, he went to the finest church in Paris, paid five francs for candles, and then prayed to be taken out of the sewer and made a street cleaner.  But God didn’t do it.  Second, he spent another five francs, asking God for a good wife with yellow hair. “The only thing Bon Dieu threw my way,” he says, “is that!” indicating Diane (who is a brunette).  “That’s why I’m an atheist,” he says.  “God owes me ten francs.”  In this way, the movie is saying that the objections that atheists have about religion are childish.

The priest that brought the supposedly good news to Nana about a rich uncle and aunt overhears Chico’s lament.  It just so happens, the priest tells Chico, that he has been made a street cleaner.  So, it looks as though God paid off on the first deal.

Meanwhile, Diane finds the knife Chico was using to cut bread and tries to use it to kill herself.  Chico stops her and asks why she tried to do that.  She gives an answer similar to the remark he made earlier, that her life is not worth living.  But now he talks her out of it.  In other words, his tough talk is just talk.

Then it turns out that Nana has been arrested.  Out of spite, she points the finger at Diane, saying her sister is no better than she is.  The policeman starts to arrest her.  But Chico stops him, saying she is his wife.  The policeman says he will let her go, but he takes down Chico’s address so that a detective can check on him later to see if they really are married.

At this point, we figure that stealing must not be all that Nana was doing.  Presumably, the policeman caught Nana engaged in prostitution, for the only reason Diane’s being married would stop the policeman from arresting her would be if he suspected her of the same thing.

In any event, Chico agrees to let Diane stay with him until the police are satisfied.  Of course, he is a perfect gentleman and sleeps on the floor, letting Diane sleep alone in his bed unmolested.   Eventually, the two fall in love and decide to marry.  She says there must be a God, because he brought Chico to her.  He tells her not to worry her pretty little head about that.  He will be the one who has all the big thoughts.  Later, however, he says he will give God another chance, depending on whether their marriage remains true.

But then war breaks out, and Chico is compelled to enlist.  They agree that every day at eleven o’ clock, they will communicate with each other spiritually, saying, “Chico, Diane, Heaven.”  After he leaves, Nana shows up and starts trying to whip Diane again, but now Diane has the courage to fight, thanks to Chico’s encouragement, and she gets the bullwhip and starts going after Nana, who runs away for good.

After several years, Diane gets word that Chico is dead.  Colonel Brissac, who has been trying to get Diane to have sex with him, says he will take care of her.  The priest tells her she must not question the will of God, but she does question it.  Essentially, faith in God in this movie correlates with one’s fortunes:  when good things happen, there must be a God; when bad things happen, there is no God.  Presumably, we are supposed to regard this as being just as simplistic as Chico’s becoming an atheist when God didn’t deliver after he spent all that money on candles.  We are supposed to believe in God regardless of our fortunes, good or bad.

Brissac takes her in his arms to comfort her. Suddenly, Chico shows up.  He is not dead.  At first, we fear that he will be angry seeing Diane in Brissac’s arms, but it turns out he is blind.  Diane goes to him.  He says that all the big thoughts he had were really the Bon Dieu, saying, “He was within me.  Now that I am blind, I see that.”  Well, I’m not blind, so maybe that’s why I don’t understand that at all.  Anyway, she says she will be his eyes.  But Chico says he believes his blindness is only temporary, because he is a remarkable fellow.  Inasmuch as a heavenly beam of light then shines upon them, we can suppose that Chico is right.

The overall thrust of this movie is that we should have faith in God because things will all work out in the end.  It is an optimistic theology, to say the least.

In the 1937 remake, Seventh Heaven, things are really sweetened up.  First of all, the prologue of the original movie is replaced by this:  “On the lower left slope of Montmarte hill lies a sinister square called ‘The Sock.’  It’s wretched inhabitants, crowded like rats, live between Heaven and Hell, for their evil street is stopped suddenly by a church.”  And so, instead of saying that salvation depends on the courage the individual, the prologue in this remake lets us know that it depends on the church.

Chico is played by Jimmy Stewart.  It really is hard to take his atheism seriously.  Although Stewart came to play some edgy roles in the movies after World War II, at this stage of his career, he was still just an “Aw, shucks!” kind of guy.

Anyway, we are introduced to Chico’s co-worker (John Qualen), identified as “Sewer Rat” in this remake, as he takes refuge in the church when being pursued by the police for stealing a watch.  There was no such scene in the original.  Rather, in the original, we are introduced to Sewer Rat down in the sewer, looking up through the manhole so he can see up some woman’s dress.

The part about the rich uncle and aunt willing to take Nana (Gale Sondergaard) and Diane (Simone Simon) into their home, provided they have been good girls is eliminated in the remake.

As for Brissac, he is no longer a lecherous colonel, but rather a youthful sergeant.  While we suspect he is in in love with Diane, he is too much of a friend to think of taking advantage of her.

Finally, Diane is not in Brissac’s arms when Chico enters their apartment.  Rather, Diane enters the room and finds Chico alone.  They embrace.  Their faith in God is restored.

Fury (2014)

Because we are Americans, it is second nature for us to pull for American soldiers in a war movie, especially a World War II movie where we know that the Nazis are the most evil enemy we have ever fought.  But by the time this movie was over, I was pretty much past those preconceptions.

Had I not known anything about WWII, I would have been pulling for the Germans to kill all the evil Americans, who murder surrendering prisoners, rape innocent women, act like brutes, and bully the new recruit because he is a little guy who can’t defend himself.  The only suggestion that the Germans were evil in this movie was the way they hanged the draft dodgers and forced young teenagers to fight, but that seems almost benign compared to what we see the Americans do.

The movie centers around a tank crew led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt).  A replacement, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), is added to the crew, and he is immediately badgered and bullied by the rest of them, all of whom are bigger than he is in addition to outnumbering him, so there is no chance that he could defend himself.  You see, there they are in the middle of Germany toward the end of the war, but this tank crew isn’t satisfied to have the Germans for enemies, so they figure they will try to make an enemy out of this new guy as well.

Now, Don’s motive for treating Norman roughly is to toughen him up, so that he will be able to commit war crimes just like the rest of them.  But Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) and Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) are mean to him for a much more basic reason, which is that cruelty is fun.  I found myself hoping that Norman was just waiting for the chance to be alone with any one of them and would then put a bullet in his back.

The ultimate absurdity in this movie comes when Don and Norman go into an apartment where there are two German women.  Don says to Norman regarding the younger of the two, “If you don’t take her into that bedroom, I will.”  Reluctantly, Norman takes the girl into the bedroom.  When they close the door behind them, Don says to the other woman, “They’re young, and they’re alive.”  Aw!  Isn’t that sweet?  Rape can be so lovely and romantic when it occurs during wartime.

I really was glad that, except for Norman, the Americans in the tank all died in the end.  They deserved it.

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

As we know, The Birth of a Nation (1915), directed by D.W. Griffith, justifies the institution of slavery and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction as the need to protect white women from Negro lust.  Later that year, Griffith also produced Martyrs of the Alamo, which reveals that the war in which Texas declared and won its independence from Mexico was brought about by Mexican lust for white women.  So many white women were being accosted by the Mexican soldiers, it seems, that the white men finally had to take up arms to protect them.  When Santa Anna and his troops come in to put down the rebellion, the Texians took refuge in the Alamo, and we all know what happened next.

As an example of how cruel and ruthless the Mexican soldiers are, we see a scene in which a little boy is bayonetted, his body picked up and flung out of the way.  And when the battle is over, Santa Anna has anyone that survived the massacre executed, except for good-looking white women, of course.  We see an old woman being taken away for execution, while a young, pretty blonde is spared.  The intertitle notes that Santa Anna is an inveterate drug fiend known for his shameless orgies.  Right after that, we see him grabbing the pretty blonde, but she slaps him and gets away from him.  By the way, Santa Anna is played by Walter Long, the same man that played Gus in The Birth of a Nation, the black man that tried to rape Flora.

We have all heard how the Mexican soldiers were caught off guard when Sam Houston attacked at San Jacinto because they were taking their siesta.  But in addition to that, according to this movie, Santa Anna, appearing somewhat stoned, is busy having women dance for him, while a Mexican guard watches the show himself instead of watching for such things as an advancing army of Texians.  So, Mexican lust not only was the cause of the Texas revolution, it was also the cause of Mexico’s defeat as well.

Wings (1927)

Except for Clara Bow, I did not recognize the main actors in Wings, but that is not unusual for a silent film. So when I saw Gary Cooper, I was stunned, especially when it turned out that he only had a bit part. It is hard to believe that the producer of this movie did not immediately see his star quality and make more of it.

In any event, the story is about a couple of fighter pilots during World War I, plus a complicated side story of unrequited love involving a couple of women, one of which is played by the above-mentioned Clara Bow. The pilot named Dave (Richard Arlen) is obviously doomed. The sad farewell to his parents is the first clue. Then he tells his friend Jack (Charles Rogers) that he thinks the next flying mission will be his last, and asks him to see that his parents get his medal. Finally, he forgets the teddy bear that is his good luck charm. I’d call them clichés, but for all I know, this may be the first movie in which they occurred.

The only serious flaw is a scene in Paris where Jack starts seeing bubbles. It goes on way too long, almost as if the director, William Wellman, was so excited by this gimmick that he just could not get enough. There are plenty of action sequences to make up for this, however, much of it quite graphic, including a pilot spitting up blood, and another with blood spurting from his chest, something normally not seen in movies until the 1960s.

And, of course, no World War I movie would be complete without men climbing out of their trenches, charging the German lines, and being slaughtered by machine-gun fire. Has there ever been a movie in which the Germans get out of their trenches, charge the Allied lines, and get slaughtered in that fashion?  If you went by the movies, you’d probably think the Germans never made that mistake, in which case you have to wonder why they didn’t win the war.  In one scene, a soldier who has been blinded carries another soldier who cannot walk. Together, they continue to move toward the Germans along with the others. I don’t know what they thought they would do when they got there, except die, which is what they did. I guess we are supposed to admire their dedication.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (2001)

Regarding the Axis powers of the Second World War, we have always been willing to cut the Italians a big old break. The Japanese pulled a sneak attack on us at Pearl Harbor, and the Germans were responsible for the holocaust, but we like to think that the Italians were basically good people who just got carried away by Mussolini’s speeches. And so, an actual incident during the war, when the Italians teamed up with the Greeks to fight against their former allies, the Germans, fits right in with our inclination to grant the Italians favorable treatment.

In the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the Italian soldiers that occupy a Greek island have not seen any real action, but that is not surprising, because I have never seen an Italian soldier kill an American in a World War II movie. Moreover, they don’t seem to care about the war. They just want to sing opera. Isn’t that nice? The Greeks also seem to like the Italians better. Despite the fact that the Italians are still part of the Axis forces at this point in the movie, nobody seems to have a problem with the fact that Palagia (Penélope Cruz) is obviously in love with an Italian officer, Captain Corelli (Nicolas Cage), and even has sex with him; but another girl, who just gives a German officer a friendly kiss on the cheek, is lynched by the Greeks for being a traitor.

Reality or no reality, the decision by the Italians to fight with the Greeks against the Germans rather than simply handing over their arms when Mussolini surrenders to the Allies turns out to be a big mistake, because except for Corelli, they are all slaughtered by the Germans for being traitors. But then, that only makes us like the Italians even more.

Bitter Victory (1957)

Ideally, a movie should make sense on its own terms. It is a bad movie when scenes can only be explained by external logic, by what was going on in the mind of the director or screenwriter. John Ford was once asked, regarding the movie Stagecoach (1939), why the Indians chasing the stagecoach didn’t just shoot the horses, and his answer was, “Then there wouldn’t have been any movie,” which was an example of external logic. Actually, he was just being a smart aleck, because he could have said that the Indians wanted to capture the horses alive, which would have made sense, and more importantly, would have made the scene explicable in terms of internal logic alone.

A big problem with Bitter Victory, a movie about British commandos ordered to make a raid on Benghazi to steal documents from the German headquarters, is that too much of what happens in the movie is explicable only in terms of external logic. Nicholas Ray, the director, had some idea in his head about how things should turn out, which leads to one forced scene after another. The first one occurs in England before the commandos set out on their mission.  Captain Leith (Richard Burton) sees Jane (Ruth Roman) sitting at a table in a military night club. No sooner does he recognize her than Major Brand (Curd Jürgens) walks up beside him and asks Leith if he would like to meet his wife. What follows is a scene reminiscent of Casablanca, in which it becomes clear that Leith and Jane were once lovers, and cryptic remarks pass back and forth between them while Brand takes it all in, not understanding the particulars of the remarks but gleaning their general significance nevertheless. Because we have seen this sort of thing before, we question it more than we might have when seeing it for the first time.

In other words, the most natural thing for Leith to do when Brand asks him if he wants to meet his wife would be to say, “You mean Jane? I knew Jane before the war. I was just going over to say ‘Hi.’” Now, of course they would not admit they had been lovers, but there is no reason for Leith and Jane to deny they even knew each other, especially since their innuendoes make their previous relationship so obvious. By concealing that they knew each other and then making the concealment obvious, they only made things worse. So, why did they do this? Internal logic fails us here, and we are forced to reach for external logic. Ray wanted Brand to find out that Leith and Jane were once secretly lovers so that he would become jealous, and so Ray concocted this hurried, unrealistic scene to that end.

After the mission is complete, the commandos have to escape by walking through the desert.  However, two men are too injured to walk. Brand tells Leith he will have to stay behind with the wounded men until they die and then catch up with the rest of the men. That makes no sense. If they are going to die anyway, just leave them behind. Furthermore, in a much later scene, Brand reveals his orders, written down on a piece of paper, that their mission is so important that if men are wounded, they are to be left behind. Now it really makes no sense.

It gets worse. When Brand tells Leith to stay behind with the wounded, a soldier suggests making stretchers to carry them. Leith dismisses the idea, saying that the men would bleed to death in an hour. Sounds good to me. If they have scruples about leaving the men behind, carry them in stretchers for an hour, and then when they die, leave them in the desert. Instead, Leith stays behind with the wounded, and then, after everyone is gone, kills them. Actually, he only kills one of them, because he runs out of bullets. So then he decides to carry the other wounded man all by himself. You see, carrying a wounded man on a stretcher is a bad idea, but tossing him over your shoulder and staggering through the desert is a good idea. Conveniently, the man dies, and Leith is able to catch up with the rest of the men.

External logic to the rescue. The purpose of all this absurdity is to establish that Brand wanted Leith to kill the wounded for him, and then hold him responsible for doing so. That would be fine, if that could have been established coherently. But since internal logic fails us here, we have to reach for the director’s motivations instead.

After a while, the men run out of water. They come across a well, but before anyone takes a drink, someone suggests that the Germans may have poisoned it. The men put pressure on Brand to sample the water to see if it is safe to drink.  Rather than show fear, he takes a swig. It tastes all right, but Leith says it is too soon to tell. So, they leave the well without drinking any of the water. But if they were not going to drink the water regardless of what happened when Brand swallowed some, what was the point of Brand’s risking his life by drinking some of it in the first place? This contrivance can only be explained by Ray’s desire to show how Brand can be intimidated by his fear that others may think him a coward.

When Brand sees a scorpion crawling near Leith’s leg during a rest period, he does not warn Leith, hoping that Leith will be bitten. Mekrane (Raymond Pellegrin) sees the scorpion too, but does nothing. After Leith is bitten, Mekrane tries to kill Brand for letting the scorpion bite Leith. But if Mekrane cares so much about Leith, why didn’t he just walk over to the scorpion and step on it?

Finally, before Leith dies, he asks Brand to tell Jane that she was right and he was wrong. Instead, when Brand gets back to England, he tells Jane he did not hear what Leith said, but he probably said that he loved her. We know Brand is the sort who would lie about such a thing, but why this particular lie? As with the scorpion scene, I don’t think even external logic can make sense of this one.

If the movie is so illogical that not even external logic can make sense of some of it, we have to ask ourselves why film critics waste any time on it at all.  Now it is metalogic to the rescue.  Nicholas Ray is one of those directors that a lot of critics regard as an auteur, which means that all his movies will receive attention no matter how bad they are.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The 1950s means different things to different people, but it seems to suggest a time of conformity, shared values, and stability, a time when people could speak confidently of the American character. It was during this decade that consensus history was in vogue. Needless to say, those days, if they ever really existed, are long gone.

I say this because The Bridge on the River Kwai seems to be based on ideas of what it means to be an American as opposed to being British, ideas that may have been valid when this movie was made, but might readily be called into question today.  Whether this movie expresses the ideology I suggest is one thing; whether it represented a realistic difference between American and British attitudes is another thing; and whether any of this is still relevant sixty-five years later is still one more thing.


In an opening scene of this movie, we see crosses marking graves alongside some railroad tracks, giving us a sense of the price paid by Allied prisoners of war, forced by the Japanese to work on a railroad in Burma during World War II.  Then we see the men that are working on that railroad.  They appear to be poorly nourished, yet forced to do hard labor, barely able to swing the hammers that drive spikes into the ties that hold the rails together.

The scene shifts to William Holden, who plays US Navy Commander Shears.  Along with an Australian soldier, Corporal Weaver, he is just finishing burying a soldier that recently died of beriberi.  Unlike the frail prisoners of war we just saw, Shears looks to be in good physical shape.  At first, we might suppose that this is just one of those things we are supposed to overlook in a movie.  There have been actors who gained weight for a role, but I don’t think any actor ever starved himself so as to look malnourished.  On the other hand, we soon find out that Shears routinely steals stuff from the soldiers he is assigned to bury so that he can bribe the Japanese captain, with whom he has become friendly.  This allows him and Weaver to get admitted to the hospital, where they do not have to exert themselves.  After the Japanese guard leaves, Shears makes some sarcastic remarks over the grave they just dug, saying the man died for “the greater glory of….  What did he die for?”

Well, this is certainly no John Wayne movie.  I mean, John Wayne would have been too old for this part anyway, but that aside, it would have been unthinkable for him to express that kind of antiwar cynicism.  In fact, it would be unthinkable for him to be a prisoner of war in any event, because that would mean he would have had to surrender.  John Wayne might get killed in a movie, but never surrender.  Holden, on the other hand, is suited to this role.  He was similarly cynical in Stalag 17 (1953), where he was a German prisoner of war, dealing in various schemes to make his life comfortable, often wagering that his fellow prisoners will get killed trying to escape. That proved to be short-sighted, to say the least, since he incurred the wrath of his fellow Americans, getting himself beaten up as a result.  In this movie, his egoism is more enlightened.

The contrast with John Wayne movies raises the question as to whether cynicism was thought to be an American trait in the 1950s, since John Wayne could often be heard mouthing a lot of sentimental stuff in his war movies.  I have read that during World War I, the doughboys sang songs; during World War II, the American GIs made wisecracks.  So, if it was an American trait back then, it might have been a recent one.  In any event, Shears is the only American in this movie, and he is the only one who is cynical as well.


We might wonder how a man with the attitude of Shears ever became an officer, but we later find out that he is really an enlisted man.  He was on the USS Houston, which was sunk early in the war, but he and an officer became separated from the rest of the crew.  The officer ended up getting killed, so Shears helped himself to the fellow’s uniform, figuring that as an officer, he would receive better treatment at the hands of the Japanese, and not be expected to do any manual labor.  This brings out another character trait of his, which is his contempt for the distinction between officers and enlisted men.  This is not unexpected coming from an American, steeped in the idea that all men are created equal.  The distinction between officers and enlisted men, as far as Americans are concerned, is artificial, a fiction necessitated by the needs of war.


As he and Weaver make their way to the hospital, a battalion of British soldiers is arriving, led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness).  They are whistling the “Colonel Bogey March,” which is indicative of a camaraderie among the British soldiers, their esprit de corps.  We cannot imagine Shears participating in such whistling, or singing a song with other soldiers.  The fact that he is the only American in the camp emphasizes his individualism, another trait Americans were known for, as opposed to the British soldiers and their sense of the collective.

Colonel Saito, the commanding officer of the camp, asserts that the British officers will help build a bridge over the River Kwai, right alongside the enlisted men, something Shears found out to his chagrin, his scheme to avoid such work by pretending to be an officer having been in vain. Nicholson, however, takes the distinction between officers and enlisted men as having profound significance, which is not surprising, considering that England is a country where class distinctions are fundamental, where being a duke, baron, lord, etc. is a matter of birth.  When Saito insists that the British officers also do manual labor, Nicholson refuses to allow his officers to comply, willing to endure being beaten and tortured rather than yield on this matter.  He prevails in the end because Saito is behind schedule in getting the title bridge built, and he needs Nicholson’s cooperation.


Not surprisingly, we find out that Colonel Nicholson was ordered to surrender by his superiors. Otherwise, we can easily imagine that a man of his sort would have preferred to fight to the end. Shears refers to him as having the kind of guts British officers had in 1914, when they went “over the top with nothing but a swagger stick,” the kind of guts, he says, that “can get us all killed.” Shears, we have no doubt, had he been in Nicholson’s position, would have preferred surrendering to being killed. However, the conditions in the camp are so harsh that Shears and Weaver have been planning an escape.  Nicholson, however, figures that his orders to surrender require that neither he nor any of his men make such an attempt.  He believes that one must obey the law, or else there is no civilization.  Shears says there is no civilization in the jungle, so the law is irrelevant.  In short, Shears regards the law as having value only as long as it is useful; Nicholson sees the law as transcending mere practical considerations.

But then, halfway through the movie, everything goes into reverse, and the difference between American and British attitudes begins to collapse when it comes to the distinction between officers and enlisted men. Shears escapes from the camp and winds up in a British hospital, where he pushes his luck by continuing to pretend that he is an officer in order to get better treatment.  Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), a British officer, finds out about this and coerces Shears into agreeing to go back into the jungle with him so they can sabotage the bridge, which will allow Shears to avoid being prosecuted for impersonating an officer.  Since two other officers will be going along, including a Lieutenant Joyce, Warden says he will give Shears a “simulated rank of major” for the purpose of the mission, so that the rigid distinction between officers and enlisted men will not have to be observed.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Nicholson is anxious to get the bridge built, and to build it as an example of British engineering excellence. The other officers are in favor of surreptitiously delaying the building of the bridge and making sure that it is inferior, so as to minimize their assistance to the enemy; but Nicholson thinks that building a bridge that will redound to British glory for hundreds of years is more important than its effect on the war, dismissing the suggestion that what he is doing could be construed as collaboration with the enemy, even treason.  Furthermore, when he realizes that they are behind schedule, he violates the very code he fought for, and gets the officers to work alongside the enlisted men. He even asks men in the camp hospital to get out of their beds and pitch in, men so sick that not even Colonel Saito would have ordered them to work.


Shears is a womanizer.  The main reason he continued to pretend to be an officer when he got to the British hospital was so that he would be able to fool around with the nurses, who are officers themselves and off limits to enlisted men.  We even see one of those nurses doing the walk of shame one morning, after leaving his room. Then, when he joins Warden and the others in the trip back through the jungle to the prisoner-of-war camp, he seems to be making progress with one of the Asian female bearers that have come along.  I don’t know if he got himself some of that on the way, but had he survived, it is certain he would have gotten some on the way back.

Meanwhile, the British soldiers decide to celebrate the completion of the bridge by putting on a show.  The first part of the show consists of men dressed up like women, singing and dancing like the Rockets.  Then, Grogan (Percy Herbert), who is a big man, is dressed like a woman.  He sings a duet with a small man, the only one who in the show who is dressed like a man, at the end of which, Grogan picks him up in his arms and carries him off the stage.  After the show is over, it is time for Colonel Nicholson to make a speech.  Apparently, Grogan was in no hurry to get out of his short skirt and crop top, since we see him in the audience, still dressed up like a girl, while Nicholson is speaking.

Needless to say, there is no way Shears would have participated in a show like that. And if I may be permitted to bring up John Wayne again, we can’t imagine him in drag either.


Another trait thought to be characteristic of Americans back when this movie was made was their reluctance to get involved in foreign conflicts.  It was the basis for American isolationism, which is as old as George Washington’s farewell address, warning of entanglements in European affairs, and John Quincy Adam’s speech saying America does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.” Shears represents this attitude at the level of the individual.  He knew he would eventually get caught impersonating an officer, and his plan was to apply for a medical discharge, saying, “I impersonated an officer because I went off my rocker in the jungle.”  We may easily infer from this that Shears would have avoided the whole war by dodging the draft, had he been able to do so. Failing that, he probably joined the Navy to avoid ending up in the Army as cannon fodder.  But his plan didn’t work, and he wound up being blackmailed into a commando mission to destroy the bridge.


During an incident where they come across some Japanese soldiers, Warden gets shot in the foot. He tries to press on, but he eventually gives up and tells the rest of them to go on without him. Joyce says they may not be able to come back that way after the mission is over, to which Warden replies, “If you were in my shoes, you know I wouldn’t hesitate to leave you here.”  This leads to the following exchange:

Shears:  He doesn’t know it, but I do.  You’d leave your own mother here if the rules called for it.

Warden:  You’ll go on without me.  That’s an order.  You’re in command, Shears.

Shears:  I won’t obey that order.  You make me sick with your heroics. There’s a stench of death about you.  You carry it in your pack like the plague.  Explosives and [suicide] pills go well together. With you, it’s just one thing or the other:  destroy a bridge or destroy yourself.  This war is just a game.  You and that Colonel Nicholson are two of a kind. Crazy with courage!  For what?  How to die like a gentleman.  How to die by the rules.  The only important thing is how to live like a human being!  I’m not gonna leave you here to die, Warden, because I don’t care about your bridge and your rules.  If we go on, we go on together.

And so, in spite of himself, Shears ends up being the commanding officer in charge of the mission, risking his life trying to destroy a bridge he cares nothing about, in a war he cares nothing about.

Shears and Joyce manage to attach explosives to the bridge, and then set up a plunger at a distance for Joyce to use when an expected train with Japanese dignitaries will be crossing that bridge.  But in the morning, the river has gone down, and Nicholson spots the wire.  Suspecting sabotage, he gets Saito to help him find where the wire leads.  It was one thing for Nicholson to build the bridge, telling himself that it was good for his men to have work to do, but trying to prevent that bridge from being destroyed is undeniably collaboration with the enemy.  Even after Joyce uses his knife to kill Saito, and tells Nicholson he is operating under British orders to destroy the bridge, Nicholson restrains him, calling for help from the Japanese soldiers on the bridge.  A bullet hits Joyce, killing him.

Shears swims the river, intent on killing Nicholson, but he is shot before he can do it, cursing Nicholson with his last, dying breath.  When Nicholson sees who it is, he suddenly realizes the enormity of what he has done.  A mortar fired by Warden stuns him, and he falls on the plunger, causing the bridge to be blown up, just as the train has started to cross, thereby plunging it into the river.  The scene is ambiguous, but I think we can cut the colonel some slack, allowing that he intended to push the plunger anyway, as a way of redeeming himself.

Although we naturally have identified with Shears throughout the movie, there is a doctor who, though British, also allows for audience identification, since he represents common sense.  At the end of the movie, as he beholds the spectacle, he says, “Madness!” a sentiment with which Shears would have been in complete agreement.