Yesterday’s Treasures: The Deep Blue Sea and The Bridge on the River Kwai

By Daniel Garrett

The Deep Blue Sea, directed by Terence Davies, Music Box Films, 2011

The Bridge on the River Kwai, directed by David Lean, Columbia Pictures, 1957

In The Deep Blue Sea are a soldier, a pilot, who remains so deeply impressed by the excitement and fear of war that he cannot give himself fully to the woman who loves him, a woman of intelligence, whose best self has been betrayed by intoxication with sexual pleasure. The film is an intimate portrait of a relationship in which one person loves more than the other, with class differences and age and war experience providing the particular texture of their lives. Obviously, the second world war was one great reference point for twentieth-century English culture, and the war functions as principal story and background for many films and books. It is interesting to see works conceived in an earlier time and notice what has changed: it used to be enough to focus on the development of a relationship in a play or film (The Deep Blue Sea) or to portray one’s enemies as well as oneself with a degree of respect and humanity (The Bridge on the River Kwai).

Each image in David Lean’s film The Bridge on the River Kwai seems carefully chosen, giving the film beauty and weight from its beginning to the end, for a story about motives in opposition: during the second world war, a Japanese commander in Burma wants to humiliate the captured western soldiers in his prisoners camp and get them to work on a section of a bridge project that he is responsible for building; meanwhile, the leading British officer wants to maintain his own hierarchy and discipline among his men in the Burma camp. There is open conflict between the Japanese and British officers, but the Japanese commander, who thinks the British lack courage, pride, and a sense of shame, is forced to recognize—after penning up the British officers to break their will, which he does not do—that the British have their own moral code, though it is different from his own. That was a time when duty and heroism—doing hard things for high ideals—were still vital principles, but the ideals of leadership did not match always the experience of the ordinary rank and file: in fact, they did not serve always the officers, as when the lead British officer is penned, the filthy, hungry, and weakened man finds relief thanks to a stolen coconut, sacrificed food, and a bribed Japanese soldier, moral compromise. The British and Japanese in the Burma prisoners camp begin to work together on building the bridge, the Japanese out of military necessity and the westerners for a sense of personal purpose and skill, and their shared project becomes an unusually attractive, well-built bridge. The proficiency of the British is an admirable absurdity in such circumstances; the more serious it is, the more of a suggestion of self-parody. However, there is an American soldier—honest and lazy, humble and lusty, someone with a genius for living—and the American soldier escapes and, after thirstily drinking river water and getting sick and being hospitalized, the British command in Ceylon get him to lead them back to the Burma camp, so that they can bomb the bridge. Men are seen on the large, lush, wild earth as if they are masters of it, but there is a difference between masters and destroyers; and yet the trek, with Siamese women helpers, through jungle and river, in heat and rain, is impressive apart from its purpose. An idyll in which the American and his colleagues stop to bathe is ruined by violence, like the commingling of heaven and hell. The British officer who authorized his men in the Burma camp to give their best in building the bridge has begun to lose sight of his ultimate allegiance, and tries to protect the bridge from the bombers. In a contest of nation against nation, man against man, will against will, good men die for riches, rituals and rules, all in the madness of war. Is any ideal or principle worth the sacrifice of the complex, messy plenitude that is human life?

Rachel Weisz, featured in Definitely, Maybe and Dream House, The Whistleblower, and the heroine in the great film The Constant Gardener, is the beautiful, intelligent, desperate woman in The Deep Blue Sea, Terence Davies’ interpretation of a Terence Rattigan play, Rattigan being one of the most popular of British playwrights. Weisz is Hester, a lady married to, but separated from, a lord, an older man who is a judge, a chubby, cherubic figure, William (Simon Russell Beale), still intimidated by his formidable mother, haughty, rude, and self-satisfied; and Hester’s lover is a thin, sporty young man, of some style and not much money, Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), who leaves Hester alone for a weekend of golf, a weekend that coincides with her birthday, only to find upon his return that she has tried to commit suicide. Hester’s beauty is austere: her eyes sparkle, but they light a face of doubt, a face colored by awareness of her own desire and conflicted determinations. Freddie is enraged by the melodrama, and his own sense of responsibility, and again leaves Hester alone in the small apartment of brown, beige, and yellow furnishings, while he goes out to drink with his friend. She chases after her lover, leading to a brutal scene of denunciation: their relationship is ending, and she, with difficulty, must accept that. Hester’s landlady tells her that real love involves necessary care, doing fundamental things while preserving dignity, one’s own and that of the other person, and that no love justifies suicide. Can Hester transform selfish desire into generous love? Rachel Weisz, like Kate Winslet (Titanic, Little Children, Revolutionary Road, and Mildred Pierce), is an actress with an aura of strength, strength of body, mind, and spirit, but here Weisz’s character — attractive in many ways, and acting as many of us have acted: trying to cling to someone who was not ever completely there—is also a woman somewhat hard to like, going against common sense and personal dignity as she does. Simon Russell Beale as the husband William is amusing and surprising, love breaking through his anger, disappointment, and mystification at his wife’s hopeless indulgence; and Bill is a better friend to her than he was a husband or lover, offering her help and remembering her birthday, but he would not be as good a friend if he had not been her husband. Tim Hiddleston is understandable as a free-spirited man, whose behavior can be interpreted as adventurous or practical or selfish: he does not want a woman to be at the center of his life—rather, he wants to be at the center of his life. The war gave him personal purpose and public prestige, and his life after it does not compare; and whereas erotic pleasure has been a special surprise for Hester, it is not one for him. He knows they are incompatible, and plans to accept a piloting job in Rio de Janeiro, and it is not clear what will become of her. The indecipherable nature of her future suggests that emotion is natural but has no inevitable or necessary place. The clash of position and passion is far from new, but remains poignant, although not as piercing today as yesterday: the pain of lost prestige is more likely to be felt now in the body or the wallet rather than the heart.

The people in The Deep Blue Sea move in mostly intimate spaces, some elegant, some drab, all of immense detail, in scenes with the appeal of intricate, sumptuous paintings. Popular songs have replaced classical music in some of their lives, and those songs, though touching, are not of the same quality.

Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana, a graduate of the New School for Social Research in New York, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics

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