I love this movie for a cryptic mix of personal reasons that I’ll probably only fully uncover over the years, as I go back and back to it, but one of the major endearing points is that I didn’t realize until the third act that my dad showed me his favorite scene from this movie when I was eleven or twelve, as he was switching professions; it’s the scene where Alec Guinness, a British officer in World War Two, is standing on the massive bridge that his Japanese captors have tasked him with building, and he’s watching the sun go down, and ruminating.
I’ve been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I’ve been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don’t suppose I’ve been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it’s been a good life. I loved India. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But there are times when suddenly you realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. And you wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Hardly made any difference at all, really, particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking’s very healthy; but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts on those lines from time to time.
I guess it was ringing my dad’s bell, given what he was doing at that point in his life, and now, as my own age is more than doubled since he first showed it to me, I feel a little of that resonance too, even though I’m still at pretty much the beginning of my “career,” such as I have one.
Questions of what I’m really hoping to accomplish, and whether my efforts make any big-picture difference, and whether it matters that I make any big-picture difference or if I should just focus on doing what I do best, and what I most enjoy, and trust that I’m a reliable but anonymous cog in a big machine.
That, alone, is food for a lifetime’s thought, and probably pertains to everyone, but the more personal element drawing me toward Bridge on the River Kwai is the simple theme of work, of craftsmanship in particular, and it calls to mind the movie I’ve quoted probably more than anything else on the List.
In My Man Godfrey, a comedy from 1936 (it’s available in the public domain), William Powell plays a Harvard graduate who takes a job as a butler during the Great Depression. When an old chum, incredulous, asks if he’s proud of being a butler, a monastically wizened and humbled Godfrey answers: “Proud of being a good butler.”
The British soldiers here are tasked with building a bridge that they don’t want to build, (obviously) but apart from the labor component, it’s a bridge that’ll help the enemy, which means hurting the Allies.
So there are issues.
But when it’s clear, finally, that they’ve got no choice save to comply with their captors, and build the fucking bridge, they get really into it. They build a great bridge. Something to take pride in.
It’s a little trite to just invoke the adage that “a thing worth doing is worth doing right” because, as I get older and my interests evolve and I discover new perspectives, the idea of what’s “right” becomes harder and harder to pin down.
Because what would it mean, in this case, to build it the “right” way?
Should he build a bridge with some secret flaw that the Allies can exploit? Should he build it to please his captor? Should he take a light-labor approach that will be easiest on his men?
What he appears to settle on, without articulating it, is the idea that building this bridge the “right” way means…building the best possible bridge. Something that totally embodies “bridgeness.” So it’s gotta be big, it’s gotta be sturdy, well-aligned, etc.
The conundrum becomes: Nothing good will come from my building this bridge. It will, in fact, hurt the cause for which I’m fighting. But it is important to me, personally, that I build something to the best of my abilities and that I see it through to the end.
I tie myself in knots about this kinda thing, privately, wondering which tasks deserve more of me: the creative tasks that I most want to pursue, or the creative tasks that might prove most beneficial to my purposes? I generally want to generate more material than I could ever claim to be the best work I could do.
I love to write, and I want to always be doing it.
Well if I’m writing all the time, it means projects will begin and end, come and go, and as time goes by there’ll be plenty I look back on and cringe about. Maybe renounce.
Also, if I want to boost my odds at getting a book deal, I should be focusing at least as much attention on the podcast as on my writing; and, strangely, I should probably splitting my time threefold among writing, podcasting, and making videos on Instagram.
I want a creative life like Orson Welles or Conan O’Brien—a fever of productivity and output.
I do think that, if you work so feverishly and put out so much content, you’re more likely to capture the few glimpses of genius that visit us in a lifetime.
The other thing that’s ringing my bell here, and that I haven’t quite reconciled, is the willingness of Guinness’s character’s (guy’s name is Colonol Nicholson) to be tortured by his captors in the beginning, when he’s refusing to follow orders and get to work on the bridge. Rules of war dictate that, as an officer, he’s exempt from manual labor, but his captor Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) doesn’t give a shit. Saito’s got a deadline to meet for this bridge and he wants his captives to work.
Nicholson really is prepared to die out of principle.
Raises another question: how obstinant should one be about the things that they feel they should or should not do? At what point do you bend to the “realities” of your situation (a common euphemism for “money”) and foresake the lifestyle you want in exchange for the one you “need” in order to get by? It’s a question that comes up in my frustration with work, both at the restaurant (Editor’s Note from the Future: I no longer have that particular issue, the restaurant having gone out of business due to COVID) and the tutoring center but also the general specter of work, the fact that I’m driven enough and full of enough ideas that I could, if given the chance, fill all of my days with creative work, from dawn to dusk.
But I can’t do that, because it doesn’t earn money.
So I have to relegate my creative work to a kind of side hustle and focus the bulk of my waking hours, instead, to these various things I don’t want to do. And it seems that the amount of money I might earn is directly proportional to the amount of misery I’m prepared to suffer.
I’m being pretty obstantn right now by working two jobs with no prospects, and living a very bare-bones lifestyle, so that I can focus a little more attention on my creative work.
I’m sitting in the sweatbox, like Nicholson in the beginning. His captor’s insistence that he build the bridge feels like the real world’s insistence that I join the work force in some sort of conventional way, some sort of desk job with security, insurance, PTO, etcetera.
Journalism, for instance (a more esteemed kind of poverty). Adverising.
But here in my sweatbox with my podcast and blog and occasional novel I’m being petulant and stubborn and telling the world, “No. This is how it should be. This is what I want to do.
Not sure how that analogy fits with the rest of the movie; maybe I will eventually give in, and join corporate America, and allow my personal creative work to languish so that I can build a bridge that the Enemy can be proud of.
Whether there’s a distinction between myself and the enemy at that point remains to be seen.