This is an essay I wrote for a course called Cultures of Conflict: Politics, Society and War since 1812

The virtues of soldiers and how these virtues are portrayed in the films

“The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “M*A*S*H,” and “The Deer Hunter”

 

Two of these films, M*A*S*H and Deer Hunter, have characters I think virtuous both before and after they get involved in the Korean and Vietnam wars respectively, such as the first film’s Hawkeye Pierce, Duke Forrest and “Trapper”John McIntyre as well as the latter’s Michael. However, part of what made Bridge on the River Kwai more intriguing and thought-provoking than most war films for me was the belief that the losing side in the war it portrays, Japan in World War Two, comes off looking much more humane and in the right morally than the Allies do, even though the film concentrates a lot more on the actions and beliefs of the winning side. Specifically, the commanding officer of the POW camp where the film is set, Colonel Saito, changes his tyrannical ways and becomes more generous in planning the building of a railroad link connecting Bangkok and Rangoon, aiding not only his own country through more efficient distribution of supplies by train but also the Allied POWs in his camp by allowing them to complete a task which will keep the morale high. Conversely, the CO of the British POWs forced to work on the bridge, Colonel Nicholson, takes his belief in what he calls “matters of principle” too far by assisting, albeit unknowingly, in the murders of allied soldiers Major Shears and Lieutenant Joyce, as they attempted to destroy the bridge before the first Japanese train had passed through it during a mission that may have made military sense but would have taken an unnecessary human toll.

“Virtue,” in the Oxford English Dictionary, has two definitions that are applicable in discussing the soldiers portrayed in these films, with the first reading “moral excellence, uprightness, goodness, (virtue is its own reward; make a virtue of NECESSITY); particular moral excellence (patience is a virtue).” The second is, simply, “good quality (has the virtue of being adjustable…).”

One can argue M*A*S*H is so critical of war itself that the military do not and cannot possibly look virtuous collectively in terms of the soldiers sacrificing their lives for a morally upright cause because the film portrays the cause itself as so horrifying it forces the people involved to escape the terror by finding ways to laugh about it. However, Hawkeye, Duke and Trapper John are portrayed by the film as virtuous in having the individual good quality of calling out Major Frank Burns for his hypocrisy in reading the Bible and praying every night yet having adulterous sex with Major O’ Houlihan. His religious zeal is parodied just before copulation, calling the others “godless buffoons” as he tells the Major they were destined to “find each other,” a preposterous belief considering he has known her for less than a week.

Before Trapper arrives as the base’s new “chest cutter,” Hawkeye’s partner in defying military discipline is Duke, as they steal a jeep from another base, give minors “Playboy” magazines they read, as well as gawk and make sexist remarks at women. Due to this behaviour I cannot say that any of the three are morally excellent, especially so for Hawkeye and Duke after they both have affairs with, respectively, Lieutenant “Dish,” a married woman, and Major “Hot Lips” after Burns is kicked off the base. Their nicknames for these women also show the surgeons’ independently virtuous disdain for their individual high ranks and the entire “important” military establishment. For example, Major Margaret, as the new chief surgeon for the base, is observing the other surgeons’ skills for the job and success in accomplishing it, yet she is shown to be far off the mark in her assessments. She meets Hawkeye to discuss Burns with him, provoking Hawkeye with this complaint: “Major is far from satisfied with your nurses.” He responds by palpably deriding her and Frank, stating “that doesn’t surprise me. Frank Burns does not know his way around an operating room, does not know his way around a body, and if you have observed anything, you will have observed that Major Frank Burns is an idiot, that he’s a lousy surgeon.” Hawkeye’s opinion of “Hot Lips” falls even further as she sings Burns’ praises with this bureaucratic jargon, “Oh, on the contrary, I have observed that Major Frank Burns is not only a good technical surgeon, he is a good military surgeon.” After seeing Burns berate a young, inexperienced nurse, blaming him for a patient’s death, one is inclined to agree with Captain Pierce’s verdict.

Finally, after Trapper John arrives at the base, Hawkeye eventually recognizes him as someone he’s met before and they hit it off, but although they are both brilliant surgeons who before long are asked to go on a special mission because of their skills, Trapper is similar to Hawkeye in his disrespect of women and officers of a superior rank. Therefore the two can hardly be considered morally upright but John shares Pierce’s virtue of calling out those in charge for the many mistakes they make in trying to control a group of soldiers who are independent of mind and spirit. Duke hardly appears in the film after McIntyre’s arrival and Hawkeye’s embrace of the man he played football with, but he does share these qualities with the two though he may not be as good a doctor as them, and his character falls a bit lower than the other two on the virtue scale after his involvement with the “regular army clown,” Major O’ Houlihan.

By contrast, The Deer Hunter argues for Mike and Nick’s virtue in both the moral and the generally good definitions of the word at different times in its plot. Before Michael, Steven and Nikolai leave for Vietnam, the film portrays them as men’s men, Pennsylvania steelworkers who work hard, go to bars to watch football, drink, play billiards, go on deer hunting trips, and loudly sing songs idolizing women like “You’re just too good to be true (can’t take my eyes off of you)” out of tune. Just before they leave, Nick rightly begins to worry at the guys’ violent tendencies with this remark, “Steven is getting married in a couple of hours, I don’t know what the hell we’re even doing talking about hunting the last time before the army. The whole thing, it’s crazy.” Thinking the three men virtuous for their behaviour so far, the opinion is further verified by their city’s approval of the war as it is happening, showcased during the wedding party at the raucous reaction to the emcee’s greeting of “Michael and Nick, who are also going to Vietnam with Steven, to proudly serve their country.” Nick’s reasonable as well as inherently good fear for his safety and Michael’s equally virtuous desire to bring the three of them back healthy is well-defined in this conversation after the wedding: “I love this fucking place, I know that sounds crazy, but if anything happens Mike, don’t leave me over there, you’ve gotta promise me that Mike. Hey Nicky, you got it pal.”

As the movie skips the goodbyes and the friends’ arrivals in Vietnam, the story hedges right into combat a seemingly long while after their coming, that is “seemingly” because Michael is initially unrecognizable to Nick and Steve after their helicopter lands in a field near Mike’s hiding place. This is due to his face being covered in war paint, and after killing a Viet Cong for firing at a defenseless woman and her child Michael sports a vengeful, murderous look. Later in the film Mike, with some help from Nikolai, empties a roomful of Viet Cong with an M-16 after the three had been taken prisoner, and by now it is evident that Michael’s moral uprightness has loosened if not completely disappeared and he can become a killing machine when he wants to. The film in a way redeems this virtue, if not morally at least in a good quality sense, during his conversation with Nick just prior to the bloody shootout by once again pointing to Mike’s fearless desire to do whatever necessary to get all of them home alive.

After the Viet Cong send Steve to an underwater dungeon called “the pit,” where he’ll quite likely die, Michael warns Nikolai to toughen up, because as he says, “it’s up to us now, Nicky, you and me. You want Stevie, forget about him, he ain’t gonna make it. Mike, what are you saying? Forget him Nick, get it through your head or you and me are both gone too.” Even after Michael and Nick save themselves from being put in the pit, Mike shows admirable strength in carrying the other two, both nearly unable to walk, to a safer place, and as Michael arrives home despite having lost both of his friends along the way the town embraces him all over again. However it is obvious that his journey cannot be complete until he finds his friends and returns them home to their own warm welcomes.

Mike goes much beyond the simple call of duty to ensure Nikolai and Steven’s safe outcomes, as he is the only member of the family who can get Angela, Steve’s wife, to make known Stevie’s whereabouts after he called Angela one time and shocked her into permanent silence, both literally and figuratively. Steven is the epitome of pathetic when Michael meets him, stuck in a long-term care hospital ward, missing both of his legs, driving a wheelchair with his one remaining arm as well as thoroughly enjoying playing daily bingo with an elderly emcee who tells lame jokes and personal anecdotes. Mike whisks Steve home despite the latter’s protests, and although I agree with Steve’s fear of forcing his family to realize what a shade of his former self he’s become, he nevertheless shows Michael the stacks of American dollars he’s been sent weekly from Saigon, which is on the verge of falling, and Mike makes the connection Stevie couldn’t, taking it as a sign that Nick’s still alive somewhere in that city. Michael puts his uniform on, taking the first helicopter into a city ravaged by anarchy, in whose most dilapidated slums Mike finds Nicky involved in an illegal ring setting up “Russian Roulette” duels for large sums of money, and to add insult to Michael’s haunting trek back to the place where he may have lost part of his reason, he is forced to match Nick’s high stakes and take him on in a murderous match because Nikolai’s memory is completely shot, leaving him with no idea who Mike is.

Inevitably, Michael brings Nick home in a casket to show how complete and virtuous his commitment to friends and family. Hence, the only two characters fully fleshed out in the film have their virtuous moments and their other moments, but while Nikolai’s moral descent begins during the war, echoes his memory loss, and escalated to the point of shady business dealings, any descent in moral excellence that Michael shows in Vietnam comes as a result of his good qualities of loyalty to friends and family and willingness to do anything possible to keep that loyalty strong. Steven barely explains his thoughts or actions at any part of the movie so his character is mostly incomplete but he does serve an important purpose as the main object of Michael’s care and as an intriguing comparison between his physical changes caused by the war, and Nikolai’s mental changes at the same time.

Unlike the previous films, The Bridge on the River Kwai, in its portrayal of three different multi-dimensional characters, creates one, Shears, who is completely devoid of any virtue, while introducing two others, Colonels Nicholson and Saito, who experience a bit of a role reversal by the end of the film in terms of their virtue. Shears has been an inmate of Saito’s POW camp for a seemingly long time considering his cynicism, addressed immediately in his burial of a British soldier who he eulogizes in this manner: “he died for the greater glory of… What did he die for? May he rest in peace, he found little enough of it while he was alive.” Thus Shears resents Colonel Nicholson’s insistence that his officers cannot be forced to do manual labour in building the bridge alongside their charges because it “is expressly forbidden by the Geneva Convention.” After an observer comments on the colonel’s bravery in standing up to the tyrannical Saito, Shears quotes Tennyson in his typically selfish response, “into the valley of Death rode the six hundred… Those are the kind of guts that will get us all killed,” instead of seeing the colonel’s admirable respect for humane laws even during the most extreme circumstances. Saito’s initial response to Nicholson’s demand is unquestionably harsh, as he orders one of his own troops to line up a machine gun less than five metres away from the CO and his officials and eventually throws the colonel into an airless corrugated iron hut right under the blazing sun.

However, in being led by enemy engineers and being remarkably loyal to their superiors, the British troops do not make much progress on the bridge, and with a deadline date closing in Saito has no way to motivate the prisoners but to free Nicholson with the purpose of getting him and his officers to supervise the construction without performing hard labour. As Nicholson is taken out of his cell his troops sing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” in a show of unity as life-affirming as their entrance to the camp was while performing what the box the film came in calls “the old WWI whistling tune, The Colonel Bogey March,” and the colonel’s status as the hero is even more well-defined during his negotiations with the villain Saito, reminding him of the Geneva Convention while the latter seethes.

Lest the audience forget the third part of this character triangle, Shears attempts to escape the island and miraculously survives long enough to reach the island of Ceylon, where he sips martinis with a pretty nurse and acts oblivious to the fact that his escape may have made things worse for those still imprisoned. As Major Warden attempts to convince Shears to return to the camp to assist a group of Allied soldiers in destroying the vital train link, Shears once again denies any honourable impulse in exchange for his personal safety, and dishonesty becomes another of his calling cards in his ranking himself as a Major instead of the low standing he actually holds and deserves.

The Allies do not know of the astonishing bond between Colonel Nicholson and his troops and therefore they cannot hint at the Brits’ necessity of building a bridge of the best quality to keep up the morale and loyalty of the men, and the prison camp’s chief medical officer Clipton addresses the skill with which the project is being approached with the same misgivings that the Allies would have. He says, “the fact is, what we’re doing could be construed as… collaboration with the enemy, perhaps even as treasonable activity.” Nicholson responds again with considerable humanity: “Are you all right, Clipton? We are prisoners of war; we haven’t the right to refuse work… If you had to operate on Saito, would you do your best or would you let him die? Don’t you realize how important it is to show these people that they can’t break us in body and in spirit?”

How one regards Nicholson’s part in this conversation will clinch one’s opinion of which of the three main characters are virtuous at the end of the film, and although every review I have read of this film argues the commander is ridiculous and obsessive in his ideas on the construction I agree with his reliance on the need of the entire regiment to accomplish something they can be proud of after the war, which is the point all involved should be wanting to reach. I cannot, however, condone Nicholson’s actions in exposing the sabotage attempt and getting Shears and others killed, and though he ends up blowing the bridge himself it is hard to see him as virtuous in any way in this instance. The slow reversal of his and Saito’s roles is finalized, as the latter slowly becomes more human in his deference to Nicholson’s demands and in private moments when Saito swallows his pride, realizing the British would build a much better bridge than he and that his life depends on their meeting the deadline. Finally, while Roger Ebert’s review goes as far as calling Shears “heroic,” in my view he stays the cynically self-absorbed soldier he’s shown to be in the beginning, and neither I nor the film justify those qualities as particularly virtuous.

 

Works Cited

 

M*A*S*H. Dir. Robert Altman. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2001.

The Bridge on the River Kwai. Dir. David Lean. DVD. Columbia TriStar Home Video, c2000.

The Deer Hunter. Dir. Michael Cimino. DVD. Universal Home Video, c1997.

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