Around the World in 80 Days (Best Picture, 1956)
This isn’t the last time I’ll say this, I’m sure. Hollywood loves an extravaganza. AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS may not be the world’s greatest film, and it doesn’t even get close to political correctness, but it is FUN.
Phileas Fogg (David Niven), a man of rigid precision and mysterious background, wagers with his card companions at the Reform Club that he can get around the entire globe in 80 days. Along the way he rescues an Indian princess (unexpectedly played by Shirley MacLaine…) from being burned on her husband’s funeral pyre, encounters savage natives and a persistent Scotland Yard agent (Robert Newton). He is accompanied by his faithful valet-of-all-trades, Passepartout (Cantinflas). The film also includes cameos by more than 40 famous actors, such as Marlene Dietrich, Frank Sinatra, George Raft, Glynis Johns, Hermione Gingold, John Carradine, John Mills, Joe E. Brown, Jose Greco, Buster Keaton, and Peter Lorre. There are also nearly 69,000 extras and 8,000 animals. It is a true extravaganza.
It deviates from the book, yes. The most famous image of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS is the hot-air balloon – used in the film, but not in the book. In the book, Jules Verne implies Passepartout is French, not Mexican – though I must say, Cantinflas kind of steals the show. Fogg is not a very interesting character. His adherence to routine is more comic than anything else, and every scene feels pretty much the same. His romance with Aouda is unconvincing at best. Passepartout is the one who does all the sightseeing along the voyage, while Fogg stays on the train/boat/whatever and insists on having only English food to his own specifications. Cantinflas plays Passepartout as a skirt-chaser – not a predatory one, but a rather hapless and sweet one. Like I said, the film is not politically correct. It’s just plain fun.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (Best Picture, 1957)
THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is a good example of the ways in which this project can be a bit difficult. I don’t especially like war films, and this one was unusually relentless. It’s a gripping film, even for those who don’t like it, and it’s certainly well-made. Alec Guinness turns in a wonderful performance, as do Geoffrey Horne and Jack Hawkins. I just found the story relentless.
The premise of the film is this: A battalion of British P.O.W.s in a Japanese prison camp in Thailand are ordered to build a bridge over the Kwai. Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses to allow his officers to do manual labor, as per the terms of the Geneva Convention, and after a concerted effort on the part of Saito, the commanding officer of the camp, to break his spirit, they reach an agreement. The British officers will not do manual labor, but they will supervise the building of a properly well-built bridge in a better location. Meanwhile, a group of Allied commandos are making their way toward the bridge in order to blow it up.
In some ways, I think that THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI is reminiscent of Shakespearean tragedies, though without the elements of sexual jealousy. It’s not just that nearly everyone dies at the end. The story is one of very human emotions and flaws. Nicholson suffers from pride. He is so wedded to the rules and the sense of honor associated with being a British officer that he goes all-out on the bridge. In other words, he could easily be seen as a collaborator. Unofficial policy, going by the behavior of the soldiers in the film, is to work as slowly and as badly as they possibly can. Nicholson insists on building a solid, good-quality bridge in the proper location. Saito is a fear-driven bully, terrified that the bridge will fail and he’ll be forced by honor and duty to commit suicide. Shears, the American sailor-impersonating-an-officer, is driven by cowardice. He took on the role of an officer because he’d be treated better, and has to be blackmailed into joining the commando unit.
So yes. Reminiscent of classic tragedy, but I still prefer a comedy.
Next Up: Gigi (Best Picture, 1958) and Ben-Hur (Best Picture, 1959)