Monday, October 20, 2008

The Bridge on the River Kwai and the Futility of Human Action

Watched Bridge on the River Kwai yesterday. I think it is 65 on the IMDB top 250 but I would rate in my top 10. Do watch the movie when in the mood for some food for thought. I have written about the movie in the first part, but if you have seen it you can jump to the second part where I have rambled on about my thoughts.


The story is about the construction of a bridge across the river Kwai by British POWs. (Prisoners of War) The bridge has to be completed by a certain date and failing to do so would result in loss of face for the commanding officer of the camp Col. Saito. The British POWs are led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) who is very particular about maintaining the dignity of the uniform. He is particular about rules and refuses to take prisoner like treatment. The Japanese Colonel Saito however has a different view. In his book, a true warrior would rather commit suicide than be taken prisoner.

During the first month little progress occurs on the construction of the bridge chiefly due to a dispute between the two colonels over the status of officers. Col. Nicholson points out that according to the Geneva Convention officers were not required to work, whereas Col. Saito believes that they have to bend to his will as they were prisoners. Col. Nicholson is thrown into solitary confinement in a shed called the oven but he refuses to budge. Seeing the intransigience of the British soldiers, Col. Saito lets the British officers command the soldiers and exempts them from hard labour. Much to his surprise, Col. Nicholson responds by deciding to build a fine bridge instead of the makeshift ones the Japanese are used to throwing together.

Unknown to Col. Nicholson, another party in the British HQ in Ceylon is planning to bomb the bridge. A key person in this mission is the American Commander Shears who just escaped the camp as Col. Nicholson's men marched in. The rest of the story is about how a fine bridge is built and finally it is blown up.

A notable scene in the movie is when the prisoners come marching in whistling the Colonel Bogey March. You can listen to it here and check out this link for the lyrics.

Hitler has only got one ball,
Goring has two but very small,
Himmler is somewhat sim'lar,
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all.

A real blues beater!


PG Wodehouse takes a dig at Russian writers in his golf story, The Clicking of Cuthbert. "
Vladimir specialized in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide."

The weather yesterday felt like that.

You can therefore imagine the mood I would have been in after watching The Bridge on the River Kwai in that weather. Suffice to say I fell into a putrid pool of pessimism and started reflecting on the something that has always intrigued me - the seeming futility of human action.

Let us ask a question. Is it that a beggar's life* is less meaningful than that of an individual who has risen to the highest post of the land? (Note, it is not about worth. The assumption is that all human lives are of equal worth.)

If the answer is yes, then is it that a life of achievement is the only meaningful life? Then what of countless people who have tried earnestly and given up? Does not their life carry meaning? This is admittedly a defensive stance catering to the "losers".

This can be argued in another way. We can define achievement in terms of impact on other people. Therefore, the head of state's life is more meaningful since he/she made some positive difference as opposed to someone who did not. Alternatively, if as the head of state that individual caused more harm then that person's life is less meaningful than one who has done nothing.

But should this be the metric? What about people who may have affected just one person in a profound way? We are psychologically tuned to believing that "doing good" for others is a meaning of life. The chief flaw of this thinking is that it draws meaning from the suffering of others. What if there was no one who needed your help? Does it rob life of meaning then? Is not such a defintion of meaning fragile?

More importantly, it is often the case that this sort of thinking unleashes an army of do-gooders all set out to find "victims" to do good upon. What about some people who may conceptualize things without care for other's "good"? And in some cases, what is good?

What about the middle path then? ;) Is it that it is about trying your best and having been convinced of that end defines a meaningful life?

I prefer the view that there is no inherent meaning in life. It is what we define it to be or more usually what our environment defines it to be. We draw meaning from our environment and taken out of the environment the meaning may be different. There is no magical purpose for which God has created the unique snowflake that we may consider ourselves to be. We were born by a biological event and that event will run its course. In this interval we have to amuse ourselves.

But if one were to take this cynical stand, there is no incentive for action. We could all just dope ourselves away to death.

The answer to me often appears that we must pass through different stages of wilful cheating of ourselves. In the youth we must convince ourselves that achievement is the source of meaning. As time goes we must take different views on the meaning to life!

*No offense to beggars! Just hyperbole!

1 comment:

Brat said...

The Bridge on River Kwai is one of my favorite war-based movies as well. Regarding your comments about the "meaning of life", I don't believe in anything that can't be explained by simple (and sometimes, not so simple) logic. Many human actions are just a pre-programmed response to a situation. I've been thinking about conformity and the so-called rules of society for a while. In fact, I even wrote a blog post on it, but I haven't published it yet. Maybe one of these days I will! :D