Better than the Bridge on the River Kwai

Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 474; 15 February 1959.

The Naked and the Dead

South Pacific, 1943. Three protagonists. A sadistic general who professes the greatest contempt for his soldiers and who enjoys throwing his cigarette butt on ground to humiliate his camp officer by asking him to pick it up. He’ll present him lame excuses in the end, lose face before the entire army and resign. A brutal, fascist lieutenant who crushes small birds with his fist, spits his beer on women’s faces, pulls out gold teeth from the Japanese he kills for fun and for reselling the teeth in question. His need for violence will drive him to his death. An idealist and human officer who leads a difficult mission across an island infested with enemies. Injured, he will be saved thanks to the friendship of his men.

Adapted from Norman Mailer’s great war novel that appeared about a decade ago and which has become a classic since, the script of this film recalls another famous film, adapted from another well-known war novel: The Bridge on the River Kwai. The same old song about the ideal of man and the absurdity of war.

But Raoul Walsh’s film trumps that of Sam Spiegel and David Lean solely through the strength of its mise en scène, a constant throughout the film’s 130-minute runtime.

The death of a soldier bitten by a strangely beautiful snake is depicted with a striking violence and realism. All resources of landscape—jungle, tall grass, the rocky peak that the small troupe scales at the end—are harnessed with virtuosity and variety. For once, we are in a real jungle, and the camera weaves in and out of it with as much difficulty as the hero.

In non-combat scenes, it’s the good mood that sustains interest. The relationship between solders is described with a charming bonhomie. The interludes of familial life, full of freshness, grace and poetry, contain some of the best shots ever filmed by Raoul Walsh, whose career nevertheless features more than a hundred films, of which seventy-five are worthy of interest. One must see Barbara Nichols and Aldo Ray play Bulls and Cows, trying to out-moo each other, and especially the extraordinary tracking shot that closes Cliff Robertson’s dream. One must also point out James Best’s excellent performance and remarkable composure. In short, a beautiful film, a super-production that’s also a work of quality and which completely deserves the success the public has given it.


[From Luc Moullet’s Piges choisies (2009, Capricci). See Table of Contents]