Journeys of Dignity

You could see it in their faces, in their actions, in their words. It didn’t matter if they were in the sweltering confines of the Burmese jungle, or in the vast emptiness of the drought-stricken American West. They were all on demanding journeys in which they were pushed to the limit—physically, mentally, emotionally. And somewhere along their tragic journey, they were in search of that basic human need—dignity.

This was the powerful message that came across when I saw The Bridge on the River Kwai at the Redford Theatre on June 25, 2011 and The Grapes of Wrath at the Michigan Theater on June 26, 2011. Both films were graced with an epic realism that I know will stay with me for a long time.

They were visual essays on the human condition. You had uniquely defined groups of people who were forced into adversities and challenges which seemed to have no foreseeable end. By the end of each movie, both groups had reached a goal, but at a high personal cost.

Both movies were highlighted by Oscar-winning demonstrations of defiance, stubbornness, sacrifice, and, at times, almost irrational devotion to principle and group unity.

In The Grapes of Wrath, Jane Darwell earned the Best Supporting Actress award for 1940 with her portrayal of Ma Joad, which helped anchor the story with a deep, emotional sense of family love. And in The Bridge on the River Kwai, Alec Guinness took home the Best Actor Oscar for 1957 with his powerful performance as an officer who was determined to lead his troops at any cost.

Seeing these two films on the big screen was further evidence to me that you cannot truly appreciate a great film unless you see it in a theater. The stark black and white shadows of The Grapes of Wrath and the stunning widescreen color camera setups of River Kwai both contributed greatly to the visceral impact of the two movies.

And two simple songs helped communicate the simple human feelings of these two classic epics—”Red River Valley” in Grapes of Wrath, and the “Colonel Bogey March” in River Kwai.

And finally, two very different, but profound, closing messages:

  • Madness! (The Bridge on the River Kwai)
  • We’re the people! (The Grapes of Wrath)

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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