1950s >> 1957 >> no-640-december-1957

The Soldier and Accountant

“The Bridge on the River Kwai” is a film about the building of a bridge by a campful of British prisoners in Japanese hands during the last war and about the commando expedition to blow it up.


There is a scene set in Ceylon, when the commandos are foregathering to choose the last of the four officers for the adventure. They call in a young Canadian — a Lieutenant Joyce—and the senior officer asks him what he did in peacetime. “ Sir,” replies the Canadian, “I was an accountant. That is, I was articled to an accountant. I sat all day adding up columns of figures and checking them. Somebody had already checked them before me and somebody checked them again after me.” The audience laughed. They were meant to laugh.


The lieutenant was, as they say, on to a good thing, for the stiff collar, stripe pants fuddy duddies sitting in banks and’ insurance offices and accountants’ chambers are easy enough meat for a little fun poking. Even the crooners have tried their hand at it. “There’s nothing.” sang Bing Crosby, “ Quite as grotesque as a man at a desk, looking outside at the sun!” and went on to ask. “Does he think that he’s having fun?” Of course, he is not; the man at the desk is merely doing a job which, although humdrum, is very necessary in this highly commercial world. (Banks pay their clerks to handle money because society today needs to have it handled. Likewise, the accountant is important (he often gets enough money to be very important). His job is to check a company’s books, to make sure that stocks and balance sheets are straight, that nobody is fiddling the guvnors and that the guvnors are not fiddling the shareholders. He is a man with years of training behind him and when he certifies a company balance sheet it is usually accepted without question by the shareholders, for the accountant is generally a man of a high standard of professional probity. (Although a few are not above a shady deal and some spend a lot of time working out ways in which their clients can slip through loopholes in the tax laws.)


As the young lieutenant pointed out, there is a lot of boring work involved in the accountant’s business. Worst of all, perhaps, is what is known as “calling,” when a clerk reads off amounts of money from one ledger whilst a companion checks a corresponding entry in another ledger. Articled clerks are doomed to this, day in and day out, for several years. The unlucky ones do not even have the break of travelling around checking the books of different companies, for some are so large that as soon as one check has finished it is time to start another.


The young men who take on this work seem to conform largely to a type. Many have an air of precarious gentility ; they sport umbrellas, with the approved cane handle. Often in conversation they hint at a sophistication which is not really there; with better luck, it seems, they might have been doctors or lawyers. That is the clue to it. Many of these fellows have been to fairly expensive schools but their parents could not afford to send them on to university. To people of their background it is essential, often for snob reasons, to “become a member of a profession” as apart from “getting a job.” Missing university has meant that law and medicine cannot be considered; the cheap way out of the dilemma is to take out articles to an accountant. (In most parts of England this can be done without putting up any money and the clerk gets some sort of a wage during his period of articled service.) So these young men for several years get an apprentice’s pay but unlike the apprentice they cannot make a cheerful display of their penury. Behold them any Saturday evening, drinking bitter in the local Rugby club bar; or any morning on the Tube into the City. Observe the seedy suits and the Daily Telegraph, meticulously folded underarm.


When Lieutenant Joyce first appears in The Bridge on the River Kwai he is hungry for action, eager to do something exciting which he considers socially beneficial. At such times an accountant’s job does seem pretty poor stuff; no wonder Joyce is scornful. But really, the film is unfair. Consider the facts. This is a world where the necessities and luxuries of life are bought and sold, where nothing is made unless it can be sold. Because of all this buying and selling we have money. Because we have money we have banks, with clerks to keep the money flowing smoothly so that wages can be paid and goods exchanged. We have accountants to keep the books and see that nobody gets up to anything; we have policemen for the accountant to call in if anybody is up to anything. We have soldiers like Lieutenant Joyce to fight for the markets where the goods are sold and for the places where they find the raw materials which go to make the goods.


From any sane viewpoint, all these jobs are useless and wasteful; only a social set-up which starts from the underlying stupidity of commodity production could find any use for them. The film, of course, accepts without question the rightness of this set-up and is content to mock just one of capitalism’s futile occupations whilst glamourising another.


After all, if Lieutenant Joyce had survived the expedition and returned to Civvy Street he may have been asked what he had done in the war. “Sir,” he may have replied, “I was a soldier. A saboteur. I crawled and sweated through the stinking jungle, fighting disease and picking off leeches, watching my companions die. All this to destroy a bridge; a beautiful bridge, which had cost a lot of pain in the making. But if we had left it alone it would have been used by the other side in a war. It could have lasted for centuries but we blew it up.” We may ask : What is there to choose, in terms of benefits to humanity, between the work of a saboteur and an accountant’s clerk ?


Perhaps that question is best answered in the words of another character in the film, a British officer who witnesses the Bridge’s end. When it is all over he comes down to the river and looks at the destruction and the Japanese and British lying dead around him. He is furious with it all. “Madness!” he cries, “Madness!”