The Bridge on the River Kwai

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I have actually seen The Bridge on the River Kwai before, but I knew I didn’t understand it. I love when this opportunity comes around, to revisit a movie I dismissed when I first saw it (usually pre-blog). It’s like I get to see it for the first time all over again! And I’m happy to report that I absolutely loved The Bridge on the River Kwai this time around. Not only does it have awesome scope and power, but it tells an individual story at the same time. In short, David Lean delivers on exactly what he does best.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is mainly the story of a battle of wills between two men. One, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) is charge of a Japanese POW camp and has orders to use the prisoners in his camp to complete a bridge over the Kwai at any cost. Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses to bend to Saito’s orders to have himself and his officers work alongside the men in order to complete the bridge as quickly as possible. He points out that these orders are against the Geneva Convention, and in response, Saito has him and his officers thrown in “the oven,” a small metal box left out in the hot sun. This stalemate goes on during which time the only American prisoner in the camp, Shears (William Holden), escapes, though he is presumed drowned. Eventually Saito caves and has Nicholson put in charge of building the bridge, which he does a little bit too well. Convinced that in order to uphold the spirits and dignity of his men, they should build the bridge as best they can.

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This causes some tension in the camp, because although the soldiers’ spirits are up, they are still technically aiding the enemy. The medic, Major Clipton (James Donald), points out to Nicholson several times that they are basically committing treason, Nicholson doesn’t waver. Just as with the first point of contention between Saito, he is a slave to his principles. Though honorable, Nicholson can’t see the forest for the trees. In ensuring the men are still working to the best of their ability, he forgets which side they are on. The ending is quite suspenseful as Shears has to confront Nicholson and its not a foregone conclusion which way the film will go.

I read somewhere that Alec Guinness actually considered the film anti-British, as many people also did the book that it was adapted from. The film does go out of its way to characterize the British as sort of sticklers for rules and principles, and very stubborn. They seem very aware of what they have to do, but ignorant of the larger context of the war. These qualities of Nicholson are somewhat mirrored in Major Warden (Jack Hawkins), who leads Shears and a younger Canadian officer in blowing up the bridge. While Nicholson forget the war in worrying about his men, Warden is not afraid to leave his men (or himself) behind in pursuit of the bridge. Of course, these are the two Brits in charge in the film, but Major Clipton, along with the American Shears, sort of seem to serve as the film’s conscience.

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Probably the most famous thing about the movie to this day is the song the soldiers whistle as they march and work, “The Colonel Bogey March.” Rightly so, as not only is the song really catchy but it’s used very creatively in the film. It comes at specific times in the film when Nicholson is being particularly defiant and British; when he first succeeds in having the officers direct the men instead of working on the bridge alongside them for example. It’ll start out with just the men whistling, then an entire band will seem to emerge out of it after a while, seemingly willed into existence in the jungle by the force of Nicholson’s will.

David Lean’s other best picture winner and my favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia, has a lot in common with this movie. It prefigures it in a very interesting way. Though it’s set in the jungle instead of the desert, the sun in particular is photographed with a similar intensity. The jungle seems to cause madness just as the desert does in Lawrence. In Kwai, we get these incredible shots of characters standing directly in front of the sun so they are backlit. Though the characters in these shots seem to tower over everything, of course they cannot really compete with the sun, which beats down upon everything and everybody in this film mercilessly. The film was shot in Cinemascope by Jack Hildyard, who had also shot some of Lean’s previous films.

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If the film has a fault, it’s with Shears. I don’t mind him as a character, but later in the narrative he serves more as a distraction from the bridge and the Saito/Nicholson conflict than is ideal. There are some scenes with him that feel pulled out of a more routine war movie, most of them featuring him swimming with various women who don’t really do much else. It doesn’t drag the film down too much, but really take some of that stuff out and the film would basically be perfect as far as I’m concerned.

I believe The Bridge on the River Kwai is a great film. It is one of my favorite kinds of films that Lean does so well; very personal stories taking place on the largest canvas possible. It’s possible in this film to loose sight of the war momentarily just as Nicholson does. Each character is painstakingly drawn and the conflicts are clear and direct, leading all to an conclusion more powerful because of its inevitability. As I said at the top, I could not be more glad that I finally got a chance to revisit this one.

The Academy in 1957 would seem to agree with me. Kwai was nominated for eight Oscars and brought home seven. Sam Spiegel won best picture, Lean won best director, Guinness won best actor, Hildyard won best cinematography, and the film also won best score, best adapted screenplay and best film editing. Hayakawa for best supporting actor was the only nomination the film lost out on, losing to Red Buttons from Sayonara (a film I haven’t seen). Though there are several films from ’57 that I enjoy (Paths of Glory, Sweet Smell of Success, 12 Angry Men), I can’t think of any better to win than The Bridge on the River Kwai.

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“Not a gang of slaves, but soldiers, British soldiers, Clipton, even in captivity.”

Long story short: 4/4 stars

For Further Reading:

Roger Ebert “Great Movies” review
Slant review
The New York Times review

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