Bridge on the River Kwai, The (1957)

Director:  David Lean 

Cast:  William Holden, Alec Guinness, Jack Hawkins
Plot:  After settling his differences with a Japanese PoW camp commander, a British colonel co-operates to oversee his men's construction of a railway bridge for their captors - while oblivious to a plan by the Allies to destroy it.

Genre:  Adventure / Drama / War
Awards:  Won 7 Oscars - Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.  Nom. for 1 Oscar - Best Supporting Actor
Runtime:  161min
Rating:  PG for mild war violence.

There are three kinds of David Lean fans.  First, there are people who think that Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is his greatest work.  Second, there are people who think that The Bridge on the River Kwai is his greatest work.  And of course, there is the third group of people who believe that Lean’s best works are made before Kwai, such as Brief Encounter (1945), Great Expectations (1946), and Oliver Twist (1948).

Even though I am a firm admirer of the legendary British filmmaker, I find myself belonging to neither category.  But that’s because I have not seen enough of his works to make a reasonable claim.  However, in the context of the claims by the first two aforementioned groups, I find myself aligning with the stars of the latter.

Could The Bridge on the River Kwai possibly be a more accomplished work than Lawrence of Arabia?  In my opinion, I would think so, and from my experience having viewed both films twice, I suggest a strong case for it.  In this review, I will stick to the discussion on Kwai, but when necessary, I would use Lawrence as a comparison.

The film that marked the first of five epics that Lean shot in the last three decades of his life, Kwai tells the fictional story of a company of British POWs led by Col. Nicholson (Alex Guinness) who is forced to succumb his power to Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) who orders the completion of a bridge across the Kwai river so that trains carrying war supplies could cross it.

What makes Kwai such a fascinating war film is this: Nicholson, in a bid to boost the morale of his men and ease their suffering, decides to build a top-quality bridge for Saito that would become a symbol of British pride after the war.  However, in a parallel story, the Allies’ counteract by sending a few trained soldiers in explosives to blow up the bridge in a covert operation no one knows.

Set in WWII Burma, but filmed in picturesque Sri Lanka, Kwai’s stunning cinematography captures the tropical landscape in both sweltering heat and pouring rain, highlighting the harsh conditions that plague the camp.  Lean’s wide, sweeping shots and steady close-ups allow the drama and action to unfold in its totality, never disorientating the viewer.

Lawrence of Arabia admittedly features more stunning shots (set in a desert no less), but Kwai is the much tighter film.  The latter is paced with more urgency and though both films have moments of going through the motions, it is Kwai that remains to be the more watchable film, and with a more appealing screenplay to boot.

Much of Kwai’s watchability also hinges on the Nicholson-Saito relationship.  It is an awkward one, but it is interesting to see how it develops.  In the film’s most understated scene, both characters stroll along the completed bridge.  Saito remarks, “Beautiful, isn’t it?”, referring to the sunset (and maybe, symbolically, Japan’s impending decline).  Nicholson replies thinking that Saito is referring to the bridge, and starts expressing how it represents his life’s greatest achievement as a soldier.  Saito does not correct Nicholson and allows him his quiet moment of triumph.

In a way, this scene is the finest indicator of the growing comradeship between the two enemies in the film.  Lean’s depiction of WWII boils down to these two characters, as human as anyone else in terms of their fallibility, but are made to look invulnerable to that very perceived fallibility.

The final forty-five minutes is an exercise in suspense-building.  And its ending is as climactic as it can get.  The last line as uttered by one of Nicholson’s men, “Madness! Madness! Madness!” chillingly echoes Col. Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror! The horror!” in Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).

The Bridge on the River Kwai is a rousing action-adventure spectacle that is not to be missed.  It is also a towering achievement in Lean’s career, proving his versatility in film directing.  For better or worse, he would never return to directing small, intimate dramas again after catching the epic film bug.

GRADE: A (9/10 or 4.5 stars)

Click here to go back to Central Station.




Popular Posts