DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

Thursday 24 May 2007


The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) dir. David Lean
Starring Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden


Prior to “Bridge on the River Kwai” David Lean was known for his 2 Dickens adaptations – “Oliver Twist” and “Great Expectations” – and a series of small-scale British character dramas, such as “Brief Encounter”. And so David Lean was, at the time, an odd choice of director for the film (both John Ford and Howard Hawks were considered). It’s good Lean was given the assignment because propelled him into the pantheon of film history and allowed go on to make “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago”.

The film’s opening credit sequence tells you this isn’t your ordinary Hollywood war film. The camera is mounted on a real train, traveling through the jungles of Siam (now Thailand) – though it’s Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) substituting for Siam – it’s an actual jungle. No plastic Hollywood trees, no process shots or studio-based rear projection. It’s on location filming, which automatically elevates the authenticity and credibility.

The British soldiers on the train are being brought to a Japanese POW camp led by the brutal Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). But when the troops (privates and officers) are given their first instructions to immediately start work, the leader of British soldiers, Col Nicholson (Alec Guinness) protests. Nicholson stands at attention and maintains his position that under the Geneva Code officers are not permitted to do hard labour. Nicholson’s motives are not egotistical. Instead it’s calculated. He knows the only way for his soldiers to survive the camp is to live under their own terms, and not those of the Japanese. Therefore maintaining the order and protocol of King’s military is of utmost importance.

And so the battle of wills begins. Nicholson stubbornly endures the most ghastly of painful abuses, weeks of physical and mental torture continue for the Colonel, until finally Saito loses the battle and gives into Nicholson’s demand. Meanwhile Saito is given orders by his superiors to build a bridge across the Kwai river so Japanese soldiers can transport valuable arms across Asia. Nicholson is tasked with managing and coordinating the building effort. When the work begins Nicholson takes the effort more seriously than he should. Nicholson’s fellow officers question his steadfast desire not just to complete the work, but Nicholson’s insistence on making the best quality bridge possible. Nicholson’s British upper class superiority complex blinds him to the real war effort.

Intercut with the events at the camp is the journey of a former camp escapee Cmdr. Shears (William Holden) who is roped into going back to the camp, infiltrating it and blowing up the bridge. This storyline though essential to adding counterpoint to the main plot is the weakest part of the film. Holden’s performance as the typical disinterested American working for the British pales in comparison to the stubborn nobleman of Alec Guinness. But the ending which brings everyone together at the opening of the bridge and first shipment to cross it is a brilliant sequence of editing and staging.

Warning spoilers ahead…

The famous explosion scene actually blew up the bridge-set that was used throughout the film. They only built one bridge for the film, and blowing it up was so risky, it meant they couldn’t do reshoots. The footage was so valuable, producer Sam Speigal reportedly shipped the film canisters to the lab via 5 different airplanes to spread out the risk of total loss.

Alec Guinness’ performance, which deservedly won him an Oscar is the highlight of the film. From his first scene, he captures your attention, and you literally cannot take your eyes away from the screen.

As mentioned “Bridge on the River Kwai” was Lean’s first epic, and the rest of his film career would be a series of films which attempted to top the previous. Though I’m grateful for all the later films, the smaller, more intimate films he could have made unfortunately never materialized. Enjoy.

Buy it here: The Bridge on the River Kwai

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