The Bridge on the River Kwai- 1957
Starring-William Holden, Alec Guinness
Scott’s Review #908
Reviewed June 11, 2019
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is a war film that serves as an example of character driven story-telling from the perspective of each person. Films of this genre frequently do not steer too far from the straight and narrow showcasing the war event perspective so that this often becomes larger than the humanity piece. A key is the American, British, and Japanese points of view hurling the grand epic experience into a more personal one. The film was awarded numerous Oscar nominations culminating with a Best Picture of the year victory.
The time is early 1943 amid the powerful and destructive World War II when a group of British prisoners of war (POW) arrive at a Japanese camp. Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) commands all prisoners regardless of rank to begin work on a railway bridge that will connect Bangkok with Rangoon. The British commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness) refuses manual labor and a battle of wills erupts between the two men. Meanwhile, an American, Commander Shears (William Holden), also being held at the same camp, vows to destroy the bridge to avoid court martial.
The complexities of the relationships between the men are the main draw of the film and an aspect that can be discussed at length. Each possesses a firm motivation, but the emotions teeter back and forth as they face various conflicts. Each of the three principals are analytical juggernauts in the human spirit, ranging from courageous, cowardly, and even evil. We are supposed to root for Shears and supposed to not root for Saito but why is that not so cut and dry? Is Shears too revenge minded? We cheer Nicholson’s resilience but is he too stubborn for his own good?
The film’s whistling work theme nearly became famous when the film was originally released in 1957. Ominous and peppered with a macabre depression, the prisoners go about their work in a near ode to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs cheerier “Whistle While You Work” anthem. As they dutifully continue to build the bridge the audience feels a sense of dread and a foreboding atmosphere. What will ultimately happen? When two prisoners are shot dead while attempting to escape the film takes a different turn.
Given that David Lean, responsible for such epic masterpieces as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and A Passage to India (1984), directs The Bridge on the River Kwai, should be telling as far as the sweeping exterior landscape treats in store for the viewer. The lavish Asian landscape, so picturesque and beautiful, is peaceful amid the chaos and vile way the prisoners are treated. This imbalance is wonderfully rich and poignant against the robust story telling.
The climax of the film is bombastic (literally!) and a nail-biting experience resulting in a stabbing, an explosion, and a heap of tension. A train carrying important dignitaries and soldiers is racing towards the newly constructed bridge as one man is intent on detonating a bomb and cause destruction as another races against time to prevent the bloodbath. The suspense, action, and cinematic skill is placed front and center during the final act.
Deserving of each one of the accolades reaped on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), the film is the thinking man’s war film. Layered with an underlying humanistic approach and little violence given the subject matter at hand, one can sink into empathy for each point of view presented instead of being force fed a one-dimensional message film. Fine acting and gorgeous cinematography make this film one to be forever remembered.