The Bridge on the River Kwai
(United Kingdom, 1957)
For some reason, when I was a child, I was under the bizarre and mistaken impression that "Bridge Over Troubled Waters" was the theme song for The Bridge on the River Kwai. By the time I was old enough to have enough interest to watch the film, I was no longer expecting to hear Simon and Garfunkel. But I was also ill-prepared for the sheer power of this film. And, as forceful as The Bridge on the River Kwai was in a commercial-interrupted copy on a small TV, its impact was greatly magnified when I had an opportunity to watch a copy of the restored print in a theater. My opinion of David Lean has waxed as my knowledge and appreciation of film has increased. And, while I am not a huge fan of all the director's works (I find Dr. Zhivago to be overlong and self-indugent), I believe that both The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia are among the best movies ever made in their respective categories. All students of film will see this movie because it is a classic, and no one can properly call themselves a cinematic scholar without having experienced The Bridge on the River Kwai at least once. But I would encourage non-cineastes to seek out the movie as well. It is invigorating in a way that many older, revered works are not, and stands the test of time as a sweeping adventure. Many movie-lovers will have this title in their personal Top 100.
Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The Bridge on the River Kwai takes place in 1943, in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Burma. The Allied soldiers (primarily British) who are brought here are expected to work for the Japanese building a bridge over the Kwai, which will be a critical piece to a railroad designed to connect Malaysia with Rangoon. Everyone is expected to perform manual labor - both the enlisted men and the officers. The commander of the camp, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), does not believe that the men who forced their troops to surrender should be absolved of heavy work. British Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), a stiff-upper-lip, old school soldier, disagrees. He points out to Saito that making officers perform manual tasks is forbidden by the Geneva Convention. Saito scoffs at this, and throws Nicholson in "the oven," a tiny tin shack that bakes in the sunlight. The standoff between the two continues for days and weeks until Saito comes to the realization that he needs Nicholson's cooperation if the bridge is to be built by the target date. (If it isn't, Saito will be honor-bound to commit hari-kari.) Nicholson is granted amnesty and released, and begins working on the bridge with fervor. He believes this to be an excellent way to whip his troops back into shape and show the enemy what good British efficiency can produce. He ignores the thorny issue of whether building the bridge is abetting the enemy. The second "prong" of the movie concerns Major Shears (William Holden), an American who escapes from the camp shortly after Nicholson's arrival. Despite nearly dying more than once, he makes it to safety, and is nursed back to health at a British outpost. While there, he is "invited" to return to the camp as part of a commando squad led by Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Shears, although less than enthusiastic about the assignment, agrees, and soon he, Warden, and several others are on there way into the jungles of Burma, setting out to destroy the bridge on the river Kwai that Nicholson is building.
Debates could rage for hours about which title on his resume represents director David Lean in top form. The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia both won Lean Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, and the majority of critics would cite those as his best works. As good as both are, however (and they are very good) Bridge is a tighter movie, with a little more meat and less fat. Both get high marks when it comes to "spectacle." Both feature excellent acting, cinematography, and set design. There's not a lot to separate them, but I think The Bridge on the River Kwai is the better movie. Few big-budget movies from the 1950s are as simultaneously thrilling, awe-inspiring, and tragic as this one. For Lean, this represented a cross-roads between the more intimate, character-driven dramas of his early career and the glorious outings that marked his latter years. The Bridge on the River Kwai contains elements of both - the characters are well-drawn and the finale is astonishing - and is all the stronger for it. In my opinion, it is one of the two best films to emerge from a very strong decade of cinema.
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