#121) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

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#121) The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

OR “A Passage to Bangkok”

Directed by David Lean

Written by Pierre Boulle Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson. Based on the novel by Pierre Boulle.

Class of 1997

The Plot: A group of British WWII soldiers led by the militant Col. Nicholson (Alec Guinness) is captured and sent to a Japanese prison camp. The camp’s leader, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) instructs the new prisoners to help build a bridge from Rangoon to Bangkok. Nicholson refuses to help, and his steely resolve creates tension in the camp. Meanwhile, jaded American prisoner Com. Shears (William Holden) escapes the camp, only to be recruited by British Major Warden (Jack Hawkins) to lead a team back to the camp to blow up the bridge.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises many aspects of the film, though notes it was that film that saw “a shift in Lean’s directorial style from simpler storytelling toward the more bloated epics”. Pretty backhanded if you ask me.

But Does It Really?: It may be a little too epic for its own good, but “Bridge on the River Kwai” is still quite a thrilling experience 60 years later. While I disagree that the film is “bloated”, it definitely could have been, well, leaner. Lean sets the stage for a fascinating character study set against some impressive manpower (after all, they had to actually build the bridge). The film is an excellent study of the rules we cling to in times of chaos, as well as the madness that comes with power.

Everybody Gets One: Despite collaborating with David Lean throughout the ‘50s, this was the final Lean picture (and only NFR entry) for editor Peter Taylor, cinematographer Jack Hildyard, and composer Malcolm Arnold.

Wow, That’s Dated: All of the night scenes are shot “day for night”. It is incredibly obvious during the lengthy scene where they sneak the explosives under the bridge.

Title Track: No one says the title, but Saito does say they will build “a bridge across the river Kwai”. Very close, but the judges are looking for an exact match.

Seriously, Oscars?: In a not-so-competitive year, the Oscars went with the most epic choice, and “The Bridge on the River Kwai” won seven Oscars, including Best Picture. Lean won his first Best Director prize and Alec Guinness won Best Actor. The film also won Best Score, despite the fact that there’s not a lot of actual score and the only part anyone remembers is the preexisting “Colonel Bogey March”. While most of the film’s big wins were justified, it did screw over fellow NFR entry “12 Angry Men”.

Other notes

  • We’ve come to another film with a nationality dispute. This is really a British film, but because it was financed by an American film company (Columbia under the legendary Sam Spiegel), it qualifies for inclusion on this list.
  • One of the many ripple effects of the Hollywood Blacklist was original writers Foreman and Wilson going uncredited in favor of the novel’s author Pierre Boulle, who did not speak or write English. The two writers were not properly credited (or awarded their Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) until the mid-80s.
  • Kudos to the cinematography in this film. So much storytelling is happening in every shot.
  • William Holden does jaded American so well. Also, what’s with Holden and his POW films?
  • How would you like to be in charge of all the extras in this film?
  • Nope, just ignore the obvious dummy of William Holden falling into the river.
  • During Nicholson’s speech as they travel across the river (aka the “Jaws” shot), part of his dialogue is obscured by a splash. He originally referred to the Japanese as “barbarians”, but the line was later censored after objections from Japanese communities. Of course, if you went and censored everything offensive about how the Japanese are portrayed here there’d be no movie left.
  • Also incredibly dated: the rampant sexism in this or any war film. At least this film has a woman in it; “Lawrence of Arabia” has zero.
  • Jack Hawkins gets the one funny line in the entire film.
  • Of course, if you only know Alec Guinness from “Star Wars”, be sure to watch his wonderfully restrained work here. Turns out Obi-Wan Kenobi is just a fraction of this guy’s talents.
  • It takes forever to get there, but that is one hell of an ending. The tension throughout is just great.

Legacy

  • As previously mentioned, David Lean started his string of epics with this picture. He followed this film up with “Lawrence of Arabia”, like you do.
  • After the film’s release, tourists flocked to the real Khawe Yai River to see the bridge. Just one problem: there was no bridge on the Khawe Yai River. The real-life inspiration was on the Mae Klong River, which was subsequently renamed Khawe Yai.
  • Sessue Hayakawa spoofed his own performance in the Jerry Lewis film “The Geisha Boy”.
  • The Goon Show did their own parody with “The Bride on the River Wye”. Come for Peter Sellers’ spot-on Alec Guinness, leave for the Japanese stereotyping.
  • The 1989 film “Return From The River Kwai”, which, after some legal dispute, had to add a disclaimer that it is NOT a sequel to this film. Subsequently, it never got released in America.
  • And of course, this film is the reason I will have the “Colonel Bogey March” stuck in my head for the next several weeks.

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