Saturday Night Cinema: The Bridge on the River Kwai

Memorial Day weekend deserves a great war movie. “Winner of seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, this might be one of the finest war films of all time.”

Possibly David Lean’s most complicated movie, Kwai is a towering work.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

Director David Lean’s masterful 1957 realization of Pierre Boulle’s novel remains a benchmark for war films, and a deeply absorbing movie by any standard–like most of Lean’s canon, The Bridge on the River Kwai achieves a richness in theme, narrative, and characterization that transcends genre. The story centers on a Japanese prison camp isolated deep in the jungles of Southeast Asia, where the remorseless Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) has been charged with building a vitally important railway bridge. His clash of wills with a British prisoner, the charismatic Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness), escalates into a duel of honor, Nicholson defying his captor’s demands to win concessions for his troops. How the two officers reach a compromise, and Nicholson becomes obsessed with building that bridge, provides the story’s thematic spine; the parallel movement of a team of commandos dispatched to stop the project, led by a British major (Jack Hawkins) and guided by an American escapee (William Holden), supplies the story’s suspense and forward momentum. Shot on location in Sri Lanka, Kwai moves with a careful, even deliberate pace that survivors of latter-day, high-concept blockbusters might find lulling–Lean doesn’t pander to attention deficit disorders with an explosion every 15 minutes. Instead, he guides us toward the intersection of the two plots, accruing remarkable character details through extraordinary performances. Hayakawa’s cruel camp commander is gradually revealed as a victim of his own sense of honor, Holden’s callow opportunist proves heroic without softening his nihilistic edge, and Guinness (who won a Best Actor Oscar, one of the production’s seven wins) disappears as only he can into Nicholson’s brittle, duty-driven, delusional psychosis. His final glimpse of self-knowledge remains an astonishing moment–story, character, and image coalescing with explosive impact. –Sam Sutherland
A squad of British soldiers arrive at a Japanese POW camp in the Burmese jungle, and after some conflict between their respective leaders, they are co-opted into building a railway bridge across the River Kwai. Meanwhile, the Allies plan a mission to blow-up the bridge before it can be used.

The first in David Lean’s epic phase, this proud and accomplished war movie boasts all the qualities that made the British director a true great: lavish cinematography, meaty performances, and a psychologically complex script. It went on to soak up all the major Oscars, which has often skewed popular opinion into thinking of it as a grand, old-school opera of the British at war. However, this is to downplay the daring structure, the near absence of out-and-out warfare, and the fierce investigation of cultural divides be they Japanese, British or American, as personified by William Holden’s brashly heroic Shears who will become the true enemy of Alec Guinness, in one of his most legendary roles as the indefatigable Colonel Nicholson.

Beyond the rash of subplots and beachside longeurs that take the story away from the POW camp, it is Nicholson’s gradual breakdown into madness that occupies Lean’s closest attentions. Guinness fills him with an absurdist stridency that is at once utterly heroic, masochistic and damn near demented, standing up to the speculative cruelty meted out by Hayakawa’s irate camp commander Sessue. That they generate a form of respect is down to a kind mutual understanding of military bearing. A contest at which Lean nags and tests, contending that war is not a clean matter of following the rules. When Sessue demands the British prisoners partake in the building of a bridge, Nicholson sees this as a chance to keep his men in order, to show-off a British pride in work. What he so glaringly loses sight of, is that he is abetting the enemy.


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