Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Synopsis:

At the height of World War II, a British officer, Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness, Star Wars), and his men, agree to construct a bridge for their Japanese captors. Meanwhile, the Allied forces, commanded by  Major Warden (Jack Hawkins, Ben-Hur) and Commander Shears (William Holden, Picnic), mount a campaign to destroy it.

Reaction & Thoughts:

One of the greatest of all war films, certainly one of the most thought-provoking. Few films have captured the madness of war as well as this beloved classic. At the risk of sounding like a fanboy, I will say it again: this is a riveting, compelling epic. Sometimes big doesn’t necessarily mean better, but in this case, the scope of the content matches the enormity of the production. The Bridge on the River Kwai is the rare epic that concentrates as much on character development as on spectacular vistas and magnificent sets.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is based on the 1952 satirical novel by Pierre Boulle, best known for his 1963 sci-fi novel Planet of the Apes. Director David Lean worked on the script, first with Carl Foreman (High Noon and The Guns of Navarone), later with Michael Wilson (A Place in the Sun and The Sandpiper).

Ironically, none of them received credit for their work on the script. Wilson and Foreman had been blacklisted thus making it impossible for their names to appear on the film (newer prints have restored their names). Lean claimed that producer Sam Spiegel (The African Queen and On the Waterfront) maliciously deprived him of a screen credit. Author Boulle, who didn’t speak a word of English, got sole credit and went on to win an Academy Award for a screenplay he had nothing to do with.

Anyhow, the acting in the film is of stellar quality. Guinness, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his work here, plays one of cinema’s most interesting anti-heroes (he was casted at the last-minute after Charles Laughton, Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier turned down the part). It’s a tricky role that Guinness plays to perfection. In essence, Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson is both the hero and villain of the piece. You don’t know whether to like him or hate him. The guy’s misguided, but well-intentioned so you develop some sympathy for him

Holden, who was casted because of his box office clout, is great too. I think Holden’s contribution to the movie has been vastly underappreciated — he’s great as the prototypical American soldier. There are also fine performances by Sessue Hayakawa (Disney’s Swiss Family Robinson) as Colonel Saito, James Donald as Major Clipton, André Morell as Colonel Green, and Geoffrey Horne as Lieutenant Joyce.

Composer Malcolm Arnold (Hobson’s Choice) used the famous march “Colonel Bogey” to great effect (it’s hard to get it out of your head). Jack Hildyard’s (Summertime) on location camera work is spectacularly good. Both gentlemen won Oscars for their work here. Donald M. Ashton and Keith Best constructed the magnificent bridge

I do have one little quibble: I didn’t care for the film’s very last moments  — they seem a bit redundant and heavy-handed. Lean didn’t shoot the ending — it was filmed by second unit director Peter Newbrook — and was very angry with producer Spiegel for what he considered sub-par work. I’m not sure what perfectionist Lean had in mind, but he had to live with his dissatisfaction for the rest of his life.

Conclusions & Final Thoughts:

The Bridge on the River Kwai is near perfect and I’m sure that even people who tend to dislike war films will find something here to their liking — it’s that good. The film is very long — it’s nearly three hours long — but it moves swiftly and its climax is truly breathtaking and exciting. Color, 164 minutes, Not Rated.

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2 responses to “Director’s Spotlight: David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

  1. In the book they did not fail to blow the bridge. The studio wouldn’t have it so they decided that they will succeed in blowing the bridge. Personally I would stick with the book but the film would have flopped. Back then hollywood film always an happy ending. Terrific film none the less one of my favorite. Nice review.

    Liked by 1 person

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